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NPR's history podcast 'Throughline' looks back on the 'lavender scare'

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This year alone, the ACLU is tracking nearly 500 bills in state legislatures across the country aimed at the LGBTQ community - laws banning gender-affirming care, targeting drag performances and censoring school curriculum. But there is a long history here. NPR's podcast Throughline takes us back to the mid 20th century to a period known as the Lavender Scare. Here are hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy gave a now-infamous speech warning of communist infiltration of the U.S. government.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Joseph McCarthy) Today we are engaged in a final all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity.

ARABLOUEI: There isn't a recording of the speech. It's being read here by an actor.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Joseph McCarthy) I have here in my hand a list of 205 - a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID K JOHNSON: It turns out there weren't 205 people because the number kept changing. And they also all weren't card-carrying communists.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: This is David K. Johnson. He's a history professor at the University of South Florida.

ARABLOUEI: And he says there was another key detail from the list that was confirmed by a State Department official later.

JOHNSON: And it turned out that several on this list were actually homosexuals that had been removed from the State Department because they considered them to be security risks.

ABDELFATAH: As part of the Red Scare, Senator McCarthy also targeted gay and lesbian government employees as potential threats in what's come to be known as the Lavender Scare.

MARGOT CANADAY: A lavender brush and a red brush - this sort of idea that they're both kind of a threat to traditional American values, the family and the sort of traditional political values.

ABDELFATAH: That's Margot Canaday, professor of history at Princeton University.

CANADAY: There's this sort of notion of, it's this mysterious and lurking and malignant force that threatens the very fiber of American society.

JOHNSON: It wasn't that they were communists themselves, but because they were hiding, presumably, therefore vulnerable to blackmail.

ABDELFATAH: The idea was that their presumed fear of being outed would make them easy targets for Soviet spies. And so to prevent that threat, they should be fired from government jobs.

JOHNSON: There was almost no one who stood up to object to it.

ABDELFATAH: Even though...

JOHNSON: There was no evidence that any gay man or lesbian was being blackmailed by foreign agents. And to this day, that's still true.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: This fear-mongering became a powerful political tool. In the next election cycle, presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower embraced the tactic.

JOHNSON: The Republicans' campaign slogan in 1952 is, let's clean house. Let's get rid of all of these undesirables who have infiltrated the federal government.

ARABLOUEI: Within months of taking office, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which explicitly states that people who engage in so-called sexual perversion can't serve in any branches of the government.

ABDELFATAH: An entire system of surveillance was put in place to uncover people's most intimate relations. Local police scoured bars. The Postal Service tracked correspondence. This information then became the basis for federal employers to investigate or terminate someone's employment.

ARABLOUEI: Most people didn't challenge their dismissals. They just stopped showing up to work one day. There didn't seem to be another option - until one man dared to bring the ruckus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK KAMENY: We are seeking our human dignity, our equality and our acceptance as the homosexuals that we are and have a right to be.

CANADAY: So Frank Kameny is a total original. I mean, he's almost hard to describe. He was so unconventional and such a maverick. And he just had a very strong sense that he had been wronged, and it wasn't acceptable.

ARABLOUEI: Frank Kameny didn't plan on being one of the nation's first gay rights activists.

JOHNSON: He had always wanted to be an astronomer since he was a kid.

ARABLOUEI: He eventually found his way to a government job at the Army Map Service. And then it all came crashing down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CANADAY: In the mid 1950s, he was arrested in a restroom.

ABDELFATAH: In a known cruising area in San Francisco.

CANADAY: And he lost his job in the government as a result.

ABDELFATAH: But from the very beginning, Kameny never conceded.

JOHNSON: He's brought into a room and asked, the civil service has information that you are a homosexual - what comment do you care to make? And as a fairly nerdy scientist, he didn't understand. Like, why do you care about my sex life?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CANADAY: He decided to take legal action to fight his termination, which is something - gay people in the 1950s and 1960s - when they lost their jobs, they didn't think about what my legal redress is.

ARABLOUEI: Even though he wasn't a lawyer, Kameny fought his termination all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear his case. But that setback didn't stop him from helping other government employees being investigated for their sexuality.

ABDELFATAH: In 1963, a budget analyst named Clifford Norton was fired from his job at NASA.

CANADAY: Also arrested in a gay cruising area in Washington.

ABDELFATAH: He wanted to fight back. And guess who showed up to help him? Frank Kameny.

CANADAY: Kameny works with him and works with the ACLU.

ABDELFATAH: Together, Kameny and Norton took his case all the way up to federal court of appeals in Washington, D.C. - and they won.

JOHNSON: The Norton case comes down at the beginning of July 1969. So it's essentially the same week as the Stonewall riots in New York, which are often credited with the beginning of the gay rights movement. And this was actually one of its first major victories.

ARABLOUEI: Kameny kept fighting until the Lavender Scare officially ended in 1995.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: That was Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, the hosts of NPR's history podcast Throughline. You can hear the whole episode wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.