It’s telling that in any history lesson on the rising cold war tensions of the late 40’s and 1950’s, McCarthyism is strictly defined as accusations of communist sympathies. What has got lost in the history books in the intervening years is a crucial part of American LGBT history, that PBS documentary The Lavender Scare aims to bring back into the national conversation – and on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, this damning, widespread saga of prejudice can now be seen as an equally pivotal step towards equal rights.
Directed by Josh Howard, The Lavender Scare is a brisk breakdown of American history that’s all the more impressive due to the decade it’s spent in production. In 2009, as Obama started making steps towards equal marriage, it seemed like LGBT history could be discussed more openly. Ten years later, when it feels like Obama-era laws safeguarding the community are dismantled by the day, the story of a witch hunt targeting gay people feels alarmingly prescient – and not least because it took place under a Republican administration advancing scaremongering policies under the guise of “family values”.
After Dwight Eisenhower won the 1952 Presidential election, he shifted the Republican party further right in its social conservatism, starting a process of firing any governmental employees suspected of being homosexual. In months, hundreds of gay men and women were out of work for no apparent reason, initially accused as being more likely to sympathise with communists, before the purge eventually dropped the pretence and made the homophobic intentions boldly clear. Homosexuality may have been a societal taboo at the time, but Howard’s documentary upends our preconceptions by offering context the history books now rarely allude to – the most surprising revelation to me being that Washington DC was considered one of the gay capitals of the world in the 1930’s. That such rich context is provided, while offering such a thorough analysis of a long forgotten national travesty, all in the space of 77 minutes is truly commendable.
That the film is so broadly accessible, as likely to become a key text in school history lessons as it is an important landmark in LGBT cinema, is arguably its biggest strength. This may seem like damning with faint praise, but Howard has the foresight to know that after a decade spent toiling away behind the scenes (his interviews with gay civil rights activist Frank Kameny were recorded in 2010, a year before his death) there’s no time to waste in getting this story out there, to the widest audience possible. In an interview with Guy Lodge for The Guardian, Howard stated he too was ignorant of this story, and Kameny’s role in advancing LGBT rights, until he began the research for this documentary. That passion to spread the word about such a shamefully forgotten, and undeniably important, chapter of modern history emanates through every frame.
After watching The Lavender Scare, you’ll want to dig deeper in researching America’s witch hunt against the LGBT community, and the many alarming parallels to the current Presidential administration. This moment in history, long relegated to being a mere footnote (if mentioned at all), can now finally become part of the conversation on LGBT rights – let’s make sure we don’t forget it again.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Josh Howard