A Dark Time

Amos Lassen

Director Josh Howard’s new documentary “The Lavender Scare” looks at a dark time in the history of American government and culture. Based upon David K. Johnson’s non-fiction book we hear from talking heads that include Johnson himself, other historians, former government employees who were victims of the bans, their family members and even their persecutors. Notable figures include Joan Cassidy, who served as a captain in the Navy Reserve, and Frank Kameny, an astronomer turned activist. Kameny is by far the most interesting subject in the film. He is known as the grandfather of the gay rights movement, he was the first person to fight back against the ban and organized a protest outside the White House in 1965.

We learn of our heartbreak of those who lost their jobs and their careers and even their lives, in some cases,  as a result of the government’s tactics. We also see the triumph and the joy as we see how the policy discrimination caused a sense of outrage and activism among gay men and lesbians and helped what would become the gay rights movement.

The documentary is a mix of first and second hand accounts including FBI files and other written documents as well as plenty of context about the era of the lavender scare. The film is narrated by Glenn Close and features the voices of Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight and David Hyde Pierce.

Most of us are well aware of the advances that the LGBTQ community has made in recent years in asserting their rights and gaining mainstream acceptance. Yet to truly appreciate how far we’ve come, it is important to know where we came from.

During the so-called “Red Scare” of the late Forties and Fifties, Americans became convinced that every echelon of our society had been infiltrated by communists and that our way of life was under immediate threat. This was further amplified when the Russians detonated their own atom bomb in 1949, much sooner than most experts thought they should be able to. It was  assumed that the Russians had gotten help from spies or traitors smuggling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union and this assumption turned out to be true. In turn, this gave rise to one of the most shameful periods in our history, when constitutional rights were routinely violated in the name of national security, when disgusting individuals like Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn both rose to power (Donald Trump claims that he learned all he knows from Roy Cohn and that should well explain what a piece of dirt he was). Most remember how the McCarthy hearings went after communists in Hollywood as well as in government service. Few remember what happened to the gay community.

President Dwight Eisenhower, in one of his first acts after taking office, signed an executive order banning homosexuals from working for the government (yet the first lady was allowed to drink herself to oblivion). The thinking went that socially unacceptable sexual preferences were vulnerable to blackmail (although there is no evidence that this ever occurred in America). This led to investigations of people who would be accused of being gay or lesbian.

During the Thirties and Forties, many gay men and lesbians came to Washington to get government jobs which were plentiful. There was tolerance for their lifestyle and there were plenty of bars that catered to that clientele. They were uncloseted but this very freedom would be worked savagely against them as regular attendance at a gay bar would be enough to get them fired and most went quietly, not wanting to let their secret to get out. Most were aware that they would have a hard time getting employment for the rest of their lives.

People would be brought into a room by a pair of federal ages and not allowed legal representation. Their accusers would never be identified; they would be badgered and humiliated and left little choice but to resign or their secret would come out. Most left quietly but Dr. Franklin Kameny did not. He was an astronomer for the Army Map-making Corps and was unceremoniously fired from the job he loved. Not about to take this lying down, he became an activist fighting for the rights of homosexuals; his chapter of the Mattachine Society (an early gay rights organization) was the most in-your-face chapter of the society, with Kameny organizing picketing, demonstrations and marches. In 1963, he became the first openly gay man to testify before Congress and he brought lawsuit after lawsuit trying to overturn the unjust laws which he was remarkably unsuccessful at, although nobody could doubt his intelligence and bulldog tenacity.  Eisenhower’s executive orders banning gays from government jobs were  finally overturned by President Clinton in 1995.

Director Howard uses actors (including Hyde Pierce as a young Frank Kameny) reading letters and journal entries of those affected by the persecution of that era, supplemented by interviews with historians as well as those who still survive from that era. There’s also a lot of archival footage, both of pre-Stonewall gay life and anti-Gay propaganda pieces popularizing the myth that gay men are child molesters. The narration of Glenn Close brings everything together nicely putting everything in context.

Some of the interviews are heartbreaking, such as Joan Cassidy who aspired to be the first female admiral in the United States Navy but who didn’t dare look for advancement in case her sexuality was discovered. Some are hilarious such as postal employee Carl Rizzi who offers federal agents a better picture of himself in drag for their files. Some are reprehensible, such as the audio interview with investigator Peter Szluk who takes great delight in his accomplishment of ruining lives and we cannot forget that there are still people like Szluk around today.

Kameny is interviewed here late in life but he didn’t live to see the Defense of Marriage Act overturned in 2013 (he died in 2011). He probably would have growled “We still have a long way to go” before tilting at another windmill and he’s absolutely correct on that account. Gay rights today remain very tenuous and fragile; already there is legislation that seeks to undo all that is done, particularly in red states and there is a mad man in the White House who loves gay people much less than he loved the gay Cohn and who only abides Jews because his daughter became one in order to marry a slime ball. There is still plenty of anti-gay behavior out there and the struggle to end repression for gay brothers and sisters is ongoing. It is, however, important to remember that we have come a long way. The efforts of men like Frank Kameny are important to note, if just to remind us that we need more people like him in our society even now.

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