History Thread: Nightmare in Lavender

On June 19, 1954, Senator Lester C. Hunt of Wyoming walked into the Capitol Building with his arms full of boxes and papers. A Capitol police officer recognized Hunt and offered his assistance; Hunt handed the officer a .22 caliber rifle, which he carried until Hunt reached the staff elevator. The two men exchanged only perfunctory pleasantries before parting; nor did Hunt say anything to Ronald Maurice, a friendly elevator operator who tried chatting with him about baseball. The Senator’s expression was blank, his mind clearly elsewhere.

Hunt, much-loved in his home state and widely respected in Congress, was considered a classic self-made American. He rose from a railroad switch operator and small-town dentist through the ranks of politics, becoming a Senator in 1949. A liberal Democrat, he proved an able advocate for education, housing aid and veteran’s rights in Washington. He was also a nemesis of Joe McCarthy, who just days before immolated himself on live television. McCarthy and two other Republicans, Styles Bridges (NH) and Herman Welker (ID), repeatedly threatened to expose a shameful secret if Hunt ran for reelection that fall; Hunt capitulated, announcing that “I shall never again be a candidate for public office.”

That morning Hunt settled into his office, knowing his aides would enter just a few minutes later. He rearranged