LGBT discrimination and “The Lavender Scare”


By Michelle Zenarosa

The year was 1950 and a young Madeline Tress found herself in an office with civil service authorities. 

The first question Tress was asked: “The commission has information that you are an admitted homosexual. What comment do you wish to make regarding this matter?”

No matter what her answer was, it was too late. The FBI had already questioned a whole slew of Tress’ coworkers, acquaintances, and neighbors, some of which implicated her as having homosexual tendencies. Although she had never admitted to being a lesbian, she was ultimately asked to resign from her job.  

Tress was among many who were questioned during the Lavender Scare, a Cold War campaign in the 1950s that led to the firing of thousands of government employees who were under the suspicion of being gay.

David K. Johnson, associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, reveals more about the little-known era in his book The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government


“It was a dark time,” he said.

Driven by a group of Republican congressmen, the Lavender Scare ran parallel to the McCarthy-era Red Scare against communists. It labeled gays and lesbians as national security threats, calling them “perverts” who were vulnerable to blackmail.

“It was in the 1950s that the Republican Party learned how to use the issue of moral family values to win elections by painting opponents as sympathetic to and fostering immorality,” Johnson said. “Today, the Democratic Party is pro-contraception; in 1950, it was pro-homosexuals in the government.”

“The debate today of gay marriage is a far cry from 50 years ago,” Johnson said.  “But even in the current lawsuits against gay marriage, one of the important elements that we need to prove is a history of discrimination against gay people. This is one of the many reasons it’s important to tell these stories.”

Although much has changed with gay inclusion in government employment since then, there is still no federal law barring discrimination against LGBT persons. In many states, it is still legal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.


“There are some protections and they are important, but they aren’t explicit and clear that discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation is a violation of federal law,” said Jennifer Pizer, legal director at the Williams Institute, which specializes in sexual orientation and gender identity law. “It’s necessary for both workers and employers that the language is explicit and clear so that they can be followed.”

A documentary based on Johnson’s book The Lavender Scare is set to hit film festivals this fall. To find out more, visit the site here.

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