Josh Howard’s The Lavender Scare is a timely work that delves into the past of American history with an eye toward the LGBTQ community. While many people know about the cultural shift in America where the fear of Russian influence in the United States known as the Red Scare, but other communities were also at risk. Narrated by Glenn Close, with additional voice work by Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight, and David Hyde Pierce, The Lavender Scare uses the past to create a narrative that relates to our present day political and social climate.
The Cold War permeated the entire culture of 1950’s America, which prompted fears to rise in connection to minority populations throughout the country. One such population that was suddenly believed to be a risk were those identified by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as homosexuals. He believed that they provided a security risk and suddenly anyone who might be with a same sex partner needed to be removed from their positions in the government. This decades long witch hunt led to tens of thousands of firings over a roughly forty year period. While the government forced out gay and lesbian workers, the community rose up to fight back. This spurred on the gay rights movement and pushed an unlikely hero into the forefront of the fight for LGBTQ equality.
The Lavender Scare is based on David K. Johnson’s book with the slightly longer title, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, which examines how the fear of homosexuals in government continued to influence American politics far beyond the 1950’s. The movie uses this research and includes first person accounts from a variety of former employees, including a young Frank Kameny, who became a leader in the Gay Rights movement. He even is noted as coining the term, “Gay is Good.” The Lavender Scare is a remarkably informative film and throughout it includes references to works focused on this field of history. This allows viewers to continue their own research going forward, if they do want to learn more about the impact of this period of time.
The inclusion of first person accounts shows how intensive and dedicated the government was to removing people that were considered unsuitable for federal positions, which is also heartbreaking. Early on a woman’s account is retold by Cynthia Nixon and she states that she had always wanted to work in government, but that her career was over before it could even begin. Watching this movie I was struck by one interview that is shared in which a man who says he became a hatchet man for the government and was able to fire anyone without there being any sort of formal trial. There are also discussions of people being turned in by fellow citizens who felt compelled to bring their concerns forward. What is frightening is some of the elements being discussed in this film can still occur today. There are a number of states that still have it on record that it is perfectly legal to fire someone solely because of their sexual orientation. If this happens they do not have to explain why the person was fired, much like in the 1950’s.
There are positive elements in this film, which includes noting that during World War II young men and women could finally make friends and find community due to the need for service people. This ability to make connections through service continued on beyond WWII and became a place people could begin to understand themselves outside of the traditional society structure. The other positive elements come from the discussion of Kameny and his work, which arose out of a desire to get justice for everyone who had been impacted by what was happening in the government. The Lavender Scare can act as a starting point for those trying to understand how the culture of America has been shaped connection to the LGBTQ community and can also push viewers to want to find a way to change this embedded culture.
You can see The Lavender Scare opens theatrically on June 7th in New York, Cinema Village, and Los Angeles, Laemmle Music Hall, with a national release to follow. You can find out more information about the movie on the official website.