Report

Congress Wants State Department to Reckon With the ‘Lavender Scare’

Gay employees were hounded from office in a dark episode of State Department history from the 1950s and ’60s, and many committed suicide.

Attendees hold rainbow flags during a march to honor LGBT rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker in New York City on June 14, 2017.
Attendees hold rainbow flags during a march to honor LGBT rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker in New York City on June 14, 2017. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It took two full years for Andrew Ference’s parents to discover the truth of their son’s suicide.

In the summer of 1954, Ference, a State Department worker in the U.S. Embassy in Paris, was detained by State Department security officers who suspected him of being gay. Over the course of two days of interrogation, Ference admitted to having a relationship with his roommate, Robert Kennerly, then a courier with the embassy. Four days later, Kennerly came back to their apartment to find Ference’s body. He had killed himself after being forced to resign from his post.

The State Department security officers covered up the circumstances of Ference’s suicide, telling his parents that he killed himself because he was grieving over health problems. Even today his death remains a relatively unknown footnote in a dark chapter of State Department history known as the “Lavender Scare.” During the 1950s and ’60s, buoyed by the so-called Red Scare aimed at purging communists from the federal government, a group of senators and top State Department officials sought to force out all State employees on the basis of perceived sexual orientation.

In total, about 1,000 State Department employees were fired or forced to resign, while other federal agencies followed suit with their own internal purges. For those swept up in the Lavender Scare, according to a 2016 publication from the U.S. National Archives, “[s]uicide was not uncommon.”

The State Department has formally apologized for its actions during this era, but there is a new push on Capitol Hill for State to do more to reckon with its past amid growing concerns over lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights in the United States and abroad.

On Wednesday, a group of 18 Democratic senators introduced a bill that would prompt the State Department to address past and future discrimination against LGBTI diplomats. The Lavender Offense Victim Exoneration Act, or LOVE Act, directs the State Department to pore over its archives and identify all the employees who were fired or forced to resign based on their sexual orientation and formally correct their employment records.

It also directs the department to create a formal reconciliation board under the head of human resources and director general of the foreign service to contact all surviving employees or family members of those employees who were wrongfully forced out and offer them a chance to tell their story for official record.

“It is long past time for the U.S. government to recognize the stories of the LGBTI members of the State Department who were treated unfairly during the ‘Lavender Scare,’ and to offer them and their families a measure of justice,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The bill also issues a formal apology on behalf of Congress for its role in the purge.

The term “Lavender Scare” draws from “lavender lads”—the pejorative phrase used by former Sen. Everett Dirksen and other lawmakers to refer to gay men. As one of his last acts as secretary of state, John Kerry issued a formal apology for what the State Department did all those decades ago, due in part to prompting from Sen. Ben Cardin in 2016 and 2017. “[T]hese actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today. On behalf of the Department, I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the Department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community,” Kerry said in a statement on Jan. 9, 2017.

“It was a great first step, a great symbolic gesture on the part of the federal government,” said David Johnson, a history professor at the University of South Florida and author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. But Johnson, who brought Ference’s case to light after stumbling on records in the National Archives, said it didn’t go far enough. “Even John Kerry’s apology didn’t quite acknowledge the way the State Department was the epicenter of this discrimination in that era,” he said.

Now a group of Democratic lawmakers want the State Department to do more to shed light on its past and provide a semblance of justice for victims of the Lavender Scare. The Red Scare reached a fever pitch under Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s infamous series of high-profile public hearings on suspected communists in the federal government. Simultaneously, McCarthy, other lawmakers, and the State Department directed their attention to forcing out employees based on sexual orientation. Deputy Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy told investigators in 1950 that the State Department had purged 91 “homosexual employees” from its ranks. It was ostensibly due to security risks: Top lawmakers and State Department officials alleged that gay employees were more susceptible to blackmail. But deep-seated prejudice was wrapped into the justifications for the purge: They also claimed gay employees lacked “moral fiber” and emotional stability and “polluted” government agencies.

Peurifoy’s disclosure sparked a public firestorm in Washington. McCarthy, who equated communists with homosexuality, proclaimed that such employees “must not be handling top secret material.”

That year, two senators, Republican Sen. Kenneth Wherry and Democratic Sen. J. Lister Hill, launched an investigation to force federal agencies to, in Wherry’s words, “take off their payrolls alleged moral perverts.”

