As the Supreme Court convenes to decide whether employers can legally fire workers because they are LGBTQ, it’s worth taking a look back at the U.S. government’s own shameful history, when not that long ago, thousands of hard-working, qualified Americans were summarily fired from their jobs just for their sexual orientation.
Once upon a time our government actively sought out Gays and Lesbians for termination considering them unfit for employment. Condemmed as perverts, the Lavender Scare was a witch hunt resulting in mass firings of gays from governemt jobs
The story is worth remembering.
America The Right to Choose
Like most mid-century Americans, Virgil Adams believed hard work paid off. Like truth and justice, it was the American way.
So in 1950 when an article appeared in Virgil’s Boys Life Magazine outlying the promise of the American Dream stating: “the right to choose any career a fellow felt qualified to follow,” it merely confirmed what the earnest 16-year-old Eagle Scout already knew.. “Americans Are Free To Choose the Kinds of Work they Want to Do.”
With a good job, he would achieve the American Dream.
Land of Opportunity
“In the US all the people have the right to choose in nearly everything that concerns them…that’s what it meant to be an American.” the impressionable honors student proudly read. “Only under the great American system of free enterprise that not only challenges individual initiative but provides opportunity, could this be achieved!”
All across America post war prosperity was booming. Opportunity, Virgil was certain, would come a knocking.
In Springfield, the Adams family had a long history of civil service. Like his father and grandfather, he would choose to work in government, eager for a chance to serve Uncle Sam.
While our optimistic young eagle scout was reading the “Boys Life” article extolling our great American system of free choice, Republican senators were setting in motion actions that would severely limit the ability to choose.
With Senator Joseph McCarthy creating a culture of fear and paranoia with his communist witch hunt, he fanned the flame by claiming that a “homosexual underground” was aiding the “communist conspiracy.”
America was being infiltrated not only by a red menace but a lavender menace as well
Post war paranoids weren’t just looking under their beds for communists; they were also checking their closets (and their neighbors) for homosexuals
With religious fervor, government alarmists cried: “As dangerous as the actual communists, are the ‘sexual perverts’ who have infiltrated our government in recent years!”
Where is My Roy Cohen?
McCarthy hired Roy Cohen, himself a closeted homosexual, as chief counsel for his Congressional subcommittee. Together these 2 men were responsible for the firing of scores of gay men and women from working in the government.
Americans may have preferred being “dead than red,” but in that mid-century hot-house of homophobia nobody wanted to be considered “queer.”
Government By The People For The People
Republicans formed a subcommittee to study the Truman’s administration employment policy concerning homosexuals.
The 1950 Senate report entitled “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government” led to the systematic purging of gay and lesbians from the government.
Experts argued that “moral perverts” were bad national security risks because of their susceptibility to blackmail and threat of exposure, recommending that homosexuals be dismissed from government jobs.
Adding insult to injury, gays were unsuitable for government jobs because of the “lack of emotional stability which is found in most sex perverts and the weakness of their moral fiber.”
When it came to moral fiber, no one could beat a Boy Scout. Virgil lived by the Boy Scout oath: “On my honor to do my duty to God and my country.”
Virgil Adams was proud to be a Scout and proud to be an American.
“You owe it to your country to become a good citizen to do your best,” his scout leader would tell his troop. “It is important to America and to yourself that you become a citizen of fine character, physically strong mentally awake and morally straight.”
As a good scout Virgil was indeed morally straight…but privately he was gay.
One thing that wasn’t a choice was his homosexuality.
Most folks in Springfield preferred to think that there were no homosexuals in their own town. Maybe a handful in Chicago. Definitely some in NYC. But certainly not Springfield.
Grappling with his feelings, Virgil would adhere to the Boy Scout credo of “Being Prepared”-a good scout is always in a state of readiness in mind and body to face danger.”
Virgil’s secret would be buried as deeply as the atom bomb was from our enemies.
Proud to Be an American
“Citizenship is your privilege,” the Boy Scouts had taught him. It would be his honor and privilege to do his bit for his country.
Heeding Uncle Sam’s call in 1953 he served with distinction in Korea. Now that the champion of his childhood, General Dwight Eisenhower was the new commander-in-chief, Virgil accepted his mission soberly and with pride.
I Like Ike…Ike Doesn’t Like You
While our Eagle Scout fought bravely overseas at the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, back home his hero Dwight Eisenhower launched a full-blown attack on homosexuals, signing a bill calling for the removal of homosexuals from all Federal agencies.
The homophobic hysteria was at an all-time high.
During the 1952 Presidential elections the Republicans claimed that the Truman administration was “honeycombed with homosexuals” and his policy for dismissing homosexuals was criticized as too weak.
Ike would take care of that in short order.
Law and Order
Within 3 months of being sworn in at his inauguration, in the spring of 1953 President Eisenhower issued Executive order 10450 which empowered all Federal agencies to investigate and fire workers on the grounds of “sexual perversion” effectively banning gays and lesbians from working for any agency of the federal government.
The Order mandated the investigation of homosexuality not only of persons in sensitive positions but of any government employee and of all new applicants for positions. Homosexuals were harassed in local and state government too.
An employee who felt he was dismissed unfairly would have no recourse beyond his department. He could be fired merely on the basis of an anonymous accusation.
Virgil’s conscious, formed by the Boy Scouts code of ethics told him to obey the laws of our country. After all, ”America’s laws,” the Scouts affirmed,” were created to benefit all our people – to keep them safe.”
Struggling with his homosexual feelings, policing his emotions, he lived so deep in the shadows he was sure to leave no trace of his secret.
Scouting For A Job
When he returned from the service, the decorated veteran expected to have the American Dream gift wrapped and tied with a red white and blue bow.
Virgil wanted to continue serving Uncle Sam and do his part in keeping America great. Naturally he applied to the civil service, the Adam’s “family business.”
Because it was an old American tradition to give preference in government jobs to honorably discharged veterans, Virgil Adams received a position immediately.
Taking his oath of office seriously, he swore he wasn’t a communist and did not belong to any group that advanced the overthrow of the government.
We Will Work It Out
Virgil worked hard, stayed late and boosted the morale of the office.
He knew that if he was good at his work and was ambitious he was certain to advance to higher paid levels. He remembered the words from Boys Life that he had read years ago: “In America employers are always anxious to reward workers whose industry and ability qualify them for advancement and increased wages.”
It was the American way.
Virgil had learned early a good scout is always prepared.
The scout’s motto meant that you are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty and to face danger.
But nothing prepared Virgil for what was to come.
One day he was brought into an office and told he must resign.
The Civil Service Commission put him through 4 days of interrogation. For the first 3 days he was confronted with evidence of his communist leanings such as having danced with a female USSR liaison officer in Korea when he served there.
On the fourth day he was asked directly “Are you a homosexual?” After his adamant denial he was informed that the government had unearthed evidence. He was seen in the company of a known “pervert.”
With no better proof against him, he was banned from federal government employment “for security reasons on the grounds of moral turpitude.”
Immoral lawbreakers were unfit to serve in government.
Humiliated and with no choice, he was forced out of his job
“The American is Free to pursue happiness in his work as well as in his leisure “he recalled with some bitterness. “An American has the right to choose any career he feels qualified to follow.”
Some Americans it seems were not free to choose the kind of work they want to do.
The lavender scare lasted far longer than the red scare and during the Eisenhower administration the purge of gays from the government reached its peak. For the next 3 decades FBI and other federal agents hunted down thousands of LGBT workers who were fired from their jobs. Careers were ruined lives destroyed.
If most Americans seemed blithely unaware of all the discrimination, it was only because they never chose to really look.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.