Interview: USF prof David Johnson's book inspired TIGLFF's documentary centerpiece The Lavender Scare

A shocking account of the State Department's purge of gay employees in the 1950s and beyond.

click to enlarge USF historian David Johnson, author of “The Lavender Scare.” - University of South Florida
University of South Florida
USF historian David Johnson, author of “The Lavender Scare.”

With the debut of Come Out St. Pete, which is centered around National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11, it’s worth noting that the date is significant for another reason: It’s the day (in 2011) that we lost Franklin Kameny. 

That name may not be known all that widely outside the LGBTQ community, but as the important documentary The Lavender Scare points out, Kameny was “the grandfather of the gay rights movement” — an astronomer with the U.S. Army’s Army Map Service  who was the first federal employee to make a public stink about being fired because of his sexuality. Based on the 2004 book by USF Associate Professor David Johnson and directed by 60 Minutes alum Josh Howard, The Lavender Scare shows how the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s morphed into a massive witch hunt for homosexuals in government employ. As the film points out, however, the ban on gays and lesbians did not end with the Red Scare; anti-gay federal employment policies stayed in place, shockingly, well into the 1990s. As the Trump administration chips gradually away at LGBT rights — including a friend-of-the-court brief entered into a private employment case by the Justice Dept., which stated that the federal Civil Rights Act does not protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation The Lavender Scare is not just enlightening but timely as well.

The documentary centerpiece in this year’s Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, The Lavender Scare will  be shown Sunday Oct. 8 at 6 p.m. at Tampa Theatre. We caught up with David Johnson a day after he returned from screenings at two gay filmfests in Sydney, Australia, where the film won its fifth audience award. He has traveled with the film to six cities so far, including San Francisco, Toronto and Miami, to which he brought his 94-year-old father: “I’m pretty sure it was his first LGBT film festival.”

DW: What’s been the most common reaction to the film?

David Johnson: “We had no idea that this occurred…” And a lot of gratitude, sometimes from people affected by it in one way or another — former government workers, military people, teachers. In San Francisco, one woman came up [to me] in tears.

I was surprised by the comparatively recent existence of these policies — that it wasn’t until President Bill Clinton’s executive order in 1995 that gays and lesbians could hold security clearance jobs.

My book ends in the ’70s, or really the late ’60s — [it] doesn’t go forward as far as the film. One of the nice things about the film is that it builds on the book. Josh had funds — more than I did as a grad student… [My book] started in Frank Kameny’s attic. I was working for a historical research firm [after graduating from Georgetown], and volunteered to do a history of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance for its 20th anniversary. In the process I got to know Kameny. He showed me the picket signs from the marches, sitting there deteriorating. I said to myself, ‘There’s a book here,’ and applied to grad school [at Northwestern] with the idea of writing it. That was about 1992.

click to enlarge Franklin Kameny (center) in a gay rights march outside the White House in 1965. - The Lavender Scare / Full Exposure Films
The Lavender Scare / Full Exposure Films
Franklin Kameny (center) in a gay rights march outside the White House in 1965.

The film includes President Obama’s 2009 speech about Kameny, in which he said that organizing those first picket marches for equality outside of the White House in 1965 was not just an act of conscience but one of extraordinary courage. Where do you think he got that courage?

Frank got his courage partly because he had a Ph.D. in astronomy. He was a scientist, and had absolute faith in science and logic — he knew this made no sense. He would deny it, but I think the fact that he was Jewish had something to do with it. He was already a minority, and was one of the first people to promulgate the idea that gay people were a minority group and that what he was facing was discrimination, just like racial discrimination. It wasn’t about security, but about civil rights… Another reason I think that he stood up was that he was forced to in a way that other people weren’t. Because he was an astronomer he was unemployable as a gay man, because every other job that involved astronomy in 1957 involved a security clearance. He was surviving on like 10 cents a day — and all the rest of his life he never worked again, he depended on contributions. That’s why he looks so horrible [in the film], dresses so poorly and his teeth are so bad — because he never had another full-time job.

The fact that the gay scare lasted longer than the red scare is another striking revelation in the film — that gays finally became more of a target than commies…

One of the things I found when I was researching was that almost every book on the Red Scare would have some quote that suggested investigators were also concerned with gay people, but then [historians] would drop it.

President Dwight “I Like Ike” Eisenhower, so often trotted out as a model of sane, good-grandpa governing, doesn’t come off well at all in the film.

I don’t think Ike was personally homophobic — he was just politically incredibly expedient. I’ve found more information since the book was published that emphasizes the political angle — a response to a FOIA request that literally took 10 years — a statement by a political appointee in the State Department who said, “We need to publicize these firings because it will insure Republican candidates’ elections for the next decade.”  But they had to be careful, even the Republicans. Ike didn’t use the word “pervert,” just “security risk.” And the names of those fired didn’t show up in the paper because people “resigned voluntarily.” That was one of the things that made this story difficult to tell — that neither side wanted to tell the story.

What role did Sen. Joe McCarthy play in the firings?

He set the scare in motion, but he’s not the principle person behind it. It was other more extreme Republican senators who pushed it. That’s another reason the story of the firings didn’t get told because everyone goes, “McCarthy, McCarthy.” He ignites it but others were responsible.

The letters from “confidential informants” are amazing: statements like “He has a jelly handshake...” 

There was a whole series of letters from an informant who ratted out her boss, who was a woman: “She doesn’t have much in the way of hips, doesn’t wear makeup.” Security people found that this was a case of a disgruntled employee but still followed up on it… 

And that letter from the woman in Los Angeles: “History proves that when men become sissies the nation is overthrown.”

There were a lot of letters like that — about the fall of Rome, saying immorality leads to the end of civilization. The technical justification was the security concern, that gays could be blackmailed, but there were all kinds of ways in which gays were conflated with communists and other threats.

How did you find the story of Drew Ference [a talented linguist in the foreign service who committed suicide after investigators came after him for being gay]?

I found the documents in the National Archives. But his niece [whose interviews are among the most moving and ultimately revealing in the film] found us because she had read about the project online — Josh has been working on the film for eight years.

Are there things in the book that you wish hadn’t been left out of the film?

A whole lot. Like the suicide of a U.S. Senator from Wyoming whose son was arrested [for soliciting sex with an undercover male police officer] in Lafayette Park in D.C. He was a Democrat who was up for reelection, and the Republicans were using this arrest of his son against him. It was the basis for the novel and film Advise and Consent. And there were some court cases in the ’60s that Frank helped lead through the court and they won. The civil service finally changed its language in 1973 as a result of those cases. After that [the restriction against gays] continued only in the FBI, NSA and other agencies that required security clearances.

Talk about the statement at the end of the film — that Secretary of State John Kerry issued an apology to State Dept. employees who lost their jobs in the Lavender Scare, and then Trump ordered any mention of the apology be removed from the department website two days after he took office. We assume it’s easy to be gay in D.C. now, but is it? 

Like, what’s coming next? Are we going back into the closet, back into a period of persecution? That is the message of the film. The time in the ’50s was a backlash against a time of openness and visibility for gays in Washington D.C. in the 1930s and ’40s. It’s openness and visibility that makes people upset.