In American history, the phrase “the Red Scare” conjures up images of Joseph McCarthy speeches and blacklisted celebrities, but a new step has been taken to give “the Lavender Scare” a similar resonance.
The term refers to the 1950s panic that lead to thousands of homosexual federal employees losing their jobs – a topic USF history professor David Johnson detailed in his 2004 book “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Lesbians and Gays in the Government.”
Now, former “60 Minutes” producer and director Josh Howard will adapt Johnson’s work into a feature-length documentary film.
Howard said that he had discovered the book while browsing Amazon and decided it was a largely unexplored historical era worth capturing on celluloid.
“It just seemed like it was crying out to be made into a film,” Howard said. “It’s a fascinating story I didn’t know much about, and when I looked into it, I discovered that he was really the first person to put all this together.”
Howard said that he plans to film during the summer and fall in hopes of completion early next year – when the feature can enter the film festival circuit and find a distributing studio. In the approaching weeks, he wants to shoot preliminary interviews.
Among these early interviews will be gay rights activist Frank Kameny. Kameny was fired from his Army Map Service astronomer job in 1957 because of his sexual orientation – which led him to appeal his dismissal, start picket lines and conduct other protests.
Johnson said that his own interest in the topic began while working in Washington, D.C., when he learned about Kameny’s past experiences and archived papers.
“I discovered his attic in his house, where he kept all of his documents – documenting his struggle with the federal government, founding an early gay rights group in the ’60s … boxes and boxes full of historical material,” Johnson said.
The story will follow three chronological acts, according to the movie’s website.
First, gays and lesbians traveled along with thousands of other Americans to Washington, D.C., to find federal government jobs in the 1930s.
Then, in 1950, Undersecretary of the State John Puerifoy claimed that 91 homosexuals had been found in the State Department – leading to the purges of suspected homosexuals in federal employment and newspaper headlines that decried these “sex perverts.”
Finally by the early ’60s, Kameny and other activists began to fight back.
One early challenge, Howard said, was deciding how to include “The Lavender Scare” participants who had passed away since Johnson’s interviews, some dating back to the mid-1990s.
“Some of the characters unfortunately are no longer with us, so we will have to find some device to tell their stories,” Howard said.
The documentary will use dramatic recreations to achieve this effect. Beyond that, Howard said he plans to eschew flashy filmmaking and use a straightforward structure that he employed in earlier “60 Minutes” specials.
“My background for several years was as a ‘s60 Minutes’ producer, and the success of that show has always been find an interesting story and just tell it simply and directly,” Howard said. “It’s a formula that’s worked for them for 40 years, so I don’t feel like I need to fool with that.”
USF alumna Erika Perez said that she remembered Johnson covering the topic in her history classes – including discrimination of gay students and teachers in 1950s Florida – and sought out his book.
“I read the book simply because it’s a fascinating topic,” Perez said. “It’s a topic, really, I had never heard about.”
Perez said that Johnson commonly used documentaries during his lectures, so she was very excited to hear her former teacher’s work had inspired its own documentary.
“I cannot imagine a better person for this to happen to,” Perez said.
Johnson said that “The Lavender Scare” also functioned as a cautionary tale – especially considering the relative tolerance for gays and lesbians before the ’50s – and that he hoped the film version would retain that quality.
“History is not always progressive, and there are all kinds of backlashes that can occur,” Johnson said. “I just saw in Texas a Republican Party platform proposed a number of anti-gay legislation, including re-criminalizing gay sex.”
Overall, Johnson said he was interested to see the topic expand to groups even larger than the classrooms where the book has become assigned reading material.
“It’s exciting,” Johnson said. “Several thousand students have read the book now, but it’ll allow it to reach a much wider audience.”
For more information on the film and updates in the upcoming months, go to thelavenderscare.com.