The Lavender Scare: Joseph McCarthy’s Other Crusade

Joseph McCarthy (left) and Roy Cohn (right) / Library of Congress, Public Domain

This witch-hunt harmed even more people than did the Red Scare, often trying to throw people under both buses.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


The lavender scare refers to a witch hunt and the mass firings of homosexual people in the 1950s from the United States government. It contributed to and paralleled the anti-communist campaign known as McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare.[1]Gay men and lesbians were said to be security risks and communist sympathizers, which led to the call to remove them from state employment.[2]

Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn during the Army–McCarthy hearings / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson has written: “The so-called ‘Red Scare’ has been the main focus of most historians of that period of time. A lesser-known element … and one that harmed far more people was the witch-hunt McCarthy and others conducted against homosexuals.”[3]


The term for this persecution was popularized by David K. Johnson’s 2004 book which studied this anti-homosexual campaign, The Lavender Scare. The book drew its title from the term “lavender lads”, used repeatedly by Senator Everett Dirksen as a synonym for homosexual males. In 1952, Dirksen said that a Republican victory in the November elections would mean the removal of “the lavender lads” from the State Department.[4] The phrase was also used by Confidential magazine, a periodical known for gossiping about the sexuality of politicians and prominent Hollywood stars.[5]



Guy George Gabrielson / Library of Congress, Public Domain

In 1950, the same year that Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed 205 communists were working in the State Department, Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy said that the State Department had allowed 91 homosexuals to resign.[6][7] On April 19, 1950, the Republican National Chairman Guy George Gabrielson said that “sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years” were “perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists”.[8] The danger was not solely because they were gay though. The homosexuals were considered to be more susceptible to blackmail and thus were labeled as security risks.[9] McCarthy hired Roy Cohn—who would later die of AIDS and was accused of being a closeted homosexual[10][11]—as chief counsel of his Congressional subcommittee. Together, McCarthy and Cohn—with the enthusiastic support of the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover—were responsible for the firing of scores of gay men and women from government employment and strong-armed many opponents into silence using rumors of their homosexuality.[12][13][14] In 1953, during the final months of the Truman administration, the State Department reported that it had fired 425 employees for allegations of homosexuality.[15][16][17]

Library of Congress, Public Domain

McCarthy often used accusations of homosexuality as a smear tactic in his anti-communist crusade, often combining the Second Red Scare with the Lavender Scare. On one occasion, he went so far as to announce to reporters, “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be either a Communist or a cocksucker.”[18] At least one recent history has argued that, in linking communism and homosexuality and psychological imbalance, McCarthy was employing guilt-by-association if evidence for communist activity was lacking.[19]

Executive Order 10450

In 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which set security standards for federal employment and barred homosexuals from working in the federal government. The restrictions set in place were cause for hundreds of gay people to be forcibly outed and fired from the State Department. The executive order was also the cause for the firing of approximately 5,000 gay people from federal employment; this included private contractors and military personnel. Not only did the victims lose their jobs, but also they were forced out of the closet and thrust into the public eye as lesbian or gay. Executive Order 10450 stayed on paper and in effect until 1995 when President Bill Clinton rescinded the order and put in place the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for admittance of gays into the military.[20]

Association of Communism with “Subversives”

Library of Congress, Public Domain

Both homosexuals and Communist Party members were seen as subversive elements in American society who all shared the same ideals of antitheism, rejection of bourgeois culture and middle-class morality, lack of conformity; they were scheming and manipulative and, most importantly, would put their own agendas above others in the eyes of the general population.[21] McCarthy also associated homosexuality and communism as “threats to the ‘American way of life’.”[22] Homosexuality was directly linked to security concerns, and more government employees were dismissed because of their homosexual sexual orientation than because they were left-leaning or communist. George Chauncey noted that: “The specter of the invisible homosexual, like that of the invisible communist, haunted Cold War America,” and homosexuality (and by implication homosexuals themselves) were constantly referred to not only as a disease, but also as an invasion, like the perceived danger of communism and subversives.[23]

Senator Kenneth Wherry similarly attempted to invoke a connection between homosexuality and anti-nationalism. He said in an interview with Max Lerner that: “You can’t hardly separate homosexuals from subversives.” Later in that same interview, he drew the line between patriotic Americans and gay men: “But look Lerner, we’re both Americans, aren’t we? I say, let’s get these fellows [closeted gay men in government positions] out of the government.”[24]

