Gay History: The “Lavender Scare”.

Interrogations of one’s sexuality became commonplace in the 1950s and 1960s’ federal workplace. Questions like “Do you identify as a homosexual or have you ever had same-sex sexual relations?” were commonplace as employers attempted to root out LGBT employees. This period of time is often known as the Lavender Scare—the interrogation and firing of LGBT-identifying civil servants.

Before the Lavender Scare and post-World War II, LGBT individuals from rural towns began congregating to cities where they could keep anonymity. This newfound peace and community, however, was disturbed in 1947 when the United States Park Police created a Sex Perversion Elimination Act. Primarily targeting these communities in parks, at least five hundred people were arrested and 76 were charged.

As a part of the broader Red Scare that targeted communists, the Lavender Scare’s development was in large fault due to Senator McCarthy, who brought to the Senate his famous list which gave the names of two hundred and five federal employees, two of which were homosexual individuals. While federal agents began to investigate Senator McCarthy’s federal employment list, much of the Red Scare rhetoric also invoked the ideas of morality connected with queer and homosexual people to those of communists. At the time, homosexuals were viewed as sinful and perverted and the public perception of homosexuality shared many similarities with the public view of communists, who were similarly viewed lacking in both moral and mental strength. For the federal government, LGBT employees began to pose a security risk: if they were living double lives, then they may not be loyal nor mentally stable enough to keep government secrets.

Eventually, Senators Wherry and Hill, who were supported by McCarty, interrogated the two LGBT individuals on McCarty’s list, leading to their discharge. In March 1952, the federal government announced its removal of 162 civil servants suspecting of being homosexual. And about a year later on April 27, 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, expanding on Truman’s federal employment regulations with a statement to exclude federal employees of “sexual perversion.” Because of this Executive Order, it is estimated that at least ten thousand civil servants lost their jobs.

The Lavender Scare made being publicly LGBT difficult. Although homosexuals were largely closeted before the Lavender Scare, being publicly LGBT during the 1950s was largely challenging and near impossible without staggeringly high consequences. Not only were LGBT federal employees fired, but many others were also simply fired for “guilt of association” in knowing someone who was LGBT. Because of the resulting stigma within federal government as well as in larger public culture, many of the federal investigations and resulting firings lead to dismissed employees’ suicides — most of which were later covered up by the federal interrogators.

Several LGBT people later stepped up to challenge federal government’s “sexual perversion” components, including civil servant Frank Kameny who took his case to the Supreme Court. Although Kameny lost, a few federal courts began ruling in his favor by 1969. More gay rights organizations also developed such as the Mattachine Society (1950) as well as the Daughters of Bilitis (1955). The Lavender Scare’s effects, however, were still lasting.

The Lavender Scare not only broke up and quieted the cities’ queer communities who were afraid of federal employment discrimination and potential hate crime, but it also resulted in a largely conservative, homogenous culture within the government. While most federal organizations overturned their policies on LGBT discrimination, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and National Security Alliance (NSA)’s bans on homosexuals lasted into the 1990s, until they were officially overturned by President Bill Clinton in 1995. Later, as recent as 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry apologized to the LGBT community on behalf of the federal government’s Lavender Scare interrogations, stating: “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.”

Homosexuals at the State Department

In the 1950s and 60s, security within the U.S. government, including the State Department, was on high alert for internal risks, particularly Communists and what were considered to be sexual deviants—homosexuals and promiscuous individuals. Investigating homosexuality became a core function of the Department’s Office of Security, which ferreted out more people for homosexuality than for being a Communist.

In 1950, a subcommittee chaired by Maryland Senator Millard Tydings convened to investigate Joseph McCarthy’s notorious list of “205 known communists.” Tydings worked to discredit McCarthy’s claim, but, in the process, the subcommittee concluded that the State Department was overrun with “sexual perverts,” part of the so-called “Lavender Scare.” 

During the hearings, Nebraska Senator Kenneth Wherry memorably claimed that as many as 3,000 homosexuals were employed at State. By the end of 1950, 600 people had been dismissed from positions at the State Department on morals charges. In 1973 a federal judge ruled that a person’s sexual orientation alone could not be the sole reason for termination from federal employment; two years later, the Civil Service Commission announced that it would consider applications by gays and lesbians on a case-by-case basis.

