Documentary Film Review: THE LAVENDER SCARE (directed and produced by Josh Howard)

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by Barry Creyton on June 2, 2019

in Film


The Witch Hunt has been part of the American psyche since Salem. Lately though, the cries of “witch hunt” evoke not the green of Elphaba, rather a nauseous orange. And while that might seem a horse of a different color, let us not forget the Red Scare in which the self-serving machinations of Joseph McCarthy fouled the first amendment, imprisoned hundreds, blacklisted the Hollywood Ten, and cost thousands of Americans their jobs.

Yet in the 1950s another “scare,” one of an entirely unexpected color, exceeded the communist paranoia in extent and devastating social cost. In fact, the ensuing witch hunt lasted for four decades, the longest in American history. During this period, tens of thousands of Americans lost livelihood, respectability and basic human liberties, many of them irretrievably. This forty year long witch hunt is the subject of a timely and cautionary documentary by Josh Howard, The Lavender Scare.

On April 27th, 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450 which ordered the firing of any government workers found to be, or suspected of being gay or lesbian. More than a thousand federal agents were assigned to the task of exposing homosexuals, some on mere suspicion. Though this “lavender” witch hunt ensued for more than forty years, not one single case of blackmail, not one breach of national security, not one crime based on the sexual orientation of the employee was ever found.

Not one.

Not just jobs were irretrievably lost; fear alone of this purge drove more than a few to suicide. One State Department employee, Andrew Ference (voiced in the documentary by T. R. Knight), confessed to being gay to federal agents who interrogated him for two days in August 1954. The agents forced Ference’s resignation and less than a week later, he killed himself with gas. The federal agents falsely listed the cause of death as “inactive lung lesion.” Ference’s family didn’t learn the true cause until two years after he died.

Enter Frank Kameny.

Kameny’s career in astronomy ended when he was fired by the Army Map Service in 1957 because he’d been arrested a year earlier for “consensual contact” with another man. Kameny (pictured above during a protest) fought back and filed an appeal that took his case to the Supreme Court. That appeal failed, but the case raised awareness and Kameny went on to help found the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. in order to fight anti-gay discrimination. This small, courageous group protested outside the White House in 1965 in what’s sometimes called the first gay rights demonstration in American history — this, four years before the profile of such protests was raised irreversibly by the Stonewall rebellion.

Kameny (voiced by David Hyde Pierce) never returned to his chosen field. Instead he devoted his life to the fight for gay rights. In June 2009, Kameny was honored by President Obama at the White House for his unrelenting activism.

This moving documentary, helmed with compassion and assurance by Mr. Howard, is narrated by Glenn Close and includes the voices of Cynthia Nixon and Zachary Quinto. One can’t argue with the press release which deems the period both tragic and triumphant; the ultimate victory of gay rights fought on a battleground in which jobs, reputation, rights and lives were lost as a result of the government’s brutal and bigoted tactics.

The Lavender Scare is more relevant than ever in an age when complacency leads the young LGB community to the view that equality always has been, and always will be their right. Santayana nailed the issue with the warning: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

At this time of extreme political upheaval in which civil liberties are being threatened once again, and the right to discriminate due to sexual orientation is being re-introduced into law by the Trump administration, this splendid documentary film is an incitement to find the nearest soapbox, author an appropriate placard and confront the lawmakers who would see basic human rights ground underfoot.

photos courtesy of Full Exposure Films

The Lavender Scare
directed and produced by Josh Howard
Full Exposure Films
USA | English | 75 minutes | documentary
in limited release June 7, 2019
for more info, visit Lavender Scare

{ 1 comment }

Bes Marshall June 4, 2019 at 9:57 pm

Never stop “listening for the new-told lies ” – thank you, Rado & Ragni.

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