While the Mattachine Society was founded by Harry Hay, a former member of the Communist Party USA, Hay resigned from the society when the membership condemned his politics as a threat to the organization he had founded.[25]

Subcommittee on Investigations

Senator Clyde R. Hoey / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

The Subcommittee on Investigations was a subcommittee of the Committee on Expenditures in Executive Departments. This subcommittee led by Senator Clyde R. Hoey from 1949–1952 investigated “the employment of homosexuals in the Federal workforce.”[26] A related report, known as the Hoey Report, stated that all of the government’s intelligence agencies “are in complete agreement that sex perverts in Government constitute security risks.”[27]

Contemporary Views of Homosexuality

Washington D.C. had a fairly large and active gay community before McCarthy launched his witch hunt campaign against homosexuals, but as time went on and the climate of the Cold War spread, so too did the negative views of homosexuals.[2] Because social attitudes toward homosexuality were overwhelmingly negative and the psychiatric community regarded homosexuality as a mental disorder, gay men and lesbians were considered susceptible to blackmail, thus constituting a security risk. U.S. government officials assumed that communists would blackmail homosexual employees of the federal government to provide them classified information rather than risk exposure.[28] The 1957 Crittenden Report of the United States Navy Board of Inquiry concluded that there was “no sound basis for the belief that homosexuals posed a security risk” and criticized the prior Hoey Report: “No intelligence agency, as far as can be learned, adduced any factual data before that committee with which to support these opinions” and said that “the concept that homosexuals necessarily pose a security risk is unsupported by adequate factual data.”[29] The Crittenden Report remained secret until 1976. Navy officials claimed they had no record of studies of homosexuality, but attorneys learned of its existence and obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request.[30] As of September 1981, the Navy claimed it was still unable to fulfill a request for the Report’s supporting documentation.[31]

According to John Loughery, author of a study of gay identity in the 20th century, “few events indicate how psychologically wracked America was becoming in the 1950s … than the presumed overlap of the Communist and the homosexual menace.”[21]

Evelyn Hooker / Wikimedia Commons

The research of Evelyn Hooker, presented in 1956, and the first conducted without a polluted sample (gay men who had been treated for mental illness) dispelled the illusory correlation between homosexuality and mental illness that prior research, conducted with polluted sampling, had established. Hooker presented a team of three expert evaluators with 60 unmarked psychological profiles from her year of research. She chose to leave the interpretation of her results to others, to avoid potential bias. The evaluators concluded that in terms of adjustment, there were no differences between the members of each group. Her demonstration that it is not an illness led the way to the eventual removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.[32]


One of the first and most influential members of the gay rights movements, Frank Kameny, was thrust into unemployment because of his sexual orientation in 1957. He was working as an astronomer for the United States Army Map Service, but was fired as a result of the Lavender Scare and could never find another job in the United States federal government again. This led to Kameny devoting his life to the gay rights movement, which in some ways he began. In 1965, four years before the Stonewall Riots, Kameny picketed the White House on the grounds of gay rights.[33]

According to Lillian Faderman, the LGBT community formed a subculture of its own in this era, constituting “not only a choice of sexual orientation, but of social orientation as well.” They were underground organizations that maintained the anonymity of their members.[21]


Though the main vein of McCarthyism ended in the mid-1950s when the 1956 Cole v Young ruling severely weakened the ability to fire people from the federal government for discriminatory reasons,[34]the movement that was born from it, the Lavender Scare, lived on. One such way was that Executive Order 10450, which was not rescinded until 1995, continued to bar gays from entering the military.[20]Another form of the Lavender Scare that persisted was the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, also referred to as the FLIC and the Johns Committee. The FLIC was founded in 1956 and was not disbanded until 1964. The purpose of the committee was to operate within Florida continuing the work of the Lavender Scare by investigating and firing public school teachers who were gay. During its active years the FLIC was responsible for more than 200 firings of alleged gay teachers. The FLIC was disbanded following the release of the Purple Pamphlet due to public outrage over its explicit and pornographic nature.[35]

In January 2017, the State Department formally apologized.[36]



