Riveting new documentary The Lavender Scare, playing at select LA and New York cinemas now, focuses on the US government’s systematic purge of gay and lesbian federal workers following President Eisenhower’s 1953 declaration that they were a threat to the security of the country and therefore unfit for service.
Producer/Director Josh Howard spoke exclusively to The Queer Review’s James Kleinmann about this shocking period of history and his absorbing new film.
James Kleinmann: How much did you know yourself about this aspect of LGBTQ history before you read David Johnson’s book on which the films is partly based?
Josh Howard: “Well, I really knew nothing about it. I think people who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, as I did, we knew that we had a somewhat of an easier time being gay than the generations that came before, but I had no idea how systematically the government had gone about making life miserable for gay people and I came across David Johnson’s book and I was just amazed as I was reading it.”
And when did the idea occur to you to adapt it into a documentary?
“I was happily retired from a long career in television news, I wasn’t necessarily looking for a project at the time, but as I was reading David’s book I could just see it coming into shape. You know David’s book is based on his PhD thesis and the first half of the book reads like a PhD thesis. I found it interesting, but I didn’t necessarily see a film there, but then later in the book he starts introducing specific characters and telling their stories and focusing on what they went through and how they were treated by the government. And suddenly it was all there in front of me and I thought that this is something I have to do.”
In terms of the figures that you focus on in the documentary, did you interview some of the same people as David? Also, I wondered why you felt it was important to speak to people on both sides of the story, people who were victims of the legislation and those who were carrying it out?
“It’s a great question, because David did not spend much time in his book on the government officials but I just felt like it would be fascinating to hear their point of view all these years later. In a way the stories of the victims, as sad and horrifying as they are, they are kind of predictable; you know, fired from a job, couldn’t get further employment, and so forth. But with the advantage of hindsight I was fascinated to hear what some of these government officials would say and we were lucky enough to be able to track down three of them including the guy who was the number three person in the State department at the time who was specifically responsible for instituting this policy and in a way I found their interviews even more fascinating than the victims’.”
How open were they to be interviewed and how surprised were you that there isn’t really any remorse there at all among any of them?
“Initially I was surprised that they agreed to the interviews, and then further surprised that there was no remorse. A couple of them said they wouldn’t do the same thing today because times are different, but every one of them said that they felt they had done the right thing for that time period.”
There’s that sense that they feel like they were just doing their jobs.
“One of the guys said, in a sound bite that didn’t make it into the film, but I think it says so much, ‘you know, I was a patriot and the President said to do this and was a patriot and I did it, and I’m still a patriot.’”
One thing that struck me about this aside from anything else is the time and resources of the FBI and the police and other government figures that was wasted on this. Something completely unnecessary and so destructive.
“That is one of the things that is amazing. At one point there were over one thousand FBI agents who were assigned specifically to investigating the private lives of people. And you’re absolutely right. You know it’s impossible to calculate the time and money that went into this.”
You touch on this in the film, but what do you think the trickle down effect of this government agenda had in other areas of the lives of gay and lesbian people at the time. I’m thinking about the gay bars being raided, officials being given more licence to do that with more fervour.
“Well, it’s such an interesting point, because beyond the specific policy and the specific number of people that were fired, the actions of the government sent off this wave of homophobia through the entire country. You know in addition to government employees, private companies that held contracts with the government fired their gay workers, the US commanded of all our NATO allies that they conduct purges in their countries, and the Eisenhower administration threatened to cut off all funding to the United Nations if the UN didn’t fire its gay employees. Even beyond that, the official policy of the US government was that gay people are criminals and disloyal and immoral, and that just fermented in people’s minds that image of gay people and so this policy had much more impact than just individuals losing their jobs. It created this whole anti-gay atmosphere in this country.”
And it just went on for so long didn’t it. There was a period when it was really being very focused on, where there were over a thousand people at the FBI investigating, but Eisenhower’s Executive Order was still essentially still in effect until President Clinton’s Executive Order in 1995. Decades.
“It was enforced less and less as time went by, but there were still people being fired in the Nineties. Especially people continued losing their security clearances. In the film we were able to interview the first guy who was allowed to keep his security clearance after the government found out he was gay, largely due to the efforts of Frank Kameny who argued on his behalf. It was a big deal when the news came out that the government allowed an openly gay person to keep his security clearance and that was in the 1980s, which at least in my reference point isn’t that long ago.”
I liked the focus on Frank Kameny in the film, I feel that certainly outside the US and perhaps even within the US, his name isn’t as familiar as it should be. Why do you feel he is significant and presumably you feel like he’s a name that we should all know?
“Absolutely, I think there are few people who contributed more to the gay rights movement than Frank did, he was brilliant, had a PhD in Astronomy from Harvard, incredibly determined and he just believed that he was righty and that the rest of society was wrong. And you know it’s interesting to see how that turned out, because society came around to his way of thinking but it took someone with his personality to be the first one who stood up. Thousands of people had been fired before Frank was, and Frank was the first one to stand up and say ‘this is wrong and I’m going to fight to get my job.’ And that turned into a lifelong fight for the rights of all gay people.”
