Imagine a time where America was held in the grip of total fear. It was a fear of an enemy nation. It would be a time before the Internet, before the instant dissemination of news, where the only news the people could receive would be from radio, a very primitive broadcast system for television, and newspapers. It was a time of ignorance. That’s when the U.S. government first declared war on anything deemed “un-American,” and at that time the biggest un-American threat was Communism. Under the witch-trials conducted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Americans were gripped by something known as “The Red Scare,” in which hearings were conducted against people who, not necessarily through any fault of their own, had some indirect contact with either a Communist or some sort of Communism philosophy. Then, shortly after Eisenhower became President, McCarthy continued his witch-hunt, because what better thing is there than to whip the people up into unity, and fear, than by having someone, or some people, made a target for persecution. Thus began The Lavender Scare.
This documentary,The Lavender Scare, is taken from a book by David K. Johnson and directed by Josh Howard. It starts right at the beginning of when the Lavender Scare began with Eisenhower announcing that all homosexuals working in government positions would be terminated from their jobs as part of the standards established the New Employee Security Program. That would be more than 2000 people who lost their jobs, and it all stemmed from the fear that gay men and women were security risks and could be made to serve anti-American interests. What follows then is a series of interviews from surviving people in the LGBTQ community who became victims of this form of persecution. Narrated by Glenn Close, and adding the voice-over work of Zachary Quinto, David Hyde Pierce, TR Knight, and Cynthia Nixon, a tapestry is woven together that delivers a story that is something of a gut-punch in American history.
Watching this documentary garnered two reactions from me. The first was a peculiar form of interest in the inner, albeit twisted, workings of the government that allowed for this type of witch-hunt to even take place. The second reaction was one of utter disgust because of the innocent lives that were ruined, especially when it is shown that at some time earlier there were people flocking to Washington DC because of enormous job opportunities that were suddenly available, ranging from simple clerks to men of science and women in the military. What The Lavender Scare shows is how so many of these people had their careers taken from them, and their lives ruined. One tragic story is that of Joan Cassidy, who while in the military received a phone call and said that she had been selected to be a Captain, which at the time was the highest rank a woman could hold in the Navy Reserve. Shortly after her promotion there was an attempt to try to make her the first female Admiral, however her fear of someone discovering “her secret” through an investigation stopped her from pursuing that promotion. As badly as she wanted that prestige, the fear of what that witch-hunt might bring upon her stopped her dead in her tracks. But as bad as that story is, the documentary shows that this Lavender Scare went so far as to cause a gay man, Andrew Ference, to ultimately take his own life because of this exposure. None of these details are to be considered spoilers for this documentary. These are matters of historical fact, and yet to hear how the survivors are affected, or even the surviving family members of Andrew Ference are affected, the details that are communicated are beyond that of simply being shocking. They are horrifying all because someone in the U.S. government viewed the homosexual community as the boogey-man.
Documentaries are there to inform, educate, and to generate conversation. The Lavender Scare does just that. Through painstaking research in finding these people and getting them to tell their stories, The Lavender Scare paints a picture that is both terrifying, and somewhat triumphant. To know that in our own history that certain political leaders would engage in trials of persecution based out of paranoia is more than just disturbing to say the least. It was the gut-punch that I referred to earlier. The Lavender Scare is brilliantly shot, beautifully edited, and its message is more than competently told. However, because it does deliver that gut-punch with its message, it makes The Lavender Scare more than just a compelling documentary that everyone should see, “for those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
The Lavender Scare will be playing at The Avalon Theater in Washington DC on June 5th, followed by The Tropic Cinema in Key West FL on June 6th. It then opens in theaters on June 7th.