Lavender scare

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Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn during the Army-McCarthy hearings

The lavender scare refers to the fear and persecution of homosexuals in the 1950s in the United States and United Kingdom, which paralleled the anti-communist campaign known as McCarthyism. Gay men and lesbians were often considered communist sympathizers ("fellow travelers"), and the era of lavender scare "may be seen as the time when homosexuals became the chief scapegoats of the Cold War."[1]

Former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson has written: "The so-called 'Red Scare' has been the main focus of most historians of that period of time. A lesser-known element ... and one that harmed far more people was the witch-hunt McCarthy and others conducted against homosexuals."[2]


The term for this persecution was popularized by David K. Johnson's 2004 study of this anti-homosexual campaign, The Lavender Scare, which drew its title from the term "lavender lads", used repeatedly by Senator Everett Dirksen as a synonym for homosexuals. In 1952 Dirksen said that a Republican victory in the November elections would mean the removal of "the lavender lads" from the State Department.[3] The phrase was also used by Confidential magazine, a periodical known for gossiping about the sexuality of politicians and prominent Hollywood stars.[4]


In 1950, the same year that Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed 205 communists were working in the State Department, Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy said that the State Department had allowed 91 homosexuals to resign.[5][6] On April 19, 1950, the Republican National Chairman Guy George Gabrielson said that "sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years" were "perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists".[7] McCarthy hired Roy Cohn–who died of AIDS and is widely believed to have been a closeted homosexual[8][9]–as chief counsel of his Congressional subcommittee. Together, McCarthy and Cohn, with the enthusiastic support of the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (also believed by many to have been a closeted homosexual),[10] were responsible for the firing of scores of gay men from government employment and strong-armed many opponents into silence using rumors of their homosexuality.[11][12][13] In 1953, during the final months of the Truman administration, the State Department reported that it had fired 425 employees for allegations of homosexuality.[14][15][16]

McCarthy often used accusations of homosexuality as a smear tactic in his anti-communist crusade, often combining the Second Red Scare with the Lavender Scare. On one occasion, he went so far as to announce to reporters, "If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you've got to be either a Communist or a cocksucker."[17] Some historians have argued that, in linking communism and homosexuality and psychological imbalance, McCarthy was employing guilt-by-association if evidence for communist activity was lacking.[18]

Association of communism with "subversives"[edit]

Both homosexuals and communist party members were seen as subversive elements in American society who all shared the same ideals of antitheism; rejection of bourgeois culture and middle-class morality; lack of conformity; they were scheming and manipulative and, most importantly, would put their own agendas above others, in the eyes of the general population.[1] McCarthy also associated homosexuality and communism as "threats to the "American way of life.""[19] Homosexuality was directly linked to security concerns, and more government employees were dismissed because of their homosexual sexual orientation than because they were left-leaning or communist. George Chauncey noted that, "The specter of the invisible homosexual, like that of the invisible communist, haunted Cold War America," and homosexuality (and by implication homosexuals themselves) were constantly referred to not only as a disease, but also as an invasion, like the perceived danger of communism and subversives.[20]

Senator Kenneth Wherry similarly attempted to invoke a connection between homosexuality and anti-nationalism. He said in an interview with Max Lerner that "You can't hardly separate homosexuals from subversives." Later in that same interview he drew the line between patriotic Americans and gay men: "But look Lerner, we're both Americans, aren't we? I say, let's get these fellows [closeted gay men in government positions] out of the government."[21]

Connections between gay rights groups and so-called subversive elements were not entirely baseless. The Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights groups in the United States, was founded by Harry Hay, a former member of the Communist Party USA, who resigned when the membership condemned his politics as a threat to the organization he had founded.[22]

Contemporary views of homosexuality[edit]

Because social attitudes toward homosexuality were overwhelmingly negative and the psychiatric community regarded homosexuality as a mental disorder, gay men and lesbians were considered susceptible to blackmail, thus constituting a security risk. U.S. government officials assumed that communists would blackmail homosexual employees of the federal government to provide them classified information rather than risk exposure.[23]

According to John Loughery, author of a study of gay identity in the 20th century, "few events indicate how psychologically wracked America was becoming in the 1950s ... than the presumed overlap of the Communist and the homosexual menace."[1]


