The Lavender Scare

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"Thousands lost their jobs. Some lost their lives. A courageous few fought back."
  • 2019
  • 7.7  (169)
  • 73

The Lavender Scare is a historical documentary film released in 2017 directed by Josh Howard. Hosted by Glenn Close, the movie explores the lesser-known story of the US government's campaign in the 1950s to identify and purge homosexuals from federal employment. The movie's title references the term "Lavender Scare," which was coined by Senator Joseph McCarthy's aide, Roy Cohn, to refer to McCarthy's crusade against alleged homosexuals and communists in government.

The movie starts in the late 1940s, with a widespread feeling of anxiety and paranoia that communism was infiltrating American society. Homosexuality had always been considered taboo, but during this time, it was also perceived as a possible window into communist infiltration. Drawing on interviews, archival footage, and personal accounts, the film constructs a picture of a government that embarked upon a witch-hunt against gay people, dismissing thousands of employees from sensitive jobs.

We hear anecdotes from people who were in the federal service when the purge started, including men and women who were fired and had their lives ruined. Some of those interviewed were among the first to notice patterns in the sudden dismissals of people on sexual grounds. The outcry from some groups of people, gay and straight, against the discharging of so many experienced and patriotic public servants was attributed to paranoia and misconceptions about homosexuals that included gender-defiant behavior, cross-dressing, and the idea that gays were morally depraved, weak-willed, and could easily be blackmailed.

The movie features interviews with historians who detail the origins of the Lavender Scare, including how the State Department in 1947 released a list of several subversive organizations that gay and lesbian groups were included on, thus equating homosexuality with espionage. It wasn't until President Obama's administration that many of those dismissed on this basis received a public apology.

Despite the film's heavy context, it's not without moments of levity. Former citizens named in the purges recount their dismissals cheekily: "I was dropped for something I didn't do; I was gay, and they found out about it." Many described using spycraft to avoid due suspicion and result in a sort of game of cat and mouse. By the end, we see how the purge progressed and how the society grew more understanding, with many of the interviewees sharing what happened next and how they rebuilt their lives. The documentary demonstrates its point that many of the affected people suffered a severe trauma perpetuated by government meddling even if they managed to survive.

Overall, The Lavender Scare paints an intimate and harrowing portrait of a little-explored episode in American history. It is a powerful reminder of how dangerous paranoid and prejudiced policy-making in the government can be, regardless of particular political gains garnered. The documentary acts as both documentation and admonition, encouraging the country to keep a close eye and reflecting on history, learn from it and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. It's a film that will appeal to people interested in queer history, forgotten history, or in protesting against government overreach.

The Lavender Scare
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    7.7  (169)
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