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The Lavender Scare: Homosexuality in America during the McCarthy era

Posted by mandyf on November 30, 2011

It was 1950 when Senator Joseph McCarthy said President Harry Truman’s State Department had been infiltrated by gays, likely even homosexual communists (As he believed all gays were communists) that kicked of the McCarthy Era gay witch hunts in America. You don’t read about this in history at school and you rarely hear about it aside from recent mention in the news as the government has begun spying on gays again, but it has been going on nearly 60 years at the federal level, the demonization gays. It wasn’t just McCarthy that was the problem, it was Truman and sitting Presidents after him for years. McCarthyism lives on.

While McCarthy was hunting down communists he learned a few things about gaining greater power. One was that blackmail works, and the best thing to hold over a persons head was what went on in their bedroom. He then deduced that homosexuality and communism were linked. In his eyes both were evils that would destroy the country and needed to be eliminated. Initially Truman didn’t quite get behind this thinking, but it didn’t take long for him to change his mind. The deciding factor that gays were a threat and needed to be publicly outed, humiliated, and thereby silenced came from his advisers, the very advisers McCarthy claimed in confidential correspondence were gay.

How did this happen? The first factor is that most weren’t gay, they had only been “convicted” of such a thing in McCarthy’s eyes by a string of usually very fuzzy circumstantial evidence. They realized that should it go public their careers in politics and likely any job in the private sector that would ever compare were almost assuredly void. They then decided they had to play ball with McCarthy to protect their futures so they then told Truman that American citizens were more fearful and angry over gays than communists. Truman then relented on his initial stance and gave McCarthy the full go ahead to pursue and out gays just as he was communists in the name of national security.

At the time, midterm elections were approaching and the Republicans desperate to strengthen their position began attacking the Democrats for having homosexuals throughout the government. While 91 people had been relieved of their jobs for being gay, the Republicans used this to speculate that there must be even more that were hidden and needed to be exposed. On the advice of an editor for the New York Daily News whose identity to this day remains secret as it has been blacked out of all FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, the word “queer” was worked into every Republican campaign speech as much as possible, something that they did to the extreme. This served to rile and rally the Christian Conservative base as they were warned gays walked among them in every community. They were tirelessly warned queers may be their neighbors, co-workers, infiltrating their churches, maybe even teaching their children. They were certainly the gateway to communism in America.

To make matters worse McCarthy planted the rumor that 5,000 gays lived in Washington D.C. (which may have been true) and that over 75% of them had infiltrated the government taking any number of federal jobs in order to pass on secrets to communist organizations and recruit even more gays into government service in order to completely take over. This was billed as the “Perversion Menace” and local authorities were encouraged (Read mandated) to crack down on gays in D.C. and use any means necessary to arrest them. What followed was a witch hunt, or more appropriately a gay hunt, in which police began raiding every bar and business known to or thought to be frequented by gays. The FBI was brought in to began more thoroughly checking the personal lives of any applicant for a government job which meant almost all were tailed like a criminal and spied on. In some cases it went so far as bugging their homes. As this initiative gained steam a suspected communist was fired every two days from a government job while a suspected homosexual was fired at the rate of slightly over one per day. During this purge thousands of people lost their government jobs after having been tabbed as a homosexual when the reality is a small minority actually were.

It didn’t end there however as business owners were frequently reminded that hiring a homosexual was tolerating homosexuality which then made them suspect. With their livelihood on the line many refused to hire anyone that had been officially labeled as homosexual or that they remotely believed may be homosexual. It wasn’t restricted to D.C. as the word was spread to Senators and Congressmen to get their own houses in order. With that mandate they cracked down on Governors and Mayors to apply pressure at even the Alderman level to get all gays out of the government and insure they were exposed.

We wonder how this happened in our country only a few decades ago and it is puzzling on the surface. The fact however is this was at it’s base a play for power. The Republican party wanted more power. McCarthy wanted more power. J. Edgar Hoover already had plenty of power but never refused more. He had his own skeletons hide. McCarthy operated under the belief that homosexuality and communism were both so depraved that they had to be linked. He believed that communists used sex, particularly gay sex, to lure people into the fold. He believed that once a person was lured in, the bonds of homosexual relationships were so strong that a gay person would go to any lengths to protect it. He viewed gays as a secret society not much unlike Freemasons whom he also had questions about despite his rumored ties to that organization.

According to a 1950 congressional committee that investigated the veracity of McCarthy’s claims, they concluded that “the homosexual tends to surround himself with other homosexuals…. if a homosexual attains a position in Government where he can influence the hiring of personnel, it is almost inevitable that he will attempt to place other homosexuals in Government jobs.” This played perfectly with their “let’s clean house” campaign which promised to rid the government of all it’s evils.

What became of all this is that in seven years nearly an estimated 8,000 people, but no less than 5,000 people, lost civil servant jobs of varying levels for being suspected of homosexual conduct. While the majority held lower positions and were considered easy to replace and easier to dismiss, some were the brightest minds in government service. Case in point, Frank Kameny, a closeted homosexual that survived the purge until 1957 held a Ph.D. in Astronomy from Harvard and was considered one of the brightest men in the country, was fired when the space race was at it’s height. We can only wonder now how different things may have been if McCarthy hadn’t had a mind that connected the dots in such a twisted manner.

While the McCarthy era eventually came to a close, the philosophy lived on. Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe was held to the fire for being an openly gay man that took a camping trip that was attended by former pages whom were adults ten years after it happened. This time the purpose was to attempt to say that his homosexuality made him a sexual predator that was unfit for office. Conservative political journalist and commentator Cliff Kincaid went so far as to say Kolbe headed a “homosexual recruitment ring that operated on Capitol Hill.” in an attempt to help unseat him.

Even right now people like Peter Sprigg who leads the Family Research Council has called on government to clean house of homosexuals. He stated that “putting a homosexual in charge of AIDS policy was like putting a fox in charge of the hen-house.” Just because Joe McCarthy is long gone doesn’t mean his ideology has passed as well. it survived every administration, Republican and Democrat, and finds it’s way to the forefront of the public consciousness every election via campaign donations fronted by groups that believe the former Senator had it right all along.




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