“Lavender Scare” Revisits the Homosexual Menace of Cold War America

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

"The Lavender Scare" documentary

The Lavender Scare belongs on the shortest list you’ll ever make of must-see LGBTQ documentaries. Not only does it include footage that is hard to find elsewhere, but the film tells the story of America’s gay rights movement largely from inside the closet.

And while Lavender Scare boasts plenty of star firepower — including narrator Glenn Close and the voices of Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight, Cynthia Nixon and David Hyde Pierce, they don’t appear onscreen. Rather, they’ve lent their voices to read letters and documents that the principals depicted left behind.

In the Beginning…

As the film explains, LGBTQ people didn’t really register on America’s radar before the Second World War. Same sex attraction didn’t get derided because it simply wasn’t discussed. But, just as integration was accelerated during World War II, so too was the idea that guys and gals who were “that way” might be able to find happiness in the communities they created among themselves far from small town morés and family approbation.

When the Soviet Union exploded an atomic weapon mere months after the war’s end, it took much of America’s self-assurance and security with it. Where would the Russians get such a weapon? Why so quickly? The only answer that made any sense (although not grounded in reality) was that Soviet spies had stolen our technology.

And how would they get the most guarded government secrets from loyal Americans? One way was for Communist agents to provide it. Another was for those same Commies to discover something about an American that could be cause for blackmail. And what could be worse than your friends, family and co-workers learning that you were “a pervert?”

The Urge to Purge

IN 1953, with Republicans in the White House for the first time in 20 years, President Eisenhower signed an executive order declaring gays and lesbians unfit for federal government service. So, ancillary to the Red Scare ushered in by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Lavender Scare shoved lesbians and gays into the deepest recesses of their closets.

Still, tens of thousands were plucked out, one by one. At first, many willingly resigned rather than risk exposure. Stories of stunted lives and suicide tumble out one after another before your eyes.

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It wasn’t until a Harvard-educated astronomer named Dr. Frank Kameny was dismissed that anything changed. Kameny was a man of extraordinary will and perseverance who began petitioning the government to accept him as he was back in the 1950s. He then led pickets of six to a dozen protesters around the White House in the 1960s.

Ultimately shown inside that same White House in 2010 being recognized for his courage and tenacity by President and Mrs. Obama, Kameny was invited to witness the president signing the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010. He died the following year.

With so little LGBTQ history gathered in one place, director/producer Josh Howard’s crisply told tale puts many of the pieces together on film for the first time. Others may piece those years together differently, but before this film? There was only a void. See it.

The Lavender Scare is currently being screened in NYC at Cinema Village. It will also air on PBS June 18. For more info, visit the website.

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Last modified: July 23, 2019