The Lavender Scare: Firing Homosexuals
Gay men and women were targeted by McCarthy-era witch-hunts. In 1950, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder that could be reversed through electro-shock therapy. In many states, sex acts between two men or two women was illegal. Individuals who were caught having sex with members of their same gender could be arrested, charged, and imprisoned. Many people viewed gay men and women as degenerates, sexual perverts, and pedophiles. It was also believed that gay men and women were on a quest to convert the young to their perceived subversive way of life.
Until the end of the Second World War, the military had been one of the largest employers for homosexuals. With noted exceptions, for the most part, as long as a person was willing to die for his country, sexual orientation was not a major concern. For gay service members, as long as they were not caught acting on their sexual desires, they could receive an honorable discharge and be entitled to all the benefits of the GI Bill. Many service members took advantage of employment opportunities offered under the GI Bill and began working for the federal government.
Being openly gay was not a viable option in 1950s America. Gay men and women used symbols to identify their sexual orientation. Some placed colored bandanas in their back pockets to state that they were gay. Others lived in city neighborhoods known for a more relaxed and accepting lifestyle. Bars and restaurants placed rainbows in their windows to identify their establishments as friendly place for gay men and women. Such symbols would make it easier to avoid arrest for sexual perversion.
Homosexual males became a target for McCarthy-era fervor. The belief was that homosexuals were dangerous because they were more susceptible to blackmail by communist supporters. The “lavender lads” were deemed a national security risk. It became the goal of McCarthy and his supporters to remove these lads from their posts within the State Department and other federal civil service positions.
Senator McCarthy professed that homosexuality was almost worse than communism. As such, homosexuals had to be removed from their federal positions. This stance gained public support within the anti-communist movement. Anyone that was openly gay or accused of being gay could be arrested, interrogated, and removed from their federal job. Just like the anti-communist measures employed in eliminating communist supporters from Hollywood, McCarthy implemented a guilt-by-association policy. It was not just gay people who were suspicious; it was also people who associated with a suspected gay person as a coworker, friend, or family member.
Homosexuals in particular were viewed as diseased and an invasion against the American way of life. More people were forced to resign from their federal jobs due to their sexual orientation than those charged with anti-communism. Veterans who had earned an honorable discharge from the military could see their discharge changed to dishonorable if they were accused of being a homosexual during the Lavender Scare of the 1950s. Any benefits that they had received through the GI Bill would have to be repaid to the government that charged them with an un-American way of life.
Even after McCarthyism faded, the removal of gay people from federal employment continued. Gay people were formally barred from entering the military until 1995 when President Bill Clinton implemented a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In January 2017, the State Department officially apologized for the Lavender Scare that booted out tens of thousands of federal civil service employees solely for being gay. Much of the ongoing rhetoric surrounding the debate of constitutional protections for the LGBTQ community is rooted in the post-war witch-hunts spearheaded by Joseph McCarthy.