HRC Blog

The 60th Anniversary of The Lavender Scare: Don’t Forget About LGBT Workplace Discrimination

Post submitted by Josh Howard, Director/Producer of an upcoming documentary, The Lavender Scare

Lavender ScareDid you know that this year marks the 60th anniversary of a witch-hunt against the LGBT community that was as aggressive and vicious as any in modern American history?

Not many people know the story of The Lavender Scare, but it lasted longer and was arguably far more ruinous in many ways than the more famous McCarthy Era Red Scare. It’s intrinsically linked to the origins of the LGBT movement following the federal government's vicious witch-hunt of LGBT employees that was launched 60 years ago this month and reverberates in ongoing employment discrimination today.

On April 27, 1953, President Eisenhower signed an executive order that outlawed the employment of LGBT individuals in the federal government.  Over the next three decades, FBI and other federal agents hunted down thousands of LGBT workers who were summarily fired from their jobs.  Careers were ruined, lives destroyed, and more than a few committed suicide rather than be exposed to their families.  Some, like Dr. Frank Kameny, courageously fought back and, eventually, the federal government put into place nondiscrimination measures to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers.  President Obama’s administration formally apologized to Kameny in 2009, more than 50 years after he lost his government job for being gay.  But even today, there is no federal law protecting LGBT workers in the private sector, and no state law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in 29 states, and none outlawing gender identity-based bias in 34 states. 

It’s astounding to consider, especially after our current president just included the fight for LGBT equality in his inaugural address, and forever stamped the significance of the gay rights movement’s galvanizing Stonewall Riots into a trifecta of social movement beginnings, alongside the African American civil rights standoff in Selma and the women’s rights movement’s groundbreaking convention in Seneca Falls.

To quote President Obama: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”

Beyond its relevance to the historic struggles of the LGBT community, The Lavender Scare reminds us to pay attention to the facts facing us today.

LGBT people face serious discrimination in employment, including being fired, being denied a promotion, and experiencing harassment on the job. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would provide basic protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

This is why the story of The Lavender Scare is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago and why I hope we ramp up the fight against LGBT employment discrimination.  Let’s make the anniversary count.

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