The following excerpts give a glimpse behind the curtain as individuals in the Security and Personnel offices discuss how they interrogated suspected homosexuals, who were then forced to leave the Service. Norman V. Shute served as the Administrative Officer of the Near East Asian Affairs (NEA) Bureau at the State Department from 1958-1961. His memoir was given to ADST in July 1995. Robert J. Ryan, Sr. served as the Assistant Chief for Foreign Service Personnel from 1953-1955. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning November 1991. Robert Woodward served as the Chief of Foreign Service Personnel from 1952-1953 and was interviewed by Kennedy beginning May 1987.

Joseph C. Walsh served as the Director of the Security Office from 1953-1957. He was interviewed by G. Lewis Schmidt beginning April 1989. Charles Anthony Gillespie Jr. served as the Regional Security Officer (RSO) in Manila, Philippines and Jakarta, Indonesia from 1965-1966. He was interviewed by Kennedy beginning September 1995. Edward L. Lee II served as an Agent in the Field Office of the Security Office in the State Department from 1971-1972. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning June 1999.

“Homosexuality in the Service has always been a problem”

Norman V. Schute, NEA Administrative Officer, 1958-1961

SCHUTE:  Homosexuality in the Service has always been a problem. I voice no personal opinion on this. Basically, officially it is believed that homosexuality can lead to the compromise of U.S. Government security.

Both German and Soviet intelligence use homosexuals to establish a close relationship with homosexuals in other countries’ services including our own. Those who cohabited on the outside were developed into informants by their lovers.

Others were or were likely to become targets for blackmail and thence informants. “Traitor” is another term used for it. Back in 1946 as I recall, [someone] had to inform Secretary of State Cordell Hull that a very senior officer had been arrested for pederasty [homosexual relationship between an adult male and a minor male] in Lafayette Park [near the White House].

In Rome, two of my colleagues after interviews confessed and were released from the Service. Three members of the original Foreign Service Security group were reported to be deviants and on interview were promptly released.

And in 1947…, Foreign Service Chief Inspector Merle Cochran, later an Ambassador, sent home seven communications personnel, a veritable “daisy and chain” as it is known. And that’s the way it is, or at least was, in my day.

“’How many homosexuals has the Department fired this year?’”

Robert J. Ryan, Sr., Assistant Chief for Foreign Service Personnel, 1953-1955

RYAN: When I was in Departmental Personnel, we had an individual who had been arrested and then the Security Office ran an investigation on him and found that he was an active homosexual. I remember Arch Gean, who was then the Chief of Departmental Personnel, telling me about going up with Jack Peurifoy, who was the Assistant Secretary for Administration, to see General [and Secretary of State George C.] Marshall and going over the file with him.

When they finished their discussion, as it was reported to me, General Marshall said, “Fire the bastard.” And that was where the policy was inaugurated of terminating people with homosexual backgrounds….

On the issue of the homosexuals, of course, one of the unfortunate incidents that occurred following that is that each year at the time the State Department went up for its hearing before the Appropriations Committee, one of the questions from Congressman [John J.] Rooney [D-NY,  pictured], who was Chairman of the State Department Committee, always was “How many homosexuals has the Department fired this year?”

That was a usual question, so it was a matter of public knowledge each year of how many people left the State Department because of allegations of homosexual activities. The Security Office actually had one guy, John Finletter, who spend his full time following up allegations of homosexuality among the employees of the Department.

Robert Woodward, Chief of Foreign Service Personnel, 1952-1953

WOODWARD: The Security Division was caused to set up standards which were very specific and arbitrary. For example, I had gone to great effort to get a deputy Chief of Mission for Saigon….

Ed Gullion was a very able fellow, and I was hunting for a replacement for him. I found a very, very able guy and this was one of the duties of the Chief of Foreign Service personnel, was to try to get very able people for very important assignments. I went to quite a lot of effort to get this man, and I wanted to persuade him — he’d never been in the Far East — I wanted to persuade him of the importance of the assignment. This was, as I recall, just before Dien Bien Phu. It was a very critical time for the French….

Anyhow, the man was going to take up his duties that I considered important, and I think that he’d been persuaded were important. He was about to depart from the United States. I think he was in New York, when I was suddenly informed through Bob Ryan (see above), who was in constant liaison with the security division, that the man had resigned.

