It has been 70 years since the Lavender Scare & our political leaders are still after us

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene smirks next to her transphobic sign.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene smirks next to her transphobic sign. Photo: Screenshot

On April 26, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation acknowledging the 70th anniversary of the Lavender Scare – a 1950s assault on the LGBTQ+ community that took place after President Dwight D. Eisenhower (R) signed an executive order banning LGBTQ+ people from working for the U.S. government. The order accused gay and lesbian employees of working with the Soviet Russian Communist Party to compromise the country’s national security.

“We must reflect honestly on the darkest chapters of our story and on how far we have come,” Biden wrote, denouncing the “decades-long period when 5,000+ to 10,000 LGBTQI+ Federal employees were investigated, were interrogated, and lost their jobs simply because of who they were and whom they loved.”

Progress revolves like a coil stretched out, advancing up and forward, then circling down and back, though not as far as when it began, until it starts its upward forward motion once again.

Like all civil service employees working during the Eisenhower administration, Madeleine Tress – 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.

On an April day in 1958, when Madeline had only been at her position a few months, she was led into a room by two male examiners 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 men 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 several of her lesbian and gay male friends.

One of the male examiners 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 interrogation, 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, DC experienced similar inquisitorial grillings conducted under the guise of “national security.”

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

The first occurred during the Truman administration in June 1947, when the US Senate Appropriations Committee warned Secretary of State George Catlett Marshall that a concerted effort was being carried out for the alleged purpose of protecting Communist personnel in high government positions. This subversive project was said to have involved the employment of supposed admitted homosexuals in extremely classified positions who were presumed to have been 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 U.S. 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 emerged when Deputy Undersecretary of State, John Peurifoy, testified at a Senate appropriations committee meeting on February 28, 1950 denying on one hand that his Department hired Communists, but on the other hand, disclosing that several 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 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” was said to have been saturated with 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 with Communists.

Although gay and lesbian U.S. citizens were never blackmailed into divulging classified state information – and connections between homosexuality and “security risk” were groundless – mere allegations of homosexuality triggered congressional hearings and Presidential Executive Orders (for example, Eisenhower’s Order 10450, which extended and enlarged the Harry 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 numbers 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. But approximately 5,000 federal agency employees lost their jobs on suspicions of homosexuality between the 1950s and early 1960s.

Closer to today, the Trump administration redacted the terms “Communists” and “Communism” and replaced these with “Muslims” and “Islamist Extremists,” while morphing “sexual perverts” and “homosexuals” into “predatory men in dresses” and “transgender advocates.”

Trump has incessantly blasted Islam as the number one threat to our nation, thus exposing U.S. Muslims to increased calls for travel bans from majority-Muslim countries, and the creation of a “national registry” and surveillance to track their movements. In his near-obsessive calls for “law and order,” President Trump invited a return to draconian (and possibly unconstitutional) measures of torture and surveillance.

In a memo sent from his Department of “Justice” to U.S. attorneys, department heads, and federal agencies, Trump’s Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, reversed an Obama-era policy that protected trans employees from discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sessions made clear that his department would no longer interpret gender protections in Title VII to include gender identity and expression.

After Trump’s inauguration, he abolished an Obama-era executive order permitting transgender students to use school facilities most closely aligning with their gender identities, and the White House website removed reference to LGBTQ+ issues and policies from the previous administration. 

Against conclusive evidence by 2016 Department of Defense regulations (released June 30, 2016 under Defense Secretary Ash Carter) permitting trans people to join and openly serve their country, as well as a Rand Study fully debunking Trump’s assertion of the burdensome “tremendous medical costs” expended on trans service members, the President directed the military to exclude trans people from military ranks.

Trump also rolled back other protections initiated by his immediate predecessor. The Obama administration issued a policy directive manual enumerating the rights of transgender people in prison related to several areas, including housing, strip searches, and medical care. The directive advised respect and protection of transgender inmates and, on a case-by-case basis, the possibility of placement in prisons matching their gender identities.

Since Trump left the Oval Office in January 2021, Education Week found that more than 40 states have either introduced bills in their legislatures or have taken other actions that would ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory or restrict how educators discuss racism, sexism, and LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom.

Florida has positioned itself at the tip of the spear to cut and bleed to death school curricular materials on topics of race, gender, and sexual identity.

Currently, state GOP lawmakers are proposing and passing legislation to restrict transgender rights in athletics, health services, and education, among other areas.

State legislatures around the country are also appropriating Florida’s model of the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Education Week found that lawmakers in 14 states have introduced 26 copycat bills since January of this year.

Before signing the bill, DeSantis stated at a press conference that teaching kindergarten-aged kids that “they can be whatever they want to be” was “inappropriate” for children. “It’s not something that’s appropriate for any place,” he said, “but especially not in Florida.”

He continued: “We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”

Since Republicans have no genuine policy positions to offer, they are dredging up all the hateful and terrifying stereotypes they can muster to promote fear in the hearts and minds of potential voters. By banning discussions of race, gender, and sexuality from classroom discussions, they are igniting a culture war for their own political gain.

What Republicans are doing amounts to a form of bullying. We must hold these state legislators who are banning discussions of LGBTQ+ and racial themes in the classrooms responsible for this further marginalization and for the harassment and possible violence that may result.

It should be crystal clear to everyone that during both the “Lavender Scare” and today’s MAGA attacks on democracy, the motives in declaring war on entire categories of people have had nothing to do with concerns over military readiness, national security, ending discrimination or improving prison conditions.

It has nothing to do with the well-being of the nation or in keeping down health care costs. It has nothing to do with some alleged and unspecific “disruption,” and it certainly has nothing to do with “religious freedom.”

What it amounts to is demagogues engaging in the psychology of scapegoating by representing the “others” as manipulative and often violent predators who are out to circumvent and destroy the nation. They play on people’s fears and prejudices for their own political, social, and economic gains, resulting in the loss of civil and human rights, harassment, violence, and at times, death of the “others.”

Biden stated in his recent proclamation: “Today and in each generation, we must rededicate ourselves to ending the hatred and discrimination that LGBTQI+ Americans continue to face.”

“That includes addressing a wave of discriminatory laws that target them — especially transgender children — and that echo the hateful stereotypes and stigma of the Lavender Scare.  My Administration is standing firmly with brave LGBTQI+ Americans to push back against these injustices.”

It remains clear, however, that Truman, Eisenhower, and now MAGA Republican governors and state legislators have sent us down and backward upon the coil of progress.

Don't forget to share:

Support vital LGBTQ+ journalism

Reader contributions help keep LGBTQ Nation free, so that queer people get the news they need, with stories that mainstream media often leaves out. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated

Oklahoma’s head superintendent wants to ban LGBTQ+ books but teach the Bible in history classes

Previous article

Ron DeSantis refuses to say if he supports LGBTQ+ marriage rights

Next article