Fellow Travelers: What was the Lavender Scare?

We’ve all seen the thirst trap edits of Fellow Travelers stars Jonathan Bailey and Matt Bomer, but did you know the important historical context behind one of the year’s hottest shows – and the backstory of the Lavender Scare?

Known as the Lavender Scare, it began in the late 1940s and referred to the moral panic concerning mainly gay men, but also lesbians, taking up posts in the US government. Regarded as security risks, communists as well as and gays (never mind gender-diverse folk) were seen as unfit to work in the field.

The idea was fuelled to a great degree by staunch Republican senator Joseph McCarthy – alongside his attack dog, lawyer Roy Cohn (himself gay) – who believed that both groups had “peculiar mental twists.” These sentiments sparked investigations which saw up to 10,000 people lose their jobs, sometimes simply for being suspected of being gay.

On 9 February 1950, McCarthy delivered his now-infamous speech in which he claimed to have a list of 205 known Communists working at the State Department. Two were said to be gay.

Little more than a week later, deputy under-secretary of state John Peurifoy, testified before a sub-committee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations that the State Department had fired 91 homosexual employees, referred to as “moral weaklings”, seen as security risks.

Between late March and May 1950, Republican senator Kenneth Wherry and his Democrat counterpart J. Lister Hill began the first major investigation, hearing testimony from lieutenant Roy Blick, the head of the DC Metropolitan Police Department’s vice squad.

According to Blick, 5,000 gay men lived in Washington DC – and he claimed that approximately 3,700 of them were employed by the federal government. Though speculative, these figures were widely reported by the media.

Wherry and Hill also questioned numerous government officials across the State Department, the Defense Department, the Civil Service Commission and military intelligence.

Later on, a second investigation took place under the Hoey Committee. McCarthy was part of the sub-committee but didn’t expressly take part this time, although he did frequently forward material concerning those he suspected of being LGBTQ+ to investigators.

Investigations and the scare rumbled on well in the 1960s and didn’t officially end 1975 when the Civil Service Commission announced new rules stating that gay people could no longer be barred or fired from federal employment because of their sexuality, according to Judith Adkins, from the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington DC.

However, to this day, there remains a lack of LGBTQ+ representation in US government posts. Fewer than four per cent of voting members in the 118th Congress are out as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and we’re yet to see a trans person serve at all.

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