Film Review: The Lavender Scare ★★★★

As I sit here, in 2019, wearing a Kylie Minogue t-shirt, staring at a bookshelf littered with queer literature, fashion biographies and tasteful portfolios of homo-erotic art, there is no doubt to the world around me that I am a homosexual. Trust me, my Netflix and Amazon algorithms are well aware. While watching filmmaker Josh Howard’s The Lavender Scare (adapted from David Johnson’s book) you can’t help but think about the “what if” scenario. What if I had been born earlier, into a more homophobic time? What would I do if I were fired from my job for being gay?

The Lavender Scare is a journey through the earliest moments of the Gay Rights movement, pre-AIDS, pre-Stonewall. Back to the 1950s when President Eisenhower instigated a witch-hunt for gays and lesbians in the U.S. government. Over the next forty years, tens of thousands of government employees would lose their jobs as homophobia was given a patriotic make-over.

As Eisenhower sought to remove homosexuals from government service over fictitious security risks (it is noted than there were never any known cases of gays or lesbians being blackmailed to betray their government), a generation was forced deeper into the closet. The film narrates a series of accusations that were used to force resignations based on the most flimsy and superficial evidence (“Miss Wilson is a rather unattractive person physically and somewhat masculine in appearance. She must be a Lesbian.”).

These moments are brought to cinematic life through a mix of archive footage, recent interviews and the voices of David Hyde Pierce, Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto and TR Knight, with narration by Glenn Close and some terrific motion graphics by Bruce Shaw.

The toll of these forced resignations and pubic outings is not hard to predict, many were deemed unemployable, some would commit suicide. However, one man would not take his situation lying down and in doing so became the “grandfather of the gay rights movement.”

Frank Kameny stood up and declared:

“If society and I differ on something, I’m willing to give the matter a second look. If we still differ, then I am right, and society is wrong, and society can go on its way as long as it doesn’t get in my way. But if it does, there’s going to be a fight, and I’m not going to be the one who backs down.”

Kameny had a PhD from Harvard in Astronomy and, with the space race beginning, was fired from the Army Map Service for being gay. His determination to fight this injustice lead him to start a Washington chapter of the fledgling gay rights group, the Mattachine Society, and start public protests – giving queer people a proud face and an angry voice.

Producer/Director Josh Howard with Dr. Franklin Kameny during a 2010 filming for The Lavender Scare.
Producer/Director Josh Howard with Dr. Franklin Kameny during a 2010 filming for The Lavender Scare.

As much as this is a documentary is about our gay history, the parallels to this modern political moment are hard to miss. As right-wing populism rises up, gays and lesbian ‘purges’ taking place in Eastern Europe, British political figures talking of deporting people with HIV and Trump’s attacks on trans-rights – we are not far off living in a world where previously supportive civil structures are no longer our allies. A campaign poster promoting the “God-fearing” ticket of Eisenhower and Nixon saying “A vote for Ike and Dick is a vote for morality” would not look out of place in America’s 2020 campaign.

The Lavender Scare ends on a note of triumph, as Presidents Clinton and Obama honour Kameny for his life’s work fighting injustice, but my mind is plagued with more “what ifs”. If we enter a right-wing era what becomes of us now? What happens when our polite allies fall away to public pressure? What if our data is used against us? What would I do if I lived through the Lavender Scare myself? Thankfully we have documents of our own history like this to help guide the way.

For more on Frank Kameny, check out the brilliant podcast “Making Gay History”.

THE LAVENDER SCARE opens theatrically in New York (Cinema Village) and Los Angeles (Laemmle Music Hall) this Friday 7th June 2019 with a national US release to follow. For more information on the film and up to date screening details head to:

Coming soon: The Queer Review’s exclusive interview with The Lavender Scare’s producer/director Josh Howard. 

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