By Shana Liebman –
On November 15, the Irvington Theater will host an exclusive screening of The Lavender Scare, a documentary about a period of history that few know about — yet which rings eerily familiar today.
In the 1950s, while hundreds were blacklisted during the Red Scare, another witch hunt was secretly underway. An Executive Order, signed by President Eisenhower, ordered the government to fire all workers suspected of being gay. Tens of thousands lost their jobs as a result of their sexuality; many more lost their sense of respectability, their human liberties, and a few took their own lives. This period, brought to light in historian David K. Johnson’s 2006 book of the same name, became known as “The Lavender Scare.”
The film’s director, Josh Howard, who has won 24 Emmys for his work as a 60 Minutes producer, says he wasn’t planning on making a film — until he read Johnson’s book. “I was just stunned by the story. I thought I knew American history, gay history, and I just had no idea that the government had embarked on this systematic campaign to eliminate gay people.”
He soon realized there is a reason the story stayed so quiet. “When it was going on, there was this conspiracy of silence on both sides that people getting fired didn’t want to talk about why they had been fired because they wanted to stay in the closet. The government didn’t want to talk about how many people were being fired because then the question became: “Well, why did you hire them in the first place?”
It wasn’t until the 1990s, four decades later, when then–President Bill Clinton prohibited government workers from being fired because of sexual orientation, that many of these documents were declassified. “And it was David Johnson at the Library of Congress going through those documents that discovered them,” said Howard.
Howard’s gorgeous, compelling cinematic interpretation shares incredible archival footage and brings the major players to life with celebrity voiceovers that include Glenn Close, David Hyde Pierce, Cynthia Nixon — and Frank Kameny, who was fired for “consensual contact” with another man. Kameny went on to form an anti-discrimination group that protested outside the White House in 1965 — a protest that is believed to be the beginning of the gay rights movement.
Howard also added the point of view of the government officials. “David told the story from the perspective of the victims, but we wanted to track down the investigators, the state department officials, the people responsible for not only carrying out the policy but instituting it in the first place,” he said.
The story shares parallels to the current administration. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
The homophobia of the 1950s, explained Howard, was a direct backlash against an earlier period that was more permissive. “And I think that’s something we’re seeing today with the issue of transgender military personnel. We now have the Trump Administration at the Supreme Court arguing against the notion that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should extend to LGBTQ people. The Lavender Scare is an example of how politicians can demonize an entire class of people or minority group for political purposes. I think there are overtones in the immigration debate — that also, as Mark Twain might say, rhyme with the 1950s.”
The Lavender Scare is crucial viewing for audiences today, said Howard, “Especially those who don’t necessarily support causes that are important to LGBTQ people. Because I think they have to understand what our history is and why we are fighting for our rights.”
The Lavender Scare will screen at Irvington Theater, Friday, November 15; a Q&A with director Josh Howard will follow the film. Wine and popcorn will be available. Irvington Mayor Brian Smith will introduce the evening at 7:30 p.m. with a special screening of the multi-award-winning short film, Hiding in Daylight, written by Greg Allen (Irvington Theater Manager), depicting what would happen if a gay purge occurred today. Hiding in Daylight has been screened at numerous film festivals around the world. Visit www.irvingtontheater.com for tickets and more information.