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State Department Apologizes for the “Lavender Scare”

For decades, the agency purged gay and lesbian workers believing their sexual orientation made them security risks

Senators Kenneth Wherry (pictured at left) and J. Lister Hill conducted the first congressional investigation into homosexuality in the federal workforce. (U.S. Senate Historical Office)
smithsonian.com

Yesterday, outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry issued a formal apology for years of discrimination at the State Department against the LGBTQ community. “In the past—as far back as the 1940s, but continuing for decades—the Department of State was among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, forcing some employees to resign or refusing to hire certain applicants in the first place,” Kerry wrote. “These actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today.”

According to Camila Domonoske at NPR, the apology was suggested by Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a letter in late November. He also suggested that an era known as the “Lavender Scare” be addressed in the State Department’s museum. “Of course, the measures we take today cannot bring back years of anguish or erase decades of institutionalized homophobia, but we can ensure that such injustices levied against the LGBT community are never repeated again,” Cardin said in another statement in December, reports Domonoske.

The Lavender Scare was a time beginning in the late 1940s and continuing through the 1960s when thousands of suspected homosexuals were fired from the State Department, reports Judith Adkins for the National Archives and Records Administration's official magazine, Prologue. It coincided with the Red Scare and Senator Joe McCarthy’s lengthy set of hearings trying to expose suspected communists in the government, Hollywood and the military, reports John Fritze at The Baltimore Sun.

According to Susan Donaldson James at ABC News, the scare also extended to the military, government contractors and other agencies. But at the State Department, homosexuals were thought to esecially singled out because they were beleived to be a security risk "on the ostensible grounds that their sexual orientation rendered them vulnerable to blackmail, prone to getting caught in 'honey traps', and made them security risks,” writes Cardin.

In fact, though the height of the Lavender Scare was decades ago, Cardin writes that as late as the 1990s State Department employees were being investigated for homosexuality. While many have applaud Kerry’s apology, David Johnson, history professor at the University of South Florida and author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government tells Domonoske it does not go far enough. “The apology made it sound like the State Department was just one of many institutions that was discriminating against gay men and lesbians ... that it was just sort of run-of-the-mill 1950s anti-gay discrimination,” he says. “In fact, the State Department was unique in its level of homophobia.”

Cardin says he will introduce legislation in the Senate for a formal Congressional apology and will also allow those fired during the Lavender Scare to officially to correct their employment records.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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