It CAN Happen Here

Thousands lost their government and non-government jobs during the “Lavender Scare”
Thousands lost their government and non-government jobs during the “Lavender Scare”.

By Gerry Scoppettuolo

Gay Pride month 2024 approaches in the United States in a political environment of both militant resistance and deep foreboding. For the past 75 years the queer community has  continuously struggled to at first name itself, then to exist and finally gain some measure of rights and respect. There have been cases of ruthless oppression followed by joyous triumphs, of desperate  isolation and alienation to the current state of precarious social acceptance and solidarity. Precarious because the LGBTQ community is currently experiencing its third nationally organized attack in my lifetime (since 1947). There are many of us who have spent our entire lives in organizing non-stop to prevent the worst from happening and cannot remember a time when we were not fighting back. And still the most serious fight back likely is just a short time away…perhaps months.

An undeniably incipient fascist movement now threatens. And as before the entire oppressed working class is facing a deepening attack on all fronts and identities. To speak of priority oppressions, to attempt to  chart a route for just LGBTQ rights miscomprehends what lies ahead and is not only politically incorrect but dangerous and will not aid us in formulating the broad class wide survival strategies that we all need.

The time has come to recount the struggles and the resistance that have engrossed  the LGBTQ communities in the past 75 years and try to identify the crucial class struggle character of these fightbacks, elements of which have become all but invisible in even the best histories.

But first the full measure of what gay people have been up against and overcame must be acknowledged.

It’s not that it can’t happen here.

It has already happened.

1947-1975  The Lavender Scare

The Lavender Scare (1950-1976) was a time when gay men and lesbians were targeted and – no exaggeration – hunted down. It was  a time of national panic spawned just after World War II during the anti-communist hysteria of the Red Scare. Although McCarthyism has been frequently condemned in the past 60 years, the Lavender Scare, because it was more narrow in scope and was extremely concentrated, would be 100% of the time to 5% of the population. In other words, it was an inescapable epithet, universally experienced.1

The Lavender Scare was built upon a single lie, that homosexuals employed by the government could be easily threatened with being exposed, and thus easily extorted to give up government secrets, paving the way for a supposed Soviet domination of the United States. This hysteria equated being queer with being disloyal and a threat to US national security.  5-10,000 federal workers in the Civil Service were summarily dismissed or forced to resign and at least 1700 other queer job seekers were denied federal employment during job interviews. The purge began in 1947 when President Harry Truman’s Justice Department issued loyalty oath regulations to government employees.  Between 1947 and 1950, the administration investigated 574 cases of “sex perversion” in civil employment; most of those investigated were either discharged or resigned.2

Although “loyalty” and anti-communist zeal  were the pretext for the initial Truman era regulations, this excuse was soon overtaken by a certain homosexual hysteria when heads began to roll.

Under Truman‘s loyalty-security program the number of homosexuals dismissed by the government each month went from an average of five to more than sixty per month.. Between 1947 and 1952, the State Department dismissed homosexuals for security reasons‖ at about twice the rate of any other security or loyalty risks, including communists. In 1951, the State Department fired 119 employees for homosexuality, and only 35 as other security risks (Communists); the figures were 134 and 70, respectively, in 1952. By 1953, the Truman State Department claimed to have fired 425 employees for allegations of homosexuality.

Any gay men or lesbians who were identifiable and  still employed in the Civil Service by 1953 were cleared out that year when President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450 which called for the termination of any federal employee guilty of “Any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, or sexual perversion”. 3

Workers were accused of merely having an homosexual identity and could neither confront their accusers, nor have any right for appeal, All decisions were final.

The United Public Workers of America, which might have conceivably been able to protect federal employees, was booted out of the CIO and organized labor in 1950 because its president, Abraham Flaxner, was a member of the communist party. (author’s note: Executive Order 10450 was not terminated until 1975 when I was 28 years old. Only a handful of gay workers (I was one of them) were protected by union contracts at that time. These were negotiated by District 65, Distributive Workers of America – later affiliated with UAW. Other than that, it was open season.). There were no legal protections, city, state or federal until 1982 when Wisconsin became the first state to do so.4

It must not be forgotten that gay witch hunts and purges struck deeply into the armed services during this time. Between 1944 – 1947 nine thousand gay men and lesbians were given so-called “blue discharges,” losing all their service benefits. Between 1950 and 1965, the Navy cashiered an average of more than 1000 enlisted personnel per year. Overall, between 2000 and 3000 personnel were discharged each year between 1950-1965 (37,500 total). Witch Hunts at army bases frequently targeted lesbians. Only the intervention of Black Massachusetts Senator Ed Brooke could upgrade the wrongful discharge of my dear friend, now deceased, Yvonne Forrest.5

However nothing could have predicted how the initial federal purge of queer federal workers would soon metastasize into a full blown national panic and condemnation of “perverts,” “pansies,” “fairies,” and “moral degenerates.” A new phraseology in popular culture seemed to appear everywhere: in tabloid magazines, mainstream press, religious pulpits, TV and radio programs and gossip columns. This cloak of public shaming was typified by the  tabloid magazine Confidential with headlines such as “America On Guard,” ” Homosexuals Inc.” and “Exposed, the Homosexual Menace.” Confidential had a circulation that was  four times the readership of its nearest rival, Readers Digest. 16 million people read Confidential each week, 20% of the labor force.6

Before  the  early 1950’s  there had been incidents of homophobia in American life to be sure, but these cases never rose to the level of anything like what happened between 1947 and 1975. The Lavender Scare was not a naturally occurring phenomenon that bubbled up from the masses, but rather, a top-down consciously invented and deployed political fear campaign generated by the state to exploit anti-communist hysteria in the service of preserving capitalism from the perceived economic encroachment of the Soviet Union and communist China , especially after 1949. The public, who had just gotten used to viewing the Soviets as welcome war time allies, now had to be quickly convinced to change their minds. The false threat of queer communist spydom struck just the right note of hysteria to supercharge the Red Scare.

Beyond the federal reach, many states (including, worst of all, the District of Columbia and its “Sexual Pervert Elimination Campaign”) enacted similar state-level purges reaching hundreds of thousands. In all these cases, rare was the situation when job related behavior was cited for the termination. It was one’s very identity above all that was struck down root and branch.7

There were also spillover effects that resulted from the federal government’s practice of acquiring police records of homosexuals which were shared with private employers. A person discharged from a federal agency as a homosexual often found himself or herself unable or unwilling to mention prior military service in job applications in the private sector for fear of explaining a discharge.



1  The Lavender Scare, David K. Johnson, 2005

3  Executive Order 10450  (1953)

4  Interview with Peter Van Delft, District 65 Organizer, October 26th, 2021 (at age 95)

Coming Out Under Fire, Alan Berube, 1991

6  Homosexuals and the Military, Williamson and Weinberg, 1971

7  Tabloid Homosexuality in the 1950’s and 1960’s,


NEXT: Lasting Employment Rights for LGBTQ and all Workers: Never Secure Under Capitalism, What the Record Shows  1975 – 2024   

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