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Being Gay in 1950's America: The Lavender Scare

One of the most searing elements of the brilliant new musical Far From Heaven is its exploration of the social mores of "normal" citizens and the crippling dread of people who seemed not to be like ourselves. The strict perameters of what it was to be "perfectly appropriate" in our country went far beyond the openly bigoted man-hunts for African Americans or Senator Joe McCarthy's witch-hunts for depression era communists.   

Few Americans know that McCarthy also charged that the government had been infiltrated by homosexuals, and that they posed a threat equally as grave to national security. This fear that gay men and lesbians could be blackmailed into revealing state secrets resulted in a systematic campaign to identify and remove all government employees suspected of homosexuality. David Johnson, author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, argues that a parallel “lavender scare” permeated American cold war culture. But it also helped launch a new civil rights struggle.

When McCarthy made his unsubstantiated charges, the State Department at first denied that it employed any suspected communists. But under intense questioning from McCarthy’s Republican allies, they did admit that they had fired 91 homosexuals as “security risks.” A committee of the US Senate investigated “the employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in the government.” Although they could not uncover a single example of a homosexual American citizen who had betrayed secrets as a result of blackmail, they wrote a highly circulated and influential report that asserted that gay men and lesbians exhibited weak moral character and had a “corrosive influence” on their fellow employees. “One homosexual can pollute a government office,” the Senate report concluded. Based on little evidence, the attacks represented a way for Republicans, the minority party at the time, to attack the Democrats and the New Deal agencies they had created as centers of immorality.
In his book, Johnson concludes that the lavender scare, as it became routinized in the bureaucracy of the national security state, outlasted its more well-known cousin, the red scare. In the language of the 1950s and 1960's, “security risk” became a virtual code word for homosexual. Although the famous question “are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party” captured the attention of a national television audience during the McCarthy era, government investigators were posing another question at least as frequently, if more discreetly, but with similarly devastating consequences: “Information has come to our attention that you are homosexual. What comment do you care to make?” Ultimately Johnson argues that we cannot understand McCarthyism or cold war politics without examining the fears of gender and sexual non-conformity that permeated the era.

This adult and sophisticated componant of what it meant, day to day, to be gay in 1950's America is a potent dimention of this new musical by the creators of the Tony Award-winning Grey Gardens and The Goodman Theatre's upcoming War Paint, and it's one more reason Far From Heaven is a perfect musical for Porchlight's discerning music theatre audiences. Get your tickets for the highly anticipated Chicago Premiere of Far From Heaven at porchlightmusictheatre.org 

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