A committee led by Sen. Clyde Hoey—a staunch segregationist—issued a report in 1950 titled “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government,” finding there were some 5,000 suspected “sex perverts” in government who needed to be removed from their jobs. “One homosexual can pollute a Government office,” the report read.

The Hoey committee report proved to be highly influential and paved the way for President Dwight D. Eisenhower to issue an executive order to ban federal employees who posed security risks including “sexual perversion”—an effective ban on gay employees. The State Department subsequently instituted a screening process to bar the hiring of employees based on sexual orientation, including those who, in the words of the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, “seemed like they might be gay or lesbian.”

State Department investigators humiliated and mocked employees during interrogations and encouraged them to report other suspected gay employees as the search gathered momentum throughout the early 1950s.

Along with Congress, the State Department was the “driving force” behind the purge for other federal agencies, according to Johnson of the University of South Florida. He said it’s difficult to gauge how many LGBTI employees (or those simply perceived to be LGBTI by lawmakers and State Department officials) had their careers derailed but estimated the number is somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000.

The parents of Ference, the State Department employee who died in 1954, learned of the circumstances of their son’s death only two years later, after a member of Congress intervened on their behalf to help shed light on his case. In his book, Johnson suggests the Lavender Scare drove others to a similar fate: “Washington newspapers from the period contain numerous stories of single male government workers, often State Department employees, who committed suicide for no known reason,” he wrote.

The State Department, as with other federal agencies and Congress, perpetuated discrimination based on sexual orientation long after the Lavender Scare subsided. From 1950 to 1969, congressional appropriations committees required the State Department to report the number of gay employees fired each year. As recently as the early 1990s, the State Department’s diplomatic security services investigated employees based on their sexual orientation, deemed a potential security risk.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1994 barred discrimination in the department, including based on sexual orientation, and Foggy Bottom has made significant strides since then. The department extended spousal rights and health care coverage for LGBTI diplomats and family members, thanks to changes in personnel policies instituted under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Former President Barack Obama appointed the most number of openly gay ambassadors ever, and in 2015 Kerry created a special envoy for human rights of LGBTI persons.

The Trump administration has upheld protections extended to LGBTI employees in the State Department, and one of Trump’s most high-profile ambassadors, Richard Grenell in Germany, is openly gay. In February, Grenell said the Trump administration was starting a global campaign to roll back the criminalization of homosexuality worldwide.

LGBTI rights groups are still concerned that the Trump administration is taking measures to turn back the clock on some protections. They cite the president’s decision to ban transgender service members from the military and backing of multiple federal judicial nominees that espouse what rights groups see as anti-LGBTI views. The Trump administration in late 2018 also began denying visas to same-sex domestic partners of foreign diplomats based at the United Nations from countries where same-sex marriage is banned. (The State Department at the time insisted it was bringing visa practices in line with U.S. policy on extending diplomatic visas to married spouses.)

In addition, the State Department’s LGBTI special envoy post has sat empty since late 2017.

Beyond U.S. borders, only 27 of 195 countries have passed laws legalizing same-sex marriage, as just one measure of global LGBTI rights. This creates complications for locally employed staff at U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide.

“[W]e must remember that our locally employed staff in most countries do not enjoy the same rights and protections, either under U.S. law, or in their home legal systems and societies,” wrote U.S. diplomat Selim Ariturk in a 2015 article for the Foreign Service Journal, a publication from the American Foreign Service Association. “In many countries, these colleagues are exposed to severe discrimination, harassment, violence, arrest or even death if they are known or suspected to be LGBT,” wrote Ariturk, who at the time served as the president of GLIFAA, an employee advocacy group for LGBTI workers in the State Department and other federal government agencies.

The LOVE Act, pushed by Menendez and other Democratic senators, directs the State Department to report on countries that don’t issue visas to spouses of U.S. diplomats based on sexual orientation and outline ways to pressure those countries into ending the practice. It also calls on the department to establish an advancement board of “senior-level officials to address the issues faced by LGBTI Foreign Service employees and their families.”

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on pending legislation but stressed that the department “is committed to creating an inclusive workplace culture” and prohibits any discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“The Department continues to seek accreditation for its LGBT employees and family members wherever they serve,” the spokesperson said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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