‘The Lavender Scare’ Review: PBS Doc Is an Enraging Look at Government-Sanctioned Homophobia

This eye-opening film about the discrimination of gays and lesbians during the Cold War premieres Tuesday, June 18 on PBS.
"The Lavender Scare"
"The Lavender Scare"

As Pride month is in full swing, Josh Howard’s award-winning documentary “The Lavender Scare” premieres nationwide to address a little-known part of LGBTQ history in America. Narrated by Glenn Close and based on David K. Johnson’s book “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government,” the doc reveals how President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy carried out a systematic witch hunt to root out and remove gay men and lesbians from government and security positions.

Treated with just as much suspicion and unfounded fear as communists targeted in the Red Scare, more than 10,000 queer people were fired or forced to resign as a result of this Lavender Scare. Beyond losing their livelihoods, this had a much longer-lasting and far-reaching effect. As with the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Japanese internment, the executive order against gay and lesbian people amounted to a government-sanctioned discrimination that was perpetuated for decades and can still be felt in society’s attitudes today. The eye-opening documentary should be required viewing to understand how homophobia and persecution were supported by a government that can and should be challenged.

The Emmy-winning Howard cut his teeth on “60 Minutes” and also produced award-winning docs about American business for CNBC, and therefore he handles Johnson’s research methodically, starting with the post-Great Depression era hiring boom, to Eisenhower’s executive order during the Cold War, and through to the late 1980s. A wealth of documentation is offered – old photographs, legal records, audio recordings, news footage, TV reports, etc. – to provide the necessary weight.

The documentary gives a decent overview of how events unfolded on the government side, but it doesn’t have time to dig into the atmosphere of paranoia or examine why people accepted two widely-held beliefs: that homosexuality is an illness, and that closeted gay people are susceptible to blackmail. In fact, the executive order hinged on the idea that gay people would betray their country to protect their so-called secret shame, even though there’s no evidence that had ever happened.

"The Lavender Scare"
“The Lavender Scare”PBS

The film succeeds, however, in highlighting a handful of personalities to create an emotional impact. First-person interviews – some of them archival in the case of deceased persons – and accounts by relatives provide the personal testimonies of those affected by the order and give the historical events a face. Many of these accounts are enraging, and one is particularly heartbreaking, especially when one considers the wasted lives and talents of those persecuted for being gay. Occasionally, noted gay and lesbian celebrities David Hyde Pierce, T.R. Knight, Cynthia Nixon, and Zachary Quinto provide voiceovers to help bring these people’s words to life.

While there are several takeaways from the film, viewers should remember one name if they don’t already know it: Frank Kameny. As one of the thousands dismissed from his job in the ’50s for his homosexuality, he was the one person who decided to fight back and became a driving force to effect change in the gay rights movement. One of the narrative techniques Howard uses the most in relation to Kameny is voiceover to accompany words being typed on a page. These encompass Kameny’s numerous letter-writing campaigns to members of Congress – one of the many grassroots practices he utilized to draw attention to the movement.

“I am right; the world will have to change because I won’t,” he wrote to his mother to declare his intent to overturn the discriminatory policy.

Letter writing and picketing Congress are the tried and true methods for activism that are still employed today, but Howard’s focus on the typed words and the resulting stamped envelopes highlight Kemeny’s laborious process. This is not an age of Copy+Paste of retweet slacktivism. Kameny’s activism takes conviction and dedication. It takes decades. It’s inspiring and humbling at once to see how change can be made, even by a small group of people, no matter how slowly.

Frank Kameny picketing, "The Lavender Scare"
Frank Kameny picketing in “The Lavender Scare”PBS

Howard is even-handed in his interviews, allowing high-ranking enforcers – those who investigated gay people and removed them from their jobs – a voice. No judgment is made in the editing, and he instead allows them to express their own view without commentary. The documentary, however, is mainly a white and binary narrative, which feels like a missed opportunity to address the intersectionality of race and sexuality and other dimensions of queer identities. This is yet another instance where the film’s short runtime seems to have shortchanged the depth of reporting.

Overall, “The Lavender Scare” is good jumping-off point to learn about the modern gay rights movement in America to show that it’s not a recent phenomenon. It does feel that it could have benefited from more chapters in the story to better delve into the horrors that the LGBTQ faced in light of the discrimination.

What details are included, however, are enough to spark outrage about how narratives of fear have caused this country to turn on its own hard-working people. “The Lavender Scare” doesn’t draw any overt parallels to today’s divisive climate and anxiety; nor does it need to. The message is clear not just about history repeating itself but possibly regressing to socially harmful and unjust ways.

Grade: B

“The Lavender Scare” premieres Tuesday, June 18 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS.

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