Bilerico Report

McCarthyism, the Lavender Scare, and the fight for full LGBT equality


The Lavender Scare

The United States Supreme Court finally legalized marriage equality in its 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision. Until 2003, same-sex sexuality remained a criminal offense in 14 states, which the landmark Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision eventually overturned.

While three states in the U.S. have passed laws protecting people’s civil rights on the basis of sexual orientation and an additional 19 states include protections on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity, the remainder have no such safeguards.

In those remaining states, individuals and organizations can summarily fire or refuse to hire, refuse to rent or sell property, and deny a number of public services based solely on an individual’s sexual and/or gender identity.

Not so very long ago, LGBTQ people had no specified protections in any areas of their lives.

Like all civil service employees working during the Eisenhower administration, Madeleine Tress – then a 24-year-old business economist at the Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C. – was required to pass a security investigation as a condition for employment. At her position for only a few months, on that April day in 1959, Madeline was led into a room by two male interrogators who began the “interview” by asking her a few mundane questions regarding her name, where she lived, and her date of birth.

“Miss Tress,” one of the interrogators then retorted, “the Commission has information that you are an admitted homosexual. What comment do you wish to make regarding this matter?”

Shocked, Madeleine froze and refused to answer the question. The men disclosed that they had reliable information that she had been seen frequenting a gay bar, the Redskins Lounge, and they named a number of her lesbian and gay male friends.

One of the interrogators then sneered, “How do you like having sex with women? You’ve never had it good until you’ve had it from a man.”

Tormented into silence, following the grilling, she refused to sign a document admitting her alleged “crime.” The next day, Madeleine Tress handed in her official resignation.

By the late 1950s, literally thousands of women and men working in Washington, D.C., experienced similar inquisitorial examinations conducted under the guise of “national security.”

There are moments in history when conditions come together to unleash a seismic shift in the social and political geography. Three critical moments sparked an era of fear, suspicion, and repression leading to the interrogation of Madeleine Tress and so many others.

The first occurred during the Truman administration in June 1947 when the US Senate Appropriations Committee warned Secretary of State Marshall that a concerted effort was being carried out to shield a number of Communist employees in high government positions, and that this subversive project “involved extensive employment in highly classified positions of admitted homosexuals who are historically known to be security risks.”

In their attempts to counter these alleged security lapses, the Committee attached the McCarran rider to an appropriations bill giving the Secretary of State authority to dismiss any employee at his “absolute discretion” to promote public security.

A second critical moment occurred three years later in February 1950 when a relatively young and brash US Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, provocatively claimed in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, that 205 “card-carrying Communists” worked for the U.S. State Department.

In part as a response to McCarthy’s allegations, the third moment transpired when Deputy Undersecretary of State, John Peurifoy, testified at a Senate appropriations committee meeting on February 28, 1950, denying, on the one hand, that his Department hired Communists, but, on the other hand, disclosing that a number of persons had been fired for being “security risks,” including 91 homosexuals.

These disclosures set off a firestorm. Within one month, Republicans in Congress ordered investigations looking into the extent of the “homosexual problem” and the “infiltration of sexual perverts” in government.

It is important to note that the Soviet government itself criminalized homosexuality under Joseph Stalin and blamed homosexuality on the West as a product of “bourgeois decadence.” The U.S. countered by blaming homosexuality on a Soviet Communist international “godless conspiracy.”

The so-called “Red Scare” in the United States was, nevertheless, saturated in lavender: the color associated with homosexuality at the time. Some U.S. government officials connected the Comintern (an international Communist organization) with what they termed the “Homintern,” which they saw as an international homosexual conspiracy linked to Communists.

Although gay and lesbian U.S. citizens were never blackmailed into divulging classified state information, and the connections between homosexuality and “security risks” were groundless, mere allegations of homosexuality triggered congressional hearings, Presidential Executive Orders (for example, Eisenhower’s Order 10450, which extended and enlarged the Truman loyalty/security program to exclude explicitly those who engage in “sexual perversion” from obtaining government jobs), as well as executive agency security briefings.

A determination of the exact number of women and men harmed by the anti-homosexual inquisition cannot be known since detailed records were not kept, and many individuals simply resigned before they were interrogated. Historian David K. Johnson estimates, however, that approximately 5,000 federal agency employees lost their jobs on suspicions of homosexuality during the 1950s through early 1960s.

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