New series depicts a dark moment in queer history & shows how oppressors manipulate the oppressed

Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey in Fellow Travelers
Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey in "Fellow Travelers." Photo: Ben Mark Holzberg / Courtesy of Showtime

This year marked the 70th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 executive order effectively banning LGBTQ+ people from serving in the federal government. Executive Order 10450 turbo-charged a series of McCarthy-era hearings and investigations that came to be known as the Lavender Scare, a moral panic that saw, by some estimates, 5,000 gay and lesbian U.S. government employees fired from their jobs for supposedly posing a threat to national security.

This week, a new Showtime limited series brings that dark chapter of America’s history to life. Based on out author Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers is by a deeply affecting tragic love story, a political thriller, and a lesson in how the effort to protect and maintain privilege can undermine efforts to fight oppression and injustice.

The series centers on Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller (Matt Bomer) and Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey), two government employees who begin a relationship in 1950s Washington, D.C.

Hawk is a confident, influential State Department employee with little in the way of political ideology other than protecting his mentor, Democratic Senator Wesley Smith (Linus Roache), and his own advancement. He’s also a closeted homosexual whose World War II medals, all-American good looks, and masc privilege shield him from scrutiny, allowing him to maintain a secret gay social life that includes lots of brief, anonymous sexual encounters with other men. Hawk’s insistence on keeping things casual and never getting emotionally involved with any of his partners is all part of his efforts towards self-preservation.  

That gets complicated when he meets Tim, a young, deeply religious recent Fordham grad fired up by Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade. The two begin an affair, and Hawk gets Tim a job working for McCarthy (Chris Baur) in the hopes that the younger man will feed him intel about the senator and his loathsome chief counsel, Roy Cohn (Will Brill).

Stymied by their historical context, by the disconnect between Tim’s idealism and Hawk’s cynicism, and by Tim’s yearning to get closer and Hawk’s resistance to doing so, it’s no spoiler to note that the couple doesn’t live happily ever after. The series opens in the 1980s, with Hawk now married to Smith’s daughter (Allison Williams) and Tim dying of AIDS, before flashing back to the 50s, where the bulk of the action in the series’ eight episodes takes place.

As Mallon recently told The New Yorker’s David Remnick, he was determined to write Fellow Travelers as a tragedy. “There was no way to tell the story of these people who had been fired by the thousands — there was no way of telling that story without making my two fictional characters tragic figures,” he explained.

Hawk and Tim’s story is indeed tragic, but there’s another tragedy lurking in Academy Award-nominated Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner’s TV adaptation. Over and over, the series lays bare how, when faced with threats to their own positions or safety, the predominantly white, cisgender, straight-passing characters abandon or betray each other to save their own skins. When her live-in girlfriend comes under investigation, one character throws her under the bus to deflect suspicion from herself. Confident that he can better blend into the crowd on the street on his own, another character abandons his more effeminate lover as they flee a police raid at a gay nightclub. Another delivers the gay adult son of a senator to a facility where he is to be subjected to so-called “conversion therapy” and pays the doctors to essentially imprison their charge. When the young man confronts the other about his hypocrisy, he’s bullied, threatened, and gaslighted.

These are bracing reminders not only of how insidious homophobia was at the time, making any sense of loyalty or community amongst certain gay people a liability, but also of the lengths those with any amount of power or privilege would go to protect the status quo.

In his 2007 New York Times review of Mallon’s novel, Michael Gorra wrote that Tim’s “particular form of Catholic anti-Communism goes a long way toward explaining the National Review and maybe even the Log Cabin Republicans.” Mallon himself was for many years a registered Republican who only left the party in reaction to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. And it may be that out conservatives have deeply held beliefs and political philosophies that justify their alignment with a party that is actively working against their fundamental rights. But it’s hardly novel to suggest that beneath all that lies a desire to protect their own relative privilege, to maintain their position in the social hierarchy.

Of course, we can allow the characters in Fellow Travelers a certain amount of grace. Unlike contemporary out conservatives like Peter Theil, Caitlyn Jenner, and George Santos, they and the people they represent were actually being persecuted. Self-preservation, no matter how counter-productive it may have been for the greater cause of equality, meant survival for them, rather than self-enrichment. But the series illuminates how oppression functions, creating fear in the oppressed that can ultimately turn them into collaborators with their oppressors.

In an update of his 2018 piece on the Lavender Scare for LGBTQ Nation earlier this year, Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld compared those 1950s witch hunts to contemporary conservative efforts to recast LGBTQ+ people as “groomers,” threats to children that must be rooted out of schools, communities, and public life altogether. In Fellow Travelers’ depiction of the Lavender Scare, we also see reflections of gays and lesbians who might align themselves with Gays Against Groomers and, yes, the modern Log Cabin Republicans: people who seem to think that their proximity to power will somehow protect them from the worst injustices; that by joining forces with their oppressors, they will avoid oppression. As we see in Hawk and Tim’s story, it’s a losing strategy.

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