'The Lavender Scare': Film Review

The Lavender Scare_Frank Kameny picketing-Publicity Still-H 2019
Full Exposure Films
This powerful doc is sadly all too relevant.

Josh Howard's documentary chronicles the aftermath of President Eisenhower's 1953 executive order banning gays and lesbians from working for the U.S. government.

Josh Howard's documentary sheds a valuable spotlight on the U.S. government's shameful history of anti-gay discrimination. Based on David K. Johnson's 2004 book, The Lavender Scare deepens its historical account with moving portraits of several individuals whose lives were personally affected by the repressive policies. Perfectly timed for theatrical release during LGBTQ Pride Month, the film will achieve even greater exposure when it airs on public television in a few weeks.

Much like the Red Scare, the Lavender Scare was precipitated by panicked reactions to the tensions of the Cold War. The documentary begins with 1953 footage of President Dwight D. Eisenhower announcing the signing of an executive order essentially banning gays and lesbians from working for the federal government. The ostensible reason was that they were considered to be security risks because of their presumed susceptibility to blackmail, although virtually no evidence of such a situation had or has ever sprung up.

The ensuing witch hunt resulted in many people having their once promising careers derailed. Madeleine Tress, 24 years old at the time, was an economist working for the Dept. of Commerce who lost her job because she was suspected of being a lesbian. The FBI report on her mentioned such things as her "not being at all feminine" and not wearing any lipstick. Carl Rizzi was a secretary at the Postal Department when he was investigated and photographed in a drag bar wearing women's clothing. Interviewed in the film, he amusingly recalls his defiant response to his questioners, telling them he had much more attractive pictures of himself if they were interested.

A decade earlier, the onset of World War II ironically led to many gays and lesbians meeting because they were thrown together after being drafted or enlisting. Such was the case with Joan Cassidy, who followed in her family's footsteps by joining the U.S. Navy. She managed to rise to the rank of captain in the Navy Reserve, but decided to avoid pursuing her goal of becoming an admiral because of her fear that her sexuality would be exposed.

Perhaps the saddest story is that of Andrew Ference, a 34-year-old State Department employee at the U.S. embassy in Paris who was interrogated for two days about his relationship with his roommate. Under pressure, Ference admitted to a romantic relationship with the man, who also worked at the embassy. Ference killed himself a few days later.

Among the film's villains are Peter Szluk, a State Department investigator and self-described "hatchet man" who, as we hear in a vintage audio clip from an interview, clearly relished his role in ridding the government of "sodomites." He doesn't even seem particularly bothered when relating how some of the people he investigated wound up killing themselves. Then there's John W. Hanes, a State Department official who wrote a letter to a prominent gay rights activist in which he defended the government's actions by saying that homosexuality is "a behavior which our society considers undesirable and does not accept."

That activist was Dr. Franklin E. Kameny, whom the film describes as "the grandfather of the gay rights movement." Kameny was a prominent young astronomer working for the government who, unlike so many others, decided to fight back after being fired. Deciding that the national gay rights organization the Mattachine Society wasn't sufficiently activist, he founded a Washington, D.C., branch and organized mass protests, insisting that everyone participating be dressed appropriately so as not to add fuel to their opponents' bigotry. Eight years later, the Stonewall Uprising led to a nationwide gay rights movement that ultimately resulted in Bill Clinton issuing an executive order reversing Eisenhower's.

As a framing device, the film uses effectively excerpts from Kameny's letters to his mother describing his progress, read in colorful fashion by David Hyde Pierce. Among the other celebrities who lend their voices to the documentary are Glenn Close, who narrates, and Cynthia Nixon, Zachary Quinto and T.R. Knight.

Running a brisk 75 minutes, this is one of those rare documentaries that feels too short. Some of its stories could have been more fleshed out, greater historical context could have been provided, and its use of such musical selections as Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" are beyond cliche. But these are small quibbles about a film that should be essential viewing in these times when intolerance is on the rise. A chilling coda informs us that in 2017, then-Secretary of State John Kerry delivered an official apology to those who had been unfairly terminated, but that just days after Donald Trump assumed the presidency, the notice was removed from the State Department's website.

Production/distributor: Full Exposure Films
Narrator: Glenn Close
Director-producer: Josh Howard
Executive producers: Betsy West, Kevin Jennings, Andrew Tobias
Director of photography: Richard White
Editor: Bruce Shaw
Composer: Joel Goodman

75 minutes