  1. “An interview with David K. Johnson author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government” The University of Chicago. 2004. The Lavender Scare helped fan the flames of the Red Scare. In popular discourse, communists and homosexuals were often conflated. Both groups were perceived as hidden subcultures with their own meeting places, literature, cultural codes, and bonds of loyalty. Both groups were thought to recruit to their ranks the psychologically weak or disturbed. And both groups were considered immoral and godless. Many people believed that the two groups were working together to undermine the government.
  2. Johnson, David K. (2004). The Lavender Scare. Chicago University Press.
  3. Simpson, Alan K.; McDaniel, Rodger (2013). “Prologue”. Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt. WordsWorth Press. p. x.
  4. Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, 2nd ed. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 44; Byron C. Hulsey, Everett Dirksen and his Presidents: How a Senate Giant Shaped American Politics(University Press of Kansas, 2000), 48–9
  5. Samuel Bernstein, “Lavender Lads Bartone Babes”, The Advocate, February 27, 2007. On the association of a variety colors with homosexuality, see Venetia Newall, “Folklore and Male Homosexuality”, Folklore, vol. 97, no. 2, 1986, 126
  6. Representative Miller (NE). “Homosexuals in Government.” Congressional Record 96:4 (March 29, 1950), H4527
  7. “THAILAND: Smiling Jack”Time. August 22, 1955.
  8. “Perverts Called Government peril”. April 19, 1950.
  9. “Today in history: State Department reveals purge of 91 homosexuals”Daily Kos. Retrieved 2016-03-21.
  10. “Roy Cohn, Aide to McCarthy and Fiery Lawyer, Dies at 59” Retrieved 21 March2018.
  11. Nicholas von Hoffman (March 1988). “Life Magazine – The Snarling Death of Roy M. Cohn – 905w-000-035”
  12. Johnson, David K. (2004). The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. University of Chicago Press. 22.
  13. Rodger McDaniel, Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt(WordsWorth, 2013)
  14. White, William S. (May 20, 1950). “Inquiry by Senate on Perverts Asked” (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved December 29, 2014.
  15. “The Legacy of Discriminatory State Laws, Policies, and Practices, 1945–Present” (PDF). Williams Institute, UCLA.
  16. “126 Perverts Discharged”New York Times. March 26, 1952. Retrieved December 29, 2014.
  17. Berard, Lauren B., “Something Changed: The Social and Legal Status of Homosexuality in America as Reported by The New York Times” (2014). Honors Theses. Paper 357. Archived 2014-09-14 at the Wayback Machine
  18. Cuordileone, K.A. “‘Politics in an Age of Anxiety’: Cold War Political Culture and the Crisis in American Masculinity, 1949–1960” The Journal of American History 87 (2) (2000): 515–545
  19. Damousi, Joy; Plotkin, Mariano Ben (5 January 2012). Psychoanalysis and Politics: Histories of Psychoanalysis Under Conditions of Restricted Political Freedom. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 221.
  20. “Clinton Issued Order Letting Gays Get Security Clearances 16 Years Ago Today”ThinkProgress. Retrieved 2016-03-21.
  21. Prono, Luca. “McCarthyism” (PDF).
  22. Carlson, Dennis. “Gayness, multicultural education, and community.” Beyond black and white: New faces and voices in the U.S. Schools (1997): 233–256.
  23. Field, Douglas, ed. American cold war culture. Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
  24. Lerner, Max, The Unfinished Country: A Book of American Symbols Simon and Schuster, 1959 pp 313–316
  25. Lillian Faderman; Stuart Timmons (2006). Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians. Basic Books. p. 113.
  26. “Executive Session Hearing of the Subcommittee on Investigations”National Archives and Record Administration. 1950.
  27. Johnson, David K. (2004). The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: University of Chicago. pp. 114–5.
  28. Ayyar, Raj (January 1, 2004). “Historian David K. Johnson: Exposes the U.S. Government’s Anti-Gay Crusades”Gay Today. Retrieved May 8, 2015.
  29. Bérubé, 282. The Report is dated December 21, 1956, to March 15, 1957.
  30. Gibson, 356–67; Bérubé, 278
  31. Bérubé, 283; Haggerty, 45n38
  32. “Evelyn Hooker, Ph.D.: September 2, 1907 – November 18, 1996”. UC Davis. Retrieved April 23, 2011.
  33. “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David K. Johnson (2006)” Retrieved 2016-03-21.
  34. “Cole v. Young, 351 U.S. 536 (1956)” Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  35. “The Committee Documentary”. Archived from the original on 2016-03-29. Retrieved 2016-03-21.
  36. “State Department Apologizes for the “Lavender Scare”, Jason Daley. Smithsonian. January 10, 2017. Retrieved 5 feb 2017

Further Reading

Originally published by Wikipedia, 09.14.2017, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



%d bloggers like this: