Film review of The Lavender Scare
Josh Howard’s 77-minute documentary The Lavender Scare is the context and lesson that was omitted from both my English and history classes. I still remember studying The Crucible in my sophomore year of high school English class. A good amount of time was spent giving the play more context via a closer look at the Salem witch trials. But I remember we took a break from the material of both to spend a whole day just looking at the equally manic mass hysteria of McCarthyism.
At the time I thought this was eye-opening. It was the first real look I had gotten into the red scare of the 1960s. In retrospect, this was another instance of the American public-school system failing both me and my generation. The systemic discrimination against LGBTs as a part of the era might have been mentioned as an individual bullet point, but, as is often the case, completely washed over the grim realities of both the scale of that targeted discrimination and what harm that discrimination inflicted on a human level.
The Lavender Scare makes apparent the ugly and dehumanizing realities that a cursory gen-ed survey of American history is all too happy to gloss over. It highlights the birth of modern American homophobia, as well as illuminates the way in which it was baselessly tied to the Red Scare to create a false equivalence between covert Soviet agents and the American LGBT community. It is a grim pulling back on the curtain that served to erase LGBT Americans from the post-WWII era, but also an empowering discovery of the gay men and lesbians who found themselves disenfranchised by the new culture under Eisenhower and refused to accept it.
The film concerns itself primarily with the individuals who lost their jobs in the State Department due to their sexuality, or suspected sexuality. And it offers a broad look at the thousands of workers who were fired across all levels of government. Told through historical first and secondhand accounts.
With real interviews and experiences (at times through actors reading transcripts of individuals who were unable to), the documentary is often more punishing than it is uplifting. It goes into detail into how the sudden public homophobic hysteria served to dehumanize those affected as individuals. The events the interviewees recount are as tragic as they are shameful. Pervading every frame is the sense that the biggest injustice of all is that their story was kept out of school curriculum and public knowledge for so long.
The film is by all accounts a downer for most of its run time. But it takes a slightly abrupt and defiantly positive turn in its closing 10 minutes. Focusing primarily on the work by Frank Kameny, the film ends with the slow reversal of the culture of homophobic panic, and the recognition of the tireless activists who made it happen. We learn that, against the odds, some of the individuals the film follows managed to find happy (or at least positive) endings despite facing flagrant bureaucratic homophobia even after their leaving government work. The film never undercuts the dark tragedy at its center. It manages to leave its audience with faint glimmers of emboldening optimism.
Despite its shorter than average run time, The Lavender Scare mixes modern filmmaking style and grimly necessary history to offer everything a quality documentary should. It is an eye-opening exposé on the political weaponry used in the cultural assassination of the entire LGBT community under Eisenhower and McCarthy. Its personal accounts are devastating. But its resolution is slightly more heartening than we would expect. A 77-minute documentary cannot possibly cover an entire period over four decades of civil and bureaucratic discrimination effaced from history books, but it paints a better picture of the realities of the era than my public-school experience ever did.