The McCarthy era is generally considered the worst period of political repression in recent American history. But while the famous question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" resonated in the halls of Congress, security officials were posing another question at least as frequently, if more discreetly: "Information has come to the attention of the Civil Service Commission that you are a homosexual. What comment do you care to make?"
Historian David K. Johnson here relates the frightening, untold story of how, during the Cold War, homosexuals were considered as dangerous a threat to national security as Communists. Charges that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were havens for homosexuals proved a potent political weapon, sparking a "Lavender Scare" more vehement and long-lasting than McCarthy's Red Scare. Relying on newly declassified documents, years of research in the records of the National Archives and the FBI, and interviews with former civil servants, Johnson recreates the vibrant gay subculture that flourished in New Deal-era Washington and takes us inside the security interrogation rooms where thousands of Americans were questioned about their sex lives. The homosexual purges ended promising careers, ruined lives, and pushed many to suicide. But, as Johnson also shows, the purges brought victims together to protest their treatment, helping launch a new civil rights struggle.
The Lavender Scare shatters the myth that homosexuality has only recently become a national political issue, changing the way we think about both the McCarthy era and the origins of the gay rights movement. And perhaps just as importantly, this book is a cautionary tale, reminding us of how acts taken by the government in the name of "national security" during the Cold War resulted in the infringement of the civil liberties of thousands of Americans.
About the Author
David K. Johnson is professor of history at the University of South Florida and the author of Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement.
"The Lavender Scare, a phrase invented David K. Johnson, alludes to the systematic persecution of homosexuals (both men and women) in Washington, DC, that began in the early years of the Cold War and lasted until, roughly, the early 1970s. It was the Siamese twin of the notorious Red Scare, which had a similar lifespan and started for similar reasons. Given the degree of injustice and the scale of the suffering caused by the Lavender Scare, it seems astonishing that no one before Johnson has thought to write its history, whereas there is a small library of books dealing with the anti-Communist crusade. . . . Time has thus created an opportunity and Dr. Johnson has seized it. His book is detailed, accurate, and fair-minded. . . . It deserves to stand on the shelf next to The Great Fear by David Caute, and should be studied by everyone who is interested in the McCarthy era and its implications."
— Hugh Brogan
"A valuable contribution to our understanding of the Cold War and those who became victims of the national security state. It highlights well, and in a very readable form, the origins and continuity of the gay rights movement which are located in the fight against the federal government's anti-gay policies."
— H-Net Reviews in the Humanities and Social Sciences
"Dr. Johnson has provided today's generation with disturbing details of the maltreatment that U.S. security agents visited upon thousnads of loyal American citizens, people who endured vile campaigns against their well-being, conducted by their own government. The Lavender Scare has great current significance as a work of history because it exposes the anti-gay fear-mongering that Republicans initiated during the Cold War Era....a stellar work, one of the most important published gay histories there is."
— Raj Ayyar
"A gripping study of sanctioned homophobia in the McCarthy era and a celebration of the stubborn fight by a pre-Stonewall few that ultimately won rights for many, and of a cultural and sexual underground that survived even at the height of an unrelenting homophobia spanning the presidencies of Truman through Nixon."
— Richard Labonte
"David Johnson's engrossing study of the persecution of gays and lesbians during the Cold War, complete with a comprehensive picture of the gay culture that flourished in Washington, is an important addition to a subject all too often ignored."
— Dallas Morning News
"The hoary rhetoric about the supposedly treasonous/treacherous nature of homosexuality that the historian David K. Johnson documents in his fine new book can initially strike a reader as amusing. The homophobic fulmination of varoius McCarthy-era senators and representatives he quotes are fatuous, if not ludicrous. But as The Lavender Scare goes on to reveal, the jaw-dropping extent of the federal government's persecution of its gay and lesbian employees in the '50s and '60s turns amusement into rage."
— Kevin Riordan
"By demonstrating the extent to which gay history is part of mainstream history, [Johnson] continues the important academic endeavor of bringing the margins to the center."
— Fiona Paton
"The Lavender Scare provides a superb overview of this period in American history. . . . It's a must-read for gay and lesbian federal employees, and would serve as an excellent text for college or graduate-level courses in history, sociology, political science, or gay studies."
— Lawrence Reynolds
"Keenly observed and elegantly written, with a sense of mystery and suspense indicative of the era, Johnson's book will reorient scholarship on the Cold War as it models a more complex method for integrating queer community history with economic and political history."
— John Howard
"The Lavender Scare is a very readable and valuable work that clarifies the relationship between the Cold War and national security interests, and those victimized by the need to preserve said security. . . . This work will take its place beside those of George Chauncey and Allen Berube, and every serious student of 20th century American history should own it."
— Aaron L. Bachhofer
"What does it say about the historical profession that it has taken nearly 30 more years to tell this story? Fortunately, David K. Johnson has done so with intelligence, sensitivity, and grace. We are all in his debt."
— Ellen Schrecker
"Johnson's work assures that we shall never again be able to think about the anticommunist crusade without acknowledging its fierce counterpart that affected the lives of so many people."
— Leila J. Rupp
“Fifty years ago, gays ‘confronted a degree of policing and harassment that is almost unimaginable to us today’ and which now is almost entirely forgotten. David K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government is a heart-wrenching reminder that homosexuals faced brutal employment discrimination and endless police hostility.”
— David J. Garrow
"A riveting history of gay-baiting in the McCarthy era"
— In These Times
"Johnson's dazzling social and political history puts the Cold War persecution of gays and lesbians center stage to highlight how the social and cultural anxieties around gender and sexuality dovetailed with the nation's state-building project in the post-World War II era."
— Steve Valocchi