Well, I couldn’t understand it, because I had had several talks with him just a few days before, and everything was going according to plan. I discovered that the security division had brought him in and had a very tough interrogation with him.

They had a criterion that if any person in the Foreign Service were found to have had any kind of a homosexual relationship after a date six months after his 21st birthday, that he must be discharged from the Foreign Service. This man that was going to Saigon was 45- 46 years of age, happily married, had children. There was no question of his homosexuality whatever.

But in the course of the interrogation he admitted some kind of a homosexual incident within that narrow margin just after the cut-off date, six months after his 21st birthday. And he was out of the Foreign Service. Of course, there was nothing I could do about it, and I had to find somebody else to go to Saigon.

Joseph C. Walsh, Director of the Security Office, 1953-1957

WALSH: There were multiple problems. When Congress created USIA [U.S. Information Agency] they directed that everyone then in the Agency be cleared for top secret information. Thus, all were subjected to “full-field” investigations by the FBI to determine whether or not their employment was to be continued.

Also, all applicants for employment with the Agency were subject to the same regulation. This investigational processing consumed long 3 periods of time — as much as four months in some cases — which created untenable problems in the hiring procedures.

As a result of these long delays, the Agency lost many especially suitable applicants for employment. The great bulk of the job didn’t set well with the FBI and, with Congressional approval, transferred the full-field investigations to the Civil Service Commission with the stipulation that should an investigation reveal affiliation with Communism or its organizations, such would be returned to the FBI for their more extensive handling.

This measure reduced considerably the waiting time before the required clearance could be made for an individual’s appointment. The clearance process, of course, fell upon the Office of Security. The staff received the FBI and/or Civil Service reports, studied them carefully and, with no obstacles extant, stamped them with full clearance.

The standard of measurement, our bible, was Executive Order 10450 issued by President Eisenhower shortly before our Agency was formed in 1953. The essence of this Order related to Federal employees as affecting the country’s National Security — denial of such employment was spelled out to include anyone associated with communism, homosexuals, drunks and other social aberrants who might be considered threats to the security of the USA.

All this, I’m sure you remember, happened within the days of the broiling McCarthy investigations so thoroughly exposed under TV lights and avidly consumed by a national audience intrigued and scared by the Wisconsin Senator’s accusations.

As to the denials of the security clearances: It seems to be — now, thirty-plus years later — there were, within our Agency, extremely few individuals (employees or applicants) who were denied security clearance due to their association with communism, or its organizations. By far, the major shares of the total number were those admitted homosexuals.

It was a nasty business, seeking out and identifying people suspected of homosexuality. Disquieting features to me — there were several awfully decent and intelligent people who worked within the Agency whom I got to know well and enjoyed working within the Agency programs who, suddenly and peremptorily, dropped out of the picture — disappeared! Under investigation, they had admitted their homosexuality and had resigned.

“The whole idea was to develop information so that you could confront the individual. Then he would resign.”

Charles Anthony Gillespie Jr., RSO, Manila and Jakarta, 1965-1966

GILLESPIE: I learned when I came into security affairs that there were two sorts of secret or highly sensitive, investigative units – or maybe it was one unit with two parts in the State Department security system. One of these units had to do with real, honest to God, counterintelligence….

Either a separate unit or a part of the same unit dealt with nothing but homosexuality. I remember the first time that when I went into that unit and talked to two or three of the people assigned, I felt almost intimidated myself. They were briefing me on the unit’s activities. There were special code words for the special kinds of investigations. These were formal investigations.

We use a code word system today on the distribution of sensitive policy messages. We have “NODIS,” which means “no distribution outside the State Department.” These security units also used “NODIS CHEROKEE,” “NODIS GREEN,” and so forth, which meant that the message dealt with a particular subject. It could involve China, and so forth. In any event, in the security investigative area, communications were labeled. I don’t remember quite what the label was, but a certain label meant that it concerned a homosexuality case.

The whole idea was to develop enough information so that you could confront the individual and get him to agree that he was a homosexual, if that was what you believed. Then he would resign from the Foreign Service. If he didn’t resign, you would pull his security clearance.

I was never directly involved with one of these cases. I don’t know what it was really like to handle one. However, that confrontation technique as described to me was to face these people, get them to admit what they were, and then they would leave the Foreign Service. That was the whole idea.

