Prizm News / June 3, 2019 / By Ken Schneck

Courtesy of Josh Howard

An upcoming PBS documentary explores the campaign begun in the 1950s to dismiss the LGBTQ community from government employment 

By Ken Schneck

History books have done well to document the Red Scare when Senator Joseph McCarthy spearheaded a relentless campaign to expose individuals suspected of being Communists or traitors to the nation. Far less covered in the textbooks—if even mentioned at all—was the Lavender Scare: a period of time kicked off by an announcement by President Eisenhower declaring gay men and lesbians to be a threat to the security of the country and therefore unfit for government service. 

Based on David K. Johnson’s award-winning book of the same name, The Lavender Scare will debut PBS on Tuesday, June 18 (check local listings), showing millions around the world the effects of government efforts to intimidate, harass, and investigate tens of thousands of government workers. 

Prizm spoke with the Josh Howard, the film’s producer and director, about the process of translating the book to the screen, the heroism of Frank Kameny (“the Grandfather of the Gay Movement”) and what the documentary has to say to our state of Ohio where we lack protections in employment. 

Courtesy of Josh Howard

Ken: How did you first become aware of the Lavender Scare?

Josh: I wasn’t necessarily looking for a project or looking to research this subject. I just happened to come across David Johnson’s book. I was happily retired from a long career in television and was catching up on some reading. What I found in Johnson’s book was just astonishing. The information he put together on how systematically the government went about discriminating against gay people was so detailed. I thought I knew American history, having grown up during a lot of gay history, and I knew that the 50s was not a great time to be gay. But the extent that Johnson described the Lavender Scare was really something else.

Courtesy of Josh Howard

How do you take content like that and translate it to the screen?

That was the hard part. David had done his research in the 90s. By the time I started working on the film in 2010, a lot of the people who had their employment affected in the 1950s and 60s had sadly passed away. We tracked down enough people to film and thankfully Frank Kameny was still alive. The real question was taking a not-very-visual story and making it engaging. I hired a fantastic motion design artist, Bruce Shaw, and he was able to take the documents and info we had and develop a theme and style that brought you into the time period in a way that was engaging for the viewer. 

Courtesy of Josh Howard

You have toured so many film festivals with The Lavender Scare. What responses have you encountered?

One of the things that always surprised me at film festivals was that during Q&As, after at least half the screenings, someone would stand up and says that they worked for the federal government and were fired. To have these random people stand up and say that they were fired too, it bought this content to a new personal level. 

The film did so well to highlight that it wasn’t just LGBTQ+ people getting fired, but also countless people who didn’t apply for promotions out of fear. 

That’s the thing. So many people ask me for the exact number of people fired because they were gay. It’s impossible to say. So many were asked to resign quietly, so that won’t show up in the numbers. But then there are all those who didn’t get through the background check or all the people who didn’t apply for promotions, so that won’t show up in the numbers. And then there are all the government contractors, so those won’t show up in the numbers. But what numbers can never show is the harm done by publically cementing in people’s minds that LGBTQ people are disloyal and dishonest. That damage is incalculable. I really think this policy did so much more damage than we can estimate. 

Courtesy of Josh Howard

What do you hope viewers will actually do after watching The Lavender Scare?

For the LGBTQ community, what they should do is be vigilant to the political atmosphere that we are in right now. They should take away the lesson that activism and participation in the process is important. The homophobia of the 1950s was a direct reaction against an earlier reaction that was much more friendly to LGBTQ people. We’re going through a time that is alarmingly similar. The community can’t rest on what has been accomplished and say, “We’re done fighting.” There’s a lot more fight to be waged. 

For a broader audience, the film is about this specific time in history, but what’s it’s really about is when politicians demonize a minority group for political purposes. I think that’s very relevant today. When we look back at what the government did to Japanese people during World War II, or look today at discussions about immigrants and caravans and danger that is lurking out there, it’s important to look a those situations through the lens of history. There’s a much broader message here about acceptance, equality, and brotherhood. 

Courtesy of Josh Howard

What would Frank Kameny tell us to do in a state like Ohio, which is lacking in employment protections?

He would tell you to fight on the legal level and the political level: organize, write to your pubic officials, talk to the school boards about getting LGBTQ curricula taught. The more that straight people learn about our history, the more they understand what we are fighting for. I think Frank would be out there knocking on doors and spreading the message. It is incredible that there are 29 states that don’t have legal employment protection based on sexual orientation or gender identity. People assume the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers that, and we will soon see what happens next with the upcoming Supreme Court case. But as far as we have come, there is more fight to be fought, and we were lucky to have a Frank Kameny when we did. He would certainly want us to be keeping up the fight.