Before Pride Month is over, I wanted to share a movie review I wrote for a Nashville publication a few weeks back. This new PBS doc examines a lesser-known civil rights struggle from the 1950s that found homosexual federal employees forced out of positions with the government for fear that their sexuality made them vulnerable to coercion by those filthy communist Russians.,,
In 1953, during the first freeze of the Cold War, newly-elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower took the White House in the midst of chaos. The so-called Red Scare found Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy leading a government purge of supposed communists and soviet sympathizers that famously reached all the way into the entertainment industry, destroying lives with accusations and blacklists along the way. A new public television documentary, spotlights The Lavender Scare – a lesser-known purge of gay employees of the federal government. TheLavender Scare demonstrates how gays were seen as vulnerable to communist blackmail because of their sexual secrecy. The film quotes Joseph McCarthy, “Homosexuals must not be handling top secret materials. The pervert is easy prey for the blackmailer.”
It’s ironic that an executive order from President Eisenhower ultimately blackmailed thousands of federal employees into resigning quietly for fear that their sexual orientation might be made public. The Lavender Scare revisits a time during the 1950s when gay men and lesbians sought to blend in and not be visible. Fear of anti-gay laws, homophobic violence, and social alienation all meant that many American men and women found themselves leading double lives.
During the purge American citizens were exposed to targeted legal investigations that peered into every part of a person’s life: a government worker’s fellow employees and supervisors were interviewed; a worker’s minster, priest or rabbi would be contacted; social habits were monitored and connections were made between known homosexuals. By the time F.B.I. agents confronted a suspect they already had extensive insights into every aspect of a person’s daily habits. Suspects were not allowed to confront the confidential informants who often outed them, and they weren’t allowed any legal representation or due process.
The Lavender Scare’s deep historical documenting is one of its best strengths, and its educational value alone make this an important film to watch in June. The movie retraces the footsteps of large populations of gay men and lesbians who moved to Washington, DC in the 1930s. Those young men and women sought the 1000s of government jobs created under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. They also sought the sophistication and freedom of an urban lifestyle in the nation’s capital over the provincial backwaters and small-minded hometowns they fled. The Lavender Scare also examines the revolutionary effect World War II had on the lives of gay Americans. The total mobilization of the country pulled thousands of young men and women into the military’s same-sex environments. For many gay American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines the war was an opportunity to meet like-minded friends and lovers. One former sailor interviewed for the documentary flatly states, “I didn’t know how many people were gay before I joined the Navy.”
Director Josh Howard’s take on David K. Johnson’s book combines found footage and stills with lots of Ken Burns-esque voiceovers to bring public documents, letters, diaries and the people behind them to life. He also uses “Dragnet” style narration and the files, folders, and photos asesthetics of a police procedural to bring a paranoid, crime film tone to the investigation scenes in the movie. The Lavender Scare is narrated by Glenn Close and features voice acting from Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, TR Knight and David Hyde Pierce.
Howard is an entertaining filmmaker, but the story that’s the real star of The Lavender Scare. If there is any real value to observances like Pride Month it’s that they can focus our attention on people and issues that many of us may only be cursorily connected to in day-to-day lives. For me The Lavender Scare is an invitation to discover a story from a chapter of our country’s recent history that I’ve never known about. It’s a love story and a tragedy, but it’s also a story about workers’ rights and civil rights and the pursuit of happiness. The Lavender Scare is a valuable addition to queer cinema, and its an important American film.
The Lavender Scare premiered on National Public Television stations on Tuesday, June 18
Check your local listings and Public Television sites to see the new film, but go ahead and watch this great little primer from Step Back History while you’re here…
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