I suppose other people who had been fired felt that hadn’t got much of a case , as it was the government policy and largely supported by society. As you mention in the film even the ACLU weren’t taking up the case of fired gay men and lesbians, which is surprising.
“No one was fighting for the rights of gay people. It became in the 1952 election a big issue of the Republican party, but the Democrats weren’t standing up either. There was nobody who was fighting for gay people and I think that’s one of the messages of the film, no one else is going to look out for our rights, we have to do that ourselves.”
And social attitudes can change backwards and forwards can’t they depending on who’s in power and other factors. The unintended positive effect is partly what we’ve been talking about, but also the first demonstration of gay and lesbian people outside the White House happened as a result of this legislation .
“It’s kind of amazing because if the government hadn’t fired Frank Kameny he undoubtedly would’ve gone on to a successful career as a scientist, he had dreams of being an astronaut, of being part of the Space Program, but by firing him they created an activist who has played such an important role in the movement. I did speak to a couple of historians on this specific issue and discrimination is never a good thing, but you’re absolutely right, the silver lining here is that it really is the government that created this outrage in the gay community and sowed the seeds of the early parts of the movement.”
I think it’s tempting sometimes to think of things as getting better for LGBTQ people as time goes on. But in the documentary you make the point that in the Thirties DC was was a much more accepting place that it became and in the Navy during World War II it was a relatively accepting environment as well. That’s an interesting aspect of the film.
“Well, I think that’s such an important message, particularly for younger people, that the rights we are enjoying today are not guaranteed to be here tomorrow. As you say the homophobia of the 1950s was a direct backlash against that earlier time when homosexuality was much more widely accepted and I think what we are seeing today in the Trump administration should be sending off alarm bells in the gay community. And I hope people do take notice that social change does not necessarily continue in a straight line and there can be steps back for those steps taken forward. I think it was Mark Twain who was credited with saying ‘history may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes’ and I think we’re in that environment now.”
One thing that I found chilling was that the Eisenhower executive order and Trump’s tweet about firing all trans people from the military seemed to echo each other.
“And it goes beyond that, you know the Trump administration has taken the position that federal civil rights laws don’t apply in cases of sexual orientation, he’s appointed judges who have clear histories of going against the interests of LGBTQ people and the overall religious liberty tone of some of the other initiatives of the administration clearly are sending anti-gay messages.”
There are so many fascinating details in the documentary, one of the things that shocked me was when we find out that one of the women who was fired then went back to studying and won a Fulbright Scholarship to study abroad but was refused a passport because she was labelled a lesbian in her government records. Was there something that you leant while you were making the documentary that particularly stood out for you?
“Well, that story stood out, but the overall issue is something that also was underscored to me. Once the government fired you, they weren’t finished with you, they wanted to make sure that the whole of the rest of your life was ruined. Once it was it was in your record that you had been fired for being gay it was very hard for people to find other jobs. We have a guy who was thrown out of the Navy when he was found to be gay, then years later he was working at a very low level job in another government agency and they were checking his records and realised that he was gay and he was then fired from that job, so it marked you for the rest of your life. And that example that you give is a great example, she wasn’t allowed to get a passport to do a Fulbright scholarship because she had admitted to being a lesbian earlier on.”
I love the black and white photographs that you use, the intimate photographs, I think they’re very powerful. Can you just talk a little bit about sourcing them and deciding which ones to use.
“We got them from several personal archives, there are a couple of websites that collect old photographs and some other collectors were very helpful and you know, I think they just communicated that there were relationships during those times and they were not necessarily known to the public but there have always been gay people in society.”
I love the message that comes across from that. There’s a brilliant voice cast as well, how didn’t that come together?
“Actually the first version of the film did not have celebrities and it was only after we started doing festivals and the film started generating some attention that I started getting letters. It was something I had wanted to do from the beginning, but I really couldn’t find any celebrities who would jump into this project without really seeing what the story was and what I had and how I was going to tell it. So it was really only when I had this first cut of it that I was able to reach out to some connections in my old job and friends that I’d made and I was very lucky that these people saw the value in the film and agreed to contribute to it.”
Just finally, I wondered how important you think it is that LGBTQ history be recorded and known both within the community and also by the wider world.
“I think it’s enormously important and we talked a bit about why it’s important for the LGBTQ community to know its history, but I do think it’s maybe in away more important for our allies to know our history, because that’s I think how we get allies, when people understand what our background is and what we’ve been through. It’s important because then people who don’t support our rights need to know what our history is and recognise that there was a time when gay people were silent and were not standing up for themselves and that time has passed. We now have a history of fighting and that’s what we intend to do.”
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: www.theLavenderScare.com