Monday afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry issued an apology for his department’s past discrimination against LGBTQ people. It was unprecedented, unexpected, and unspecific, a rather stiff parting hug to the community before the incoming administration kicks us in the shins.
Kerry was apparently responding to two letters, one issued by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland on Nov. 29 and another (echoing Cardin) sent by the Human Rights Campaign on Dec. 22. Both letters explicitly evoked the postwar panic known as the “Lavender Scare” in which the federal government purged thousands of gay and lesbian employees from its ranks on the pretext of their being “security risks.” Cardin’s letter, citing historian David Johnson’s extraordinary book on the subject, details the persecution at length, with special attention to the Senate’s role in it. Both letters recommend that the State Department memorialize the victims of its discrimination with an exhibit at the National Museum of American Diplomacy.
While arguably better than nothing, Monday’s apology is baffling. It’s the first time the federal government has ever acknowledged these events, but Kerry’s statement is only legible as such to those familiar with the history. To everyone else it is, at best, cryptic and, at worst, misleading. The first hundred words of the statement (half of it) burnish Kerry’s legacy on LGBTQ issues. There follows one sentence, vague and defensive, to describe the scare: “In the past—as far back as the 1940s, but continuing for decades—the Department of State was among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, forcing some employees to resign or refusing to hire certain applicants in the first place.” Then the apology. There’s no mention of the requests for memorialization.
Nobody who does not already know about the State Department’s history of discrimination against LGBTQ people will get a clear understanding of it from Kerry’s micro-description. Here’s the story: The Lavender Scare began in February 1950, when John Peurifoy, an undersecretary of the State Department, bashfully admitted under hostile Senate questioning that the department had expunged 91 “security risks,” “most” of whom “were homosexuals.” Sen. Joseph McCarthy, already leading his own crusade against subversion, latched onto the campaign against sexual deviancy for a brief period but quickly dropped the subject, possibly to avoid stoking rumors about his own personal life. But McCarthy was by no means the sole or primary instigator of the purge, which was broadly supported within the Republican Party. Johnson alleges that “most of those fired [during the McCarthy era] as ‘security risks’ were not those named by Senator McCarthy as communists,” but gay men “confronted with circumstantial evidence that [they] had associated with ‘known homosexuals’ or been arrested in a gay cruising area.” If that last bit sounds seedy now, keep in mind that cruising areas were one of the very few places at the time where gay men could find each other and a bit of comfort in an oppressive social climate.
The exact number of dismissals is not known, but Johnson estimates it to be “well into the thousands.” (You may not have gleaned that from Kerry’s “some employees.”) Many of these people’s lives were ruined and an unknown number committed suicide. The State Department knew of these impacts and in fact discussed strategies, including psychiatric counseling, for mitigating “the threat of suicide” in homosexual cases at a 1953 conference. There’s no evidence that any counseling program was implemented. Other victims were radicalized by the assault. Frank “Gay Is Good!” Kameny, rightfully considered a father of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, was fired on evidence of homosexuality from his post as an astronomer with the Army Map Service in 1957, leading to the nation’s first civil rights claim based on sexual orientation and a profoundly important career in activism.
The purging of suspected homosexuals on the basis of loyalty and security concerns remained government policy until the 1970s, and it was not until 2014 that Barack Obama signed two executive orders making it illegal for the federal government to discriminate against contractors in hiring or employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, legislation proposed in 1994 that would extend similar restrictions to companies with more than 15 employees, has not passed and will not pass any time soon. Johnson has said in a recent interview that he sees parallels between the Lavender Scare and the recent pushback against LGBTQ rights, “couched in the rhetoric of ‘religious freedom.’”
Kerry’s statement not only omits this information but also propagates several specific distortions. The State Department was not “among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation,” but the epicenter of such discrimination. As Johnson writes, the federal government was the nation’s largest employer and its policies “were imitated and followed by private employers.” The Lavender Scare originated in the State Department, to control the widespread public perception that the department was unmanly and morally rotten, and spread to other federal agencies. Its gay and lesbian employees were not only forced to resign, as Kerry writes, but also coerced to inform on colleagues, fired outright, and stigmatized as perverts.
At this perilous moment in time, even the smallest gesture of warmth from the federal government towards LGBTQ Americans is to be cherished. But even a schoolchild knows that, in order for your apology to mean something, you need to know what you did wrong and say it. Sorry, Secretary Kerry, but this one doesn’t cut it.