This month, University of Chicago Press is offering David K. Johnson’s excellent The Lavender Scare for free download as an e-book. You’ll need Adobe Digital Editions to view it, which you can also download for free. Links to both can be found on UCP’s site.
In The Lavender Scare, Johnson details the largely hidden history of the gay men and women fired from federal employment for being “security risks” during the Cold War. He begins during the 1930s, when Roosevelt’s New Deal drew many young men to Washington, giving rise to a gay subculture in the capitol. Moving on to the well-worn territory of the McCarthy-era red scare, he describes the close association in the public’s mind between the State Department and homosexuality, and the purges of federal employees who moved somewhat openly in gay Washington, sought out same-sex partners at the city’s cruising spots, or were merely suspected or accused of having same-sex desires. Although the ostensible reason for their firing was that they would be susceptible to blackmail by foreign agents, Johnson unpacks the anxieties about gender, sexuality, and invasion that inhered in the gay panic on Capitol Hill. In this atmosphere, simply having been fired from the State Department cast aspersions on one’s sexual proclivities (see above cartoon). Furthermore, he shows that this “lavender scare” outlasted what we think of as the red scare by about a decade, lasting well into the 1960s, and that this persecution in part fostered the homophile activism that predated the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969.
If you like Johnson’s book, you might also want to check out Lee Edelman’s playful essay “Tearooms and Sympathy, or, the Epistemology of the Water Closet,” which offers a more cultural studies-inflected take on the meanings behind police surveillance of gay cruising spots in Washington, D.C. The PBS website also has a copy of a committee report on the employment of homosexuals in federal government from 1950, which gives you a sense of officials’ slippery reasoning for the firings.