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The Lavender Scare by David K. Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 277 pages, $30) Frank Kameny was on assignment in Hawaii for the U.S. Army in October 1957, gathering astronomical data for the targeting of new intercontinental missiles, when he received an urgent call to come back to Washington. Upon his return, two civil service investigators confronted the Harvard-trained astronomer with information that he was homosexual. By Christmas, Kameny had been fired from his job — ostensibly for inaccurately describing a prior arrest in a gay cruising area in San Francisco, but in reality simply for being homosexual. Unlike most of the uncounted other homosexuals drummed out of the federal service during the 1950s, Kameny fought back — first through administrative channels, then with a letter-writing campaign to then-President Dwight Eisenhower and congressional leaders, and finally in the courts. Kameny never got his job back. But on July 3, 1975, the general counsel of the Civil Service Commission called Kameny to let him know that the commission would no longer treat homosexuality as a per se disqualification from federal employment. Today, Kameny is an elder statesman of the D.C. gay community, but his story — as courageous and ultimately consequential as Rosa Parks’ refusal to go to the back of the bus — is not well-known nationally among homosexuals or the general public. So too the story of the homosexual purges of the 1950s, according to historian David K. Johnson. This shameful episode has received “stunningly little attention,” Johnson writes, even though anti-gay attitudes and policies “permeated” the political culture of the time. Johnson, a visiting assistant professor at the University of South Florida, begins to remedy this oversight with the first book-length history of what he calls “the lavender scare” — in conscious imitation of the more familiar “red scare” of the same era. In “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government,” he has made good use of available sources, compiling information in a decade-plus of research from congressional hearings, civil service files, court cases, newspapers, and some two dozen interviews. The end product is instructive and insightful, though necessarily incomplete — a first but not final account of the damage to the lives and reputations of thousands of loyal civil servants as well as to the government itself. The lavender scare combined the public intolerance of homosexuality with the Cold War fear of infiltration by the communist enemy. The campaigns against communists and homosexuals began simultaneously in the late 1940s and used similar language and tactics. Both groups, Johnson writes, were depicted as “alien subcultures that recruited the psychologically maladjusted to join in immoral behavior that threatened the nation’s survival.” The debate over the dangers posed by communists inside the government continues to this day, with one new history contending that the fears ought not be dismissed as mere hysteria. But Johnson presents a strong case that no basis whatsoever existed for the analogous fear that homosexuals in the government posed a security risk. No gay American was ever blackmailed into revealing a secret, he says, after reviewing a congressional investigation unsealed only in 2000. Despite scant evidence, the American Civil Liberties Union described gays as security risks in the late 1950s and Eisenhower repeated the canard in his memoirs. Under pressure from Republicans in Congress, the State Department under President Harry Truman disclosed in 1950 that it had fired 91 homosexuals. The disclosure did not protect Truman from Republican insinuations about protecting homosexuals in the 1952 campaign. As Johnson says, the GOP promise to “clean up the mess” in Washington conjured up the supposed gay menace for any voters concerned about the issue. Eisenhower’s Executive Order No. 10,540 explicitly added “sexual perversion” to the list of behaviors that could disqualify an employee or applicant as unreliable or untrustworthy. While some federal managers protected homosexual employees, the new policy was vigorously enforced at the State Department and some other agencies. Office gossips now had license to pass on information or suspicions about their fellow workers — well-founded or not. Gays and lesbians caught up in civil service investigations faced the dilemma of honestly disclosing their sexual identity — and likely losing their job — or risking a lie that could lead to dismissal if found out. Johnson estimates that as many as 5,000 gay men and lesbians were fired in the purges, but it is only an estimate. He notes that in earlier litigation the Civil Service Commission turned down a Freedom of Information Act request for data as “burdensome” and “oppressive.” Besides the homosexuals who were fired, others lived in fear of exposure. “You lived not knowing what would happen next,” a discharged Commerce Department secretary remarked 40 years after the fact. The anti-gay policy began to change in the 1960s under pressure from political and legal attack. In a ringing judicial rebuke, the federal appeals court in Washington ruled in 1969 that the Civil Service Commission had failed to justify its policy of firing homosexuals for off-duty conduct. The commission finally yielded six years later by removing “immoral conduct” from the list of disqualifications for federal service and promising to use “the same standards in evaluating sexual conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual.” Johnson notes that by putting even discreet homosexuals in jeopardy of their livelihoods, the anti-gay campaign ironically helped give birth to the gay rights movement. Today, that movement can claim substantial success in protecting homosexuals from legal persecution. But the victories are incomplete. Indeed, the federal government itself continues to punish homosexuals even at the risk of national security — as witness the recent discharge of Arabic linguists from the military under the ostensibly tolerant “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The history of that policy — and the damage it has done — remains to be written. Kenneth Jost is associate editor of “The CQ Researcher” and editor of “The Supreme Court From A to Z.”

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