Most anybody who knows anything about 20th Century American History knows of a black mark known as The Red Scare. The ignominious senator Joseph McCarthy personified the prolonged, cruel witch hunt that ended thousands of careers, all supposedly in the service of rooting out communist infiltrators within the United States government. Much has been said about figures like Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood screenwriter who made Hollywood’s notorious “blacklist” when his supposed political sympathies were revealed. And the classic tale of the mid-level municipal employee, who once was photographed at a workers’ rally, is the archetype for the abuses of that dark era. Less explored, however, is the ancillary effort of the so-called “Un-American Activities” gestapo against not communists, but the LGBT community. Josh Howard’s documentary, The Lavender Scare, takes on this wrongfully underreported history and brings viewers to the fringes of history and the edge of tears.
With a clarion cry of rationalization, the phrase, “The pervert can be blackmailed!” was the passport to oppression used by everybody from the FBI to the Postmaster General’s office to root out, expose, and expel gay people from all sorts of government jobs. Howard introduces the audience to several victims of the gay purge: military men and women, scientists, clerks. Some we get to know by account only, while the few who are still alive to tell the tale almost 70 years later appear on camera describing life-altering moments where dreams were crushed, betrayals were forced and impossible choices had to be faced. One woman could have been an admiral. Another man just wanted to keep his job as a mail clerk. But their choices were always the same: resign, or be outed as gay. Which in the Red Scare period of 1947- 1957 would not only mean the end of any chance at a career, but fractured personal and professional relationships. Or one could out 5 friends in return for a promise of silence – one that was often broken. “Get rid of the son of a bitch! Put him in the bread line!” was the gleeful proclamation of one of the hatchet men of the program.
The real kicker in the film comes later, when the “Lavender Scare” efforts prompted one outed scientist to convert his career from dreams of astronomy to becoming the so-called “Grandfather of the Gay Rights Movement.” If you hadn’t heard the name Frank Kameny, you’re not alone. Kicked out of the US Army’s Map Service for his homosexuality, Kameny decided to organize the gay community to fight for dignity and respect. His efforts influenced everything from the Stonewall Riots to Harvey Milk and gay marriage laws. It’s an amazing story: McCarthyism hastens the advent of LGBT causes, the unexpected reaction from a place of great misery. No need to go over too many details. Watch the film. The scene is set. Howard very smartly juxtaposes historical data, deeply personal interviews, and a surprisingly rousting bit of education in this well-paced, engaging documentary which has become almost unintentionally timely. For those who find the current political era a time of great darkness, The Lavender Scare provides an inspiring road map for a way back into the light.