Even half a century after Stonewall, it still takes courage, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted in Metro Weekly last week, for LGBTQ people to be their out, authentic selves at home, on the streets, and at work. Filmmaker Josh Howard’s eye-opening documentary The Lavender Scare, premiering this Tuesday, June 18 on PBS, offers a stark reminder that being out at work, especially for federal employees, was and is a right that cannot be held lightly, lest it be stolen away from us with the swipe of a Presidential pen.
The hour-long film — narrated by Glenn Close and inspired by the book of the same name by David Johnson — takes stock of the harrowing period when employees of the federal government were hounded out of their jobs. In 1953, President Eisenhower signed an executive order demanding the firing of so-called “sexual perverts” — that is, gays and lesbians, who were deemed dangerously susceptible to blackmail by hostile powers due to their presumed clandestine lives and practices.
Purged through an invasive, deliberately humiliating process of investigation and intimidation, LGBTQ people were targeted despite, as the film reiterates, no cases, to this day, of any gay or lesbian federal worker coughing up state secrets to the Commies due to blackmail. The process sounds monstrous, and lasted, surprisingly, until recently. Yet, this chapter of American history isn’t that widely known.
“I wasn’t familiar with it at all, and that’s really what drew me to the project,” says Howard, who says he personally hasn’t experienced harassment due to being out at work. “I just happened to come across David Johnson’s book, and I was stunned really when I was reading it. I was fourteen when Stonewall happened, so I kind of grew up in that generation, but I had no idea the extent to which the government had this apparatus to investigate, identify, and then fire employees who were gay, and certainly had no idea how many tens and tens of thousands of people were affected by this policy.”
Happily retired from a long career in television news, Howard “wasn’t necessarily looking for a project, but this story just seemed that it needed to be told.” He also wanted to ensure that no one who cares about LGBTQ equality forgets how fragile these rights are. “When you look at the political environment we’re in now, with the ban on transgender Americans serving in the military, and the judges who are being appointed to federal courts who clearly have histories of ruling against the interests of LGBTQ people, the whole religious liberty movement, I think we have reason to be concerned. I hope the film does serve as a little bit of a wakeup call, and a reminder of when things weren’t quite so good.”
The Lavender Scare airs Tuesday, June 18, on PBS. Check your local listings for times and repeat broadcasts, or visit www.pbs.org.