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The Lavender Scare

Airs Monday, Jan. 6, 2020 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV + Saturday, Jan. 11 at 11 a.m. on KPBS 2

Frank Kameny leads a picket line in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphi...

Credit: Courtesy of The New York Public Library

Above: Frank Kameny leads a picket line in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1965, four years before the Stonewall uprising.

Film Tells the Shocking Story of the U.S. Government’s Decades-Long Effort to Rid the Federal Workforce Of LGBTQ Employees

Narrated by Glenn Close and featuring the voices of Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto, T. R. Knight and David Hyde Pierce, “The Lavender Scare” tells the little-known story of an unrelenting campaign by the federal government to identify and fire employees suspected of being homosexual.

Produced and directed by Josh Howard, the film is based on the award-winning book by David K. Johnson.

The Lavender Scare: Preview

Learn the untold story of how tens of thousands of homosexual federal workers were either fired or denied employment in the 1950s, stirring outrage in the gay community and starting an LGBTQ rights movement with an unlikely hero at the forefront.

In 1953, at the height of the Cold War and Senator Joe McCarthy’s virulent campaign against suspected communists and possible traitors, President Eisenhower declared gay men and lesbians to be a threat to the security of the country and therefore unfit for government service.

In doing so, he incited decades of stigmatization against LGBTQ employees in the federal workforce.

Over the next four decades, tens of thousands of government workers were intimidated, harassed and investigated, confronted with information from anonymous informants and threatened with exposure.

Many lost their jobs and prospects for the future — some even driven to suicide — for no reason other than their sexual orientation.

Captain Joan Cassidy

Joan Cassidy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve, recalls the tactics used by investigators to interrogate suspected lesbians. “They said, ‘We have your friend in the next room, she’s already told us you are gay. You give us the names of others and we’ll go easier on you.’” Throughout her career, Capt. Cassidy says she lived in fear she would be discovered to be a lesbian.

But the actions of the government had an unintended effect, stirring outrage in the community and helping to ignite the gay rights movement.

In 1957, after being questioned about his homosexuality by two civil servants, a Harvard-trained astronomer working with the U.S. Army’s Map Service became the first person to fight his dismissal.

Instead of arguing against the prevailing opinion that homosexuality was immoral, Frank Kameny reframed the issue as one of civil rights — discrimination against a particular group — and his attempts to regain his job evolved into a lifelong battle for the rights of LGBTQ people until his death in 2011.

It was not until 1995 that President Clinton signed an executive order ending the ban on security clearances for gay workers.

Featuring interviews with Kameny and others who were targeted, as well as authors and government officials responsible for investigating federal employees, “The Lavender Scare” is a compelling story of a fight for justice and a chilling reminder of how easy it can be, during a time of fear and uncertainty, to trample the rights of an entire class of people in the name of patriotism and national security.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Official White House Photo

Frank Kameny is honored by President Obama in the Oval Office, 54 years after being fired by the federal government because he was gay.

Watch On Your Schedule:

This film is no longer available to stream on demand.


Producer/Director: Josh Howard. Associate Director: Jill Landes. Executive Producers: Betsy West, Kevin Jennings and Andrew Tobias. Senior Producer: Barbara Pierce. Director of Photography: Richard White. Editor, Associate Producer, Motion Graphics: Bruce Shaw.


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