In 1953, in the midst of the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an executive order that banned gays and lesbians from federal employment, under the pretense that they not only were immoral, but they were susceptible to blackmail from foreign governments because of their immorality.
After the order, investigators scoured the government rolls, looking for telltale signs like women who didn't wear lipstick or dressed 'manly,' and men who had 'jellyfish handshakes' and proceeded to fire or force those who were and those who were suspected of being gay or lesbian to resign.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the order was enforced on most level of government employeeslater it would only be enforced in jobs that required security clearancesbut it would stay on the books until 1995, when President William Jefferson Clinton would outlaw it in his own Executive Order.
Little was known about Eisenhower's order because victims were often hesitant to talk about it, fearing not getting a job somewhere else. That is, until a few fought back with the help of gay-rights pioneer Frank Kameny and also when documents from the 1950s began to be unclassified in the 1990s. That, and the publication of a book called The Lavender Scare by David Johnson in 2006. A few years after that, retired 60 Minutes producer Josh Howard would read Johnson's book and learn about a story that would bring him out of retirement to make a documentary. Howard's documentary, also called The Lavender Scare, took him 10 years to make but will open in June in New York and Los Angeles and air nationally on PBS later that same month.
Recently, Windy City Times talked with Howard about the story, his film, and its relevancy to current issues.
Windy City Times: Everyone knows about the Red Scare and Sen. Joe McCarthy. Why isn't this story well-known?
Josh Howard: Well, the fact that it's not really well known is what really drew me to it. I think there are a couple of reasons. One, is that LGBTQ history generally has not been taught as part of mainstream American history. The other reason is that when this was going on, it was in everybody's interest to keep it quiet.
The people who were getting fired didn't want to tell friends and family and potential employers why they had been fired. And after an initial burst of publicity, the government stopped talking about how many people were being fired because it became an embarrassment for the government that they had hired these people. It was kind of a conspiracy of silence and it wasn't until the 1990s when documents from this period started to become unclassified that the scope of what happened started to come into focus.
WCT: When did you first learn about it?
JH: In 2009 I came across David Johnson's book The Lavender Scare which had been out for a couple years by then. I had the same reaction most other people had. I was surprised to learn this. I thought I knew American history and gay history. I was actually retired from a long career in television news and wasn't looking for something to work on, but I just found this story so compelling that I looked up David Johnson and we got together and found ourselves working on this documentary.
WCT: This started in 1953 and was in place until President Clinton outlawed it in 1995 with his own executive order. How many people did this impact?
JH: As the 1970s and 1980s progressed, different parts of it got chipped away and were enforced less and less, but it was officially on the books, particularly for jobs that required a security clearance that if you were discovered to be gay, you were out.
It's really impossible to know how many people were impacted. We know from the documents that a number in the thousands were fired because they were found to be gay. But there was a huge group of people who resigned rather than have it go onto their record. You also have a lot of people who were found to be gay during pre-employment background checks that didn't get the jobs. We have no idea the number on that, or the number of people who never applied for jobs because they were afraid of being found out. The historian John D'Emilio says it's conservatively tens and tens of thousands of people who had their lives effected by this.
Part of the executive order said that private companies that did business with the government were required to investigate their employees and fire those who were found to be gay, and no statistics exist on how many of those people were fired. Additionally, the U.S. demanded that all of our NATA allies purge their country employees as well. It really set off a wave of homophobia and it's incalculable how many lives were effected.
WCT: It's fascinating that you were able to talk to both victims of this policy and the government investigators who enforced it. How were you able to track them down?
JH: Most of the victims had been interviewed by David Johnson in his book, so working with him we were able to get their stories on film. For the government investigators, I had a terrific researcher and associate director Jill Landis working with me who was able to track them down. To our surprise, they were quite pleased to go on camera and defend what they did. To a person they said what they did was the right thing to do for those times. A couple of them acknowledged that they wouldn't do the same thing today, but they felt that's what the times called for and they were not shy about defending it.
