Metro Weekly

John Kerry apologizes for State Department’s past anti-gay discrimination

Statement acknowledges the State Department's past role in purging gays and lesbians from its workforce

John Kerry – Credit: State Department

Secretary of State John Kerry has formally apologized to State Department employees and applicants who were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, particularly during a period known as the “Lavender Scare.”

“In the past — as far back as the 1940s,  but continuing for decades — the Department of State was among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, forcing some employees to resign or refusing to hire certain applicants in the first place,” Kerry said in a statement released Monday. “These actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today.

“On behalf of the Department, I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the Department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community.”

For years, LGBT activists have been calling on the government to acknowledge the wrongs it committed against the LGBT community in the post-World War II era, particularly the State Department and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

At the time, America was awash in McCarthyism, and federal employees who were gay or lesbian were considered security threats because they would be easy targets for blackmail.

The thought was that, in order to avoid being outed, gays and lesbians might allow spies or foreign agents to infiltrate the government or give their blackmailers access to classified information. As a result, those suspected of being gay or lesbian were often interrogated and summarily fired from their positions.

It coincided with frantic attempts by government officials to purge various departments of suspected Communists in what was known as the “Red Scare,” and was dubbed the “Lavender Scare” for the almost irrational, frenzied search for people suspected of homosexuality and the desire to purge them from the federal workforce.

In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which barred known homosexuals from working for the federal government. An estimated tens of thousands of gays and lesbians, including government contractors and military personnel, were fired under that executive order.

It remained on the books until 1995 when President Bill Clinton officially rescinded the order, allowing LGBT people to gain security clearances.

The Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. is currently waging a lawsuit in federal court against the Justice Department, asking them to release every document they have regarding Executive Order 10450, so that details of how the order was enforced can be made public.

In 2009, John Berry, the former director of OPM, formally issued an individual apology to former LGBT rights leader Frank Kameny for his firing from the U.S. Army Map Service because of his sexual orientation in 1957.

But Charles Francis, the president of the Mattachine Society, has been pushing OPM to issue a “truth and reconciliation” statement acknowledging the damage caused to thousands of other LGBT federal workers by enforcing Executive Order 10450 throughout six different presidential administrations.

Francis notes that this would be different from a formal apology along the lines of the one issued by Kerry on behalf of the State Department. Nonetheless, Francis is “delighted” by Kerry’s decision to offer such an apology.

“You can’t take it away from Secretary Kerry and the Obama folks for making this statement. It’s important, it really is,” Francis says. “But when you compare it to the untold tens of thousands of gay men and women who were destroyed by the federal government, across every department, from the lowest clerk typist to the postal carriers, it’s a very small step.

“The big step? It has to be the Office of Personnel Management,” adds Francis. “We met with them last year and showed them the official files, which we discovered in the National Archives. We found 400 pages of documents from the Office of General Counsel, OPM, and the Civil Service Commission. And they show massive legal resistance to any kind of improvement in the lives of the gays and lesbians they were destroying, through six presidencies. So [Kerry’s apology] is a step in the right direction, but it’s thin gruel, compared to what really needs to be done.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com