Documentary Explores How Gays and Lesbians Were Branded as Security Risks

By: Shane Harris

During the 1950s, US lawmakers and government officials claimed that since homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and shameful, communists would threaten to expose gay and lesbian US government employees if they didn't agree to spy for the Soviet Union. 

"Sex Perverts in Government Said Weak Link as Spy Prey," read one headline at the time. 

Sen. Joseph McCarthy declared, "Homosexuals must not be handling top secret material." 

But a new documentary, The Lavender Scare, explores how US officials actually became blackmailers and extortionists as they tried to root out gay men and lesbians from the ranks of the civil service. An executive order by President Dwight Eisenhower, signed 60 years ago this Saturday, touched off what the filmmakers describe as "a witch hunt" that ended the careers of thousands of people, who were threatened with public exposure if they didn't quit their jobs. But unexpectedly, the purge also set in motion a protest by a few individuals that helped start the modern LGBT rights movement. 

From a national security perspective, it's remarkable how this whole paradigm has flipped. Today, in a society that's vastly more accepting of gays and lesbians, people are considered more trustworthy and less prone to blackmail if they're out of the closet. People who have nothing to hide are harder to turn. I've never heard of someone being asked during a background check whether he or she sleeps with men or women. But over the years, many intelligence officials have remarked to me how, when they began their career, being gay or lesbian was dangerous, but that it's just no longer the case. (An exception: If you're an intelligence officer serving in a region that regards homosexuality as a crime, you'd probably keep your orientation private.) 

You can watch a trailer for the film here. The producers are running a Kickstarter campaign to help finish the production. Full disclosure, a close friend of mine, who has written for The Washingtonian, is an executive producer. But even if he weren't, I'd be drawing attention this movie. This period in history is remarkable for the confluence of human rights, national security, and Cold War paranoia.