WCT: Was it hard to get them to participate?
JH: It, surprisingly, wasn't. With trepidation, Jill and I discussed how we should approach them in a letter or whatever and every one of them wrote back and agreed to talk to us. We were pleasantly surprised because we wanted to include their perspective in the film.
WCT: What does it say that so many are still alive?
JH: Well, there weren't that many, actually. We started filming in 2010. We interviewed Frank Kameny in 2010 and he died the following year. Most of the people who we interviewed have since passed away, so we were lucky to have started the project when we did.
WCT: I saw a short article from 7 years ago that said the film would be out the following fall. Was the delay because of funding?
JH: It was hard to raise funds. This was my first independent project. I had worked for CBS and NBC so I was used to having a support staff and other people to depend on, so I think I underestimated how long it would take working alone. I read David Johnson's book and I tracked him down, he was living in Florida. He was coming to New York so I met him there in July of 2009. We are approaching our 10-year anniversary since we first discussed this project. At that first lunch, I told him that it should take a year to 18 months, but it finally is done now.
WCT: The lack of due process and lack of empathy is stunning. One investigator is quoted in the film saying, "Get rid of that son of a bitch. Put him on a bread line." Do you see any similarities with anything today?
JH: I do. And I think that's one of the important messages in the film. As important as I felt it was to capture this moment in LGBTQ history, I think there's a broader message for society in terms of the ease in which we can demonize any minority in the name of national security or patriotism.
WCT: There wasn't much if any pushback from the media back when this started, nor from the ACLU. What changed?
JH: I think they finally came to their senses that this was not a security threat. There were no cases of gay people giving government secrets to foreign agents. I think it was partly a matter of education. I think one of the important reasons to study gay history is that as the broader population learns more about the history of LGBTQ people, there's a greater understanding.
WCT: It's amazing how easily someone could be accusedsimply by not wearing lipstick or appearing "mannish" for women or "having a jelly handshake" for men. It's almost laughable but scary at the same time.
JH: Definitely. The government had these investigators who thought they could identify gay people by how they looked or walked or how they dressed. Not wearing lipstick was a sure giveaway in those days for a woman.
WCT: It was interesting that in the 1930s, two decades before Eisenhower's executive order, gays and lesbians had it easier in Washington. So, was the Lavender Scare something that the Red Scare morph into or was it something that the Red Scare simply enabled?
JH: That's a great question. It's really a combination. I think during the Depression and during the war years there were other things on people's minds than other people's sexuality. I think as we got into the 1950s, society in general became more conservative and more concerned about national security. That's when the idea that gay people might be a danger to us really took hold. I think it's another important message in the film, that what happened in the 1950s with The Lavender Scare was a reaction to that earlier time period when there was more acceptance to homosexuality or at least less discrimination. I think that's another important message for the times we are living in now, that for as much progress as we've made over the past decade or more, the struggle for equality doesn't necessarily continue in a straight line. There are setbacks as well as advancements and I think it's important to know that history.
WCT: You have Glenn Close narrating it and we hear the voices of Cynthia Nixon and David Hyde Pierce reading letters and diary entries of victims. What does their participation bring to the film?
JH: I think they are all great actors. In earlier rough cuts, we had anonymous people reading those parts and as good as they might have been, there is a certain talent in being able to deliver the lines. So, I think artistically it raised the film to another level and their names and their celebrity is helpful in attracting an audience.
WCT: Although you started on this a decade ago and it will be out in June, in a weird way it's almost fitting. Do you know what I'm getting at?
JH: Definitely. I now like to say that this was my plan all along. [Laughs] Not only because of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, but I think it has more relevance now than it would have a few years ago.
The Lavender Scare recently aired nationally on PBS, and can be pre-ordered at educate.tugg.com/titles/the-lavender-scare. The movie will be out on DVD/Blu-ray and VOD later this year.
See related: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/WTTW-hosts-screening-of-The-Lavender-Scare/66330.html .