It was a little more precise than [looking for somebody who was unmarried or talked with a lisp], although those factors were never far away, because I think that people believed in those days, as they probably have for some time, that in terms of our ethic in the United States, you could probably identify people like that. They were visible if you just looked hard enough.

What I was told when I was briefed in this unit was that I should try to find out whether there were any homosexual hangouts, e.g., nightclubs at my post.

If I heard of anybody from our mission who hung out at these places, I should immediately take the following steps:  find out what they were doing at one of these hangouts. Was the allegation really true? If it was true, they told me, notify us, and we’ll open a case on the person concerned. So that was it, and this unit would undertake follow-up action.

When you did a background investigation on someone or you were updating an investigation on a Foreign Service Officer — let’s say, age 43 or 44 — who had never been married, you were enjoined to make sure that you asked all the right questions which would cover what we today would call sexual orientation. The question might be asked, “Why isn’t he married?” “Does he go out with women?” Really subtle, penetrating questions like that — just as we used to ask questions about drinking.

When I first started in as a Security Officer, questions on drug use were practically never asked. I left the security area in the late 1960s when questions about drugs became very important. Investigations of homosexuality were very important matters. They were big deals.

I don’t think that the homosexuality issue would ever have loomed large in most people’s minds. However, for many of them it was a distasteful area…

The idea was that if an individual engages in any behavior which is prohibited by his social or cultural group, and does it surreptitiously, knows that it’s wrong, by that very fact he or she is now susceptible to pressure. That was the whole theory of it.

Now, I will be very blunt and say that I detected, as a human being talking to other human beings — and this is an intuitive kind of judgment — that there were some people who were firmly and solidly convinced that certain kinds of behavior were not only wrong but abominable.

They considered that this kind of behavior should be ferreted out and eradicated. Some of the people holding those views were certainly in the State Department security system at this time. I think that they gravitated to charges of this kind.

“If a person said they were homosexual, that usually meant terminating the interview”

Edward L. Lee II, Field Agent, Security Office, 1971-1972

LEE: There was a law that is still in place called Executive Order 10450. That goes back to the ‘60s. It authorized federal agencies to investigate people that were coming to work for the U.S. government.

There were certain criteria that you would look at. We did not want at that time people that were involved in activity of moral turpitude. We did not want people that were not loyal Americans. What a loyal American is or is not was never quite well defined.

But we were hoping that people would hold up their hand and say they would be loyal to the Constitution and the system of government, they would not attempt to overthrow it, and what have you. Even in the early ‘70s, the Cold War was well underway. There was a threat of communist aggression worldwide. There was a threat of nuclear superiority. So, there were a lot of things we did not want. We did not want spies or homosexuals.

The belief at that time was that if your sexual orientation was other than heterosexual, you could be co-opted, recruited, blackmailed. Thereby, a very senior person in the Department of State could be forced, co-opted, coerced to turn over documents, violate their loyalty to the United State and what have you. We’ve learned a lot since then.

But we did not want people with bad credit, criminal records, homosexuals, drunks… These were all risks that we were not prepared to accept. Unfortunately, during the early periods that I was in the Foreign Service, people didn’t have that many rights. If the Department chose to turn you down for a position, the ability to get equal treatment under the law was not guaranteed…

The period of free love, the period of Haight Ashbury and Woodstock and free expression sort of helped us become who we later were. There was a lot of jaundiced eye looks at people even if their academic background was good and they scored well on the Foreign Service exam and did well on the orals and what have you.

When they got to the point of getting the clearance, that became a very unpleasant experience. There were no real guarantees of what could and could not be asked. If you were asked, “How would you describe your sexual orientation,” quite often people that were raised in the ‘50s or ‘60s would not lie, they would simply tell the truth.

We’d always been told that if you tell the truth, how can you be wrong? Well, in telling the truth, you end up not being hired. So, people really looked at the security organization, SY, the Office of Security, as this potential group of thugs that could deprive you of being employed. During the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, we grappled with those things….

If a person said they were homosexual, that usually meant terminating the interview, documenting what had been said, and that would be reviewed by a higher authority. Usually, a woman that was living with someone was viewed very negatively. A woman who was divorced was almost looked at as a prostitute in some circles within the old SY organization. It was a very black-and-white environment



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