According to Lillian Faderman, the LGBT community formed a subculture of its own in this era, constituting "not only a choice of sexual orientation, but of social orientation as well." The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, which formed the homophile movements of the U.S., were in many ways defined by McCarthyism and the lavender scare. They were underground organizations that maintained the anonymity of their members.[1]


A feature-length documentary film by producer-director Josh Howard, The Lavender Scare, based on Johnson's book, was released in the summer of 2013.[24][25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Prono, Luca. "McCarthyism". Retrieved March 9, 2015. 
  2. ^ Simpson, Alan K.; McDaniel, Rodger (2013). "Prologue". Dying for Joe McCarthy's Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt. WordsWorth Press. p. x. ISBN 978-0983027591. 
  3. ^ Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, 2nd ed. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 44; Byron C. Hulsey, Everett Dirksen and his Presidents: How a Senate Giant Shaped American Politics (University Press of Kansas, 2000), 48–9
  4. ^ Samuel Bernstein, "Lavender Lads Bartone Babes", The Advocate, February 27, 2007. On the association of a variety colors with homosexuality, see Venetia Newall, "Folklore and Male Homosexuality", Folklore, vol. 97, no. 2, 1986, 126
  5. ^ Representative Miller (NE). "Homosexuals in Government." Congressional Record 96:4 (March 29, 1950), H4527
  6. ^ "THAILAND: Smiling Jack". Time. August 22, 1955. 
  7. ^ "Perverts Called Government peril". April 19, 1950. 
  8. ^ The New York Times
  9. ^ Nicholas von Hoffman (March 1988). "Life Magazine - The Snarling Death of Roy M. Cohn - 905w-000-035". 
  10. ^ See J. Edgar Hoover#Sexuality.
  11. ^ Johnson, David K. (2004). The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. University of Chicago Press.[page needed]. ISBN 0-226-40190-1. 
  12. ^ Rodger McDaniel, Dying for Joe McCarthy's Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt (WordsWorth, 2013), ISBN 978-0983027591
  13. ^ White, William S. (May 20, 1950). "Inquiry by Senate on Perverts Asked". New York Times. Retrieved December 29, 2014. 
  14. ^ "The Legacy of Discriminatory State Laws, Policies, and Practices, 1945-Present" (PDF). Williams Institute, UCLA. 
  15. ^ "126 Perverts Discharged". New York Times. March 26, 1952. Retrieved December 29, 2014. 
  16. ^ Berard, Lauren B., "Something Changed: The Social and Legal Status of Homosexuality in America as Reported by The New York Times" (2014). Honors Theses. Paper 357.
  17. ^ Cuordileone, K.A. "'Politics in an Age of Anxiety': Cold War Political Culture and the Crisis in American Masculinity, 1949-1960" The Journal of American History 87 (2) (2000): 515-545
  18. ^ Damousi, Joy; Plotkin, Mariano Ben (5 January 2012). Psychoanalysis and Politics: Histories of Psychoanalysis Under Conditions of Restricted Political Freedom. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 221. ISBN 978-0-19-992316-8. 
  19. ^ Carlson, Dennis. "Gayness, multicultural education, and community." Beyond black and white: New faces and voices in the U.S. Schools (1997): 233-256.
  20. ^ Field, Douglas, ed. American cold war culture. Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
  21. ^ Lerner, Max, The Unfinished Country: A Book of American Symbols Simon and Schuster, 1959 pp 313-316
  22. ^ Lillian Faderman; Stuart Timmons (2006). Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. Basic Books. p. 113. ISBN 978-0-465-02288-5. Retrieved May 8, 2015. 
  23. ^ Ayyar, Raj (January 1, 2004). "Historian David K. Johnson: Exposes the U.S. Government's Anti-Gay Crusades". Gay Today. Retrieved May 8, 2015. 
  24. ^ Melendez, Barbara (June 9, 2010). "Book Lavender Scare To Be Documentary". University of South Florida News. 
  25. ^ "Film Documents Antigay Witch Hunt". The Advocate. March 5, 2012. Retrieved June 15, 2012. 

Additional sources[edit]

  • Robert D. Dean, Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), ISBN 978-1-55849-414-5
  • Rodger McDaniel, Dying for Joe McCarthy's Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt. (WordsWorth, 2013), ISBN 978-0983027591

External links[edit]