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Here's Why the Lavender Scare Still Matters

On the 60-year plague that was the Lavender Scare, its ugly legacy, and the artists working to find the road ahead.

by Tanja M. Laden
26 June 2016, 11:20am

Cincinnati Opera, Fellow Travelers, Photograph courtesy Philip Groshong

The Cold War, McCarthyism, and the Hollywood blacklist have all been continuously examined and critiqued by writers and artists. One particular aspect of the fear-mongering witch hunt that swept the U.S. after World War II, however, is just as important to our understanding of the country’s social and political history as the Red Scare: it is known as the Lavender Scare. Over the course of the past 60 years, the dark stain that is the Lavender Scare has been a subtly recurring theme in popular culture, and in light of the still prevalent, highly problematic attitudes towards transgender and homosexual rights today, it's both reassuring and saddening to know that the cultural blight it provides is still being addressed. Today, the event is examined across several mediums, including a documentary, an opera, and a new art exhibition.

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Images via WikiCommons

Similar to the anti-communist moral panic that swept the 1950s, the Lavender Scare led government officials to believe that homosexuals posed threats to national security. In a speech to the Republican Women's Club in 1952, Senator Joseph McCarthy had some unsurprising but no less alarming things to say about homosexual government employees: "Some of them are very energetic, very loyal Americans. Some of them have that unusual affliction because of no fault of their own—most, of course, because they are morally weak. The question is, why worry about getting those individuals out of the State Department?"

He continued to cite his colleagues Senator Wherry and Senator Hill, whom McCarthy claimed, "explained very well why those individuals must not be handling top secret material." McCarthy endorsed the opinions of the Wherry-Hill Committee when he continued to voice an excerpt from their report: "As has been previously discussed in this report, the pervert is easy prey to the blackmailer. It follows that if blackmailers can extort money from these individuals under the threat of disclosure, espionage agents can use the same type of pressure to extort confidential information or other material they might be seeking."

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Cincinnati Opera, Fellow Travelers, Photograph courtesy Philip Groshong

The result of these "findings" was the idea that gay men and women were easily susceptible to blackmail, which actually led to an executive order signed by President Eisenhower in 1953 that effectively permitted thousands of gay and lesbian government employees to be legally fired from their jobs.

A public outcry followed, with the first known protest advocating gay rights spearheaded by former U.S. Army Map Service astronomer Franklin Kameny. Before he passed away in 2011, Kameny personally witnessed Barack Obama declaring his support for the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act, and he saw the President sign the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010, thus fulfilling a lifelong dedication to gay rights. But the fight against homophobia did not die with Kameny.

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Rita Mae Brown in Lavender Menace t-shirt at the Lavender Menace Action, May, 1970. Diana Davies, Digital Collections, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lennox, and Tilden Foundation

Outrage over the Lavender Scare has since been channeled into various cultural vehicles for social change, including the 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Allen Drury, Advise and Consent: A Novel of Washington Politics, which was adapted into Otto Preminger's 1962 film. Celebrated lesbian author Rita Mae Brown also reappropriated the Lavender Scare as a proud member of the Lavender Menace, a coalition of radical feminists who protested against the absence of lesbian feminist discourse at the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York City in 1970.

The topic of gay rights in the government has also been addressed in academic publications such as The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David K. Johnson, published in 2004. The book unearthed some deeply unsettling primary source material, inspiring a documentary adaptation by Josh Howard, its progress pending the death of one of its most important sources, Captain Joan Cassidy.

Most recently, the Cincinnati Opera is staging an operatic adaptation of Fellow Travelers, based on a 2007 historical novel addressing government-sanctioned homophobia written by Thomas Mallon. The Lavender Scare is currently also a theme in an exhibition at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) by artist Warren Neidich.

Warren Neidich: The Palinopsic Field is an homage to the "Hollywood Ten," the blacklisted, supposedly communist filmmakers and writers who were barred from working during the McCarthy era. This Red Scare redux half of The Palinopsic Field is called Afterimage Paintings, and it features red neon signs spelling out names of blacklisted filmmakers, each paired with a deliberately incomplete silkscreen acrylic painting of an empty Hollywood star. The effect comes from looking at the irradicated name and mentally moving it onto the adjacent hollow star, thus giving a few Hollywood victims of national paranoia some long-overdue recognition—even if it is in a gallery and not on the Walk of Fame.

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Black Star drawing, Warren Neidich: The Palinopsic Field, LACE

Balancing out the communist casualties of mid-century America is the second half of Neidich’s show, The Archive of False Accusations, which features newspaper articles from LA-area publications printed between 1950–1954, all displayed in flat, clear, plexiglass vitrines illuminated by lavender neon tubes. These clippings call special attention to the Cold War-era practice of firing gay State Department employees because they were presumed to be security risks. The timing and content of the show is just as shocking as ever, but bathed in a calming pale blue/mauve light, the juxtaposition of clippings about the old practice in the State Department is even more jarring and disconcerting.

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Frontal view, Warren Neidich: The Palinopsic Field, LACE. Images courtesy the artist

"Red and lavender take on greater meaning than simple names of colors, and become branding devices of political events," Neidich says, likening the hue and quality of the neon in his show to the eye-watering signage outside neighboring Hollywood establishments.

"An important element of the exhibition is the concept of the phantom and the uncanny. There is an uncanny return of history, almost like a rerun of a film or its remake," Neidich explains. "I could not have imagined that the incident in Orlando would have occurred or that Donald Trump would now be running for President. Both underscore the lingering conditions of homophobia and Islamophobia. Islamophobia is a condition that has replaced the fear of communism, the so-called Cold War, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is our new enemy. The Cold War is over, but something else is replacing it. Something else is being used by politicians to create fear for their other agendas. This, in my opinion, is important for people to realize.”

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Front installation, side view, Warren Neidich: The Palinopsic Field, LACE

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Front installation, side view, Warren Neidich: The Palinopsic Field, LACE

Warren Neidich: The Palinopsic Field is on view at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) through August 14, 2016. Fellow Travelers plays at the Cincinnati Opera through July 10. For more information on the history and culture of the Lavender Scare read more, here.

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