John Kerry apologized for discrimination against LGBTI employees at the State Department in a statement posted yesterday on the department’s website.
Throughout my career, including as Secretary of State, I have stood strongly in support of the LGBTI community, recognizing that respect for human rights must include respect for all individuals. LGBTI employees serve as proud members of the State Department and valued colleagues dedicated to the service of our country. For the past several years, the Department has pressed for the families of LGBTI officers to have the same protections overseas as families of other officers. In 2015, to further promote LGBTI rights throughout the world, I appointed the first ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons.
In the past – as far back as the 1940s, but continuing for decades – the Department of State was among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, forcing some employees to resign or refusing to hire certain applicants in the first place. These actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today.
On behalf of the Department, I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the Department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community.
State Department history describes the “Lavender Scare” of this period, that is, the witch hunts of gay and lesbian employees working for the US government. The Division of Security (SY) had hundreds of State Department employees fired for being gay or lesbian.
For the next few years, suspected homosexuals were purged from the Department’s ranks, sometimes on spurious evidence, because many conflated what they viewed as questionable morals with Communist tendencies, or feared that such people would be more vulnerable to Communist pressures.
In 1950, the Department’s Office of Personnel warned Samuel D. Boykin, Director of the Office of Controls, to make “every effort…to prevent the [Foreign] Service from getting the impression that the Department is conducting a ‘witch hunt’” for homosexual employees. However, SY statistics reveal the extent of the purge. The Department fired 54 people it considered to be homosexuals in 1950, 119 in 1951, and 134 in 1952. The figures dwarf the number of dismissals for more straightforward security concerns during the same years: 12 in 1950, 35 in 1951, and 70 in 1952. The trend continued, as 74 of the Department’s 107 dismissals resulted from homosexuality alone in the first months of 1953.
The Department insisted that its decision to classify gays and lesbians as extreme security risks was made “entirely apart from any moral judgment.” Department officials said that “such individuals are susceptible to blackmail and are exposed to other pressures because of the highly unconventional character of their personal relationships.” Even those perceived as homosexual were deemed security risks. The Office of Personnel believed that “latent tendencies can remain dormant for long periods of time – and then break through the surface without prior warning.” This belief, in essence, demanded that SY be more aware of an individual’s personal tendencies and potential future behavior than the individual was.
Sometimes accusations were made with little evidence or for retribution:
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Department employees began to accuse their colleagues of being gay or lesbian–sometimes anonymously–and the flimsiest of claims could lead to investigations. For example, one female employee accused her supervisor of lesbian tendencies based upon her physical appearance, and the fact that her lunch companions included a woman with “a mannish voice” and another woman who seemed “peculiar.” When SY interviewed the accuser, the only corroborating evidence she could muster was that her supervisor gave her “a nauseous feeling.” When pressed, the employee confessed, “she really had nothing factual” to offer, it was merely “a suspicion.” Having identified one potential homosexual security risk, the employee soon implicated dozens more, basing her accusations on little other than her “feminine intuition,” as well as “the effeminate mannerisms of hand” and the “jelly hand shake” of some male colleagues. Although no record of SY’s findings on the female employee’s accusations was found, her “evidence” was far from credible. It was learned that her supervisor (whom she accused of lesbianism) had placed the employee on 90-days probation for unsatisfactory job performance. The fact that the employee could press her accusations so far, and that SY dedicated time investigating them, is indicative of the atmosphere in the Department.
An apology can’t undo the fear and psychological damage that was caused, but it’s a necessary precondition for progress nonetheless. Something tells me that statements like this will not happen often in the Trump Administration.