When Sen. Joseph McCarthy started the House of Un-American Activities Committee, outing communists was not the panel’s only objective.
In The Lavender Scare, David K. Johnson details how the committee forced the firings of gays and lesbians from government positions in the 1950s and 1960s.
Johnson, a visiting history professor at USF, spoke about his book at the Tomes & Treasures bookstore on S. Howard Avenue on Sunday evening.
Johnson said the committee had a sharp opinion about homosexuality.
The panel surmised that those accused were “converting American youth to homosexuality to defeat America from within,” Johnson said, “and the committee members deemed homosexuality a threat to national security.”
The committee said homosexuals were judged to be more vulnerable to blackmail from communists and thus more of a threat to national security.
The hearings on homosexuality are not as well known as those on communism due to the lack of public access to the proceedings.
“Hearings about homosexual activities were held behind closed doors,” Johnson said. “(The) non-publicized meetings (were held) in the private interrogation rooms of various government offices.”
He said employment was subject to conditions of security investigations. In April of 1958, 24-year-old Madeleine Tress, a business economist in the Commerce Department, was questioned about homosexual activities. Investigators asked her subtle questions about her social life, such as what establishments she frequented and if she knew certain people connected to the homosexual community in Washington D.C.
Figuring that visiting establishments and meeting with people linked to the homosexual community did not represent illegal activities, Johnson said Tress answered these questions honestly.
She was then berated with questions about her own sexuality, including “How do you like to have sex with women?”
The investigator then followed up that question with the comment, “You’ve never had good it until you’ve had it from a man.”
Johnson said Tress deemed the experience “the most demeaning of her life,” and she submitted her resignation the next day. Johnson states in the book, “Tress thought this was what it must have been like in Nazi Germany.”
Lower-level government officials weren’t the only people suspected of homosexuality with little or no evidence to back the suspicions. Johnson remarked that when former Vice President Adlai Stevenson was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1952, many Republicans supposed that he was homosexual because he was divorced and had a “fruity voice.” These rumors were unsubstantiated, according to Johnson.
Johnson said the purge on gays was not an isolated event, but more a reaction to the 1920s and ’30s, when homosexuality was more open and outward in American society. He said people in the ’50s said Washington “used to be a very gay city,” and the hearings about homosexual activity were a response to the more candid gay and lesbian communities earlier in the 20th century.
Here in Florida, homosexuals were also stigmatized in the 1950s and ’60s. Johnson made reference to the Johns Committee, a panel headed by former State Senator Charley Johns that tried to link civil rights organizations to communist activities. Many employees of Florida’s State University System were forced to leave because the Johns Committee, Johnson said.
Johnson doesn’t want readers to see the book as a depressing story, but as one that marks inspired activism.
He added that Frank Cameny, one of the people forced from his position because of the purge, “didn’t take his ouster lying down.”
In 1961, Cameny, who had a Ph. D. in astronomy from Harvard, started the Madison Society in Washington. The group adopted many of the tactics and rhetoric of the black civil rights struggle to fight for the rights of gays and lesbians.
He said The Lavender Scare is a cautionary tale about a situation that he hopes won’t happen again. He does, however, feel that some of the strategies used today to deal with immigrants are reminiscent of those used during McCarthyism.
“In both cases, people were charged with offenses in the name of national security,” Johnson said.