The Lavender Scare

In 1953, President Eisenhower ordered a purge of gay federal employees, who were deemed security risks. A new documentary delves deeper into this executive order.


Pride Month this June commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots in Greenwich Village, where gay men and women fought back against police raids. Stonewall is often associated with the start of the modern LGBT rights movement, but in actuality, efforts to stop government mistreatment of gay people went back more than a decade before 1969.

The Lavender Scare, which aired on PBS during Pride Month, documents President Dwight Eisenhower's 1953 executive order launching an official purge of homosexual federal employees. In the midst of fears of Communist spies infecting the government, gay men and women were declared to be security risks because their secret lives made them susceptible to blackmail.

This move was of course heaping injury upon injury, as the cultural belief at the time that homosexuality was a form of psychological perversion was what made gays feel they needed to keep that part of their identities secret. At any rate, there was little evidence to justify the blackmail fears, but thousands of Americans were hounded out of their jobs and had their careers ruined. Some, like astronomer and activist Frank Kameny, fought back, picketing the White House years before Stonewall. It would take decades for the order to be fully rescinded under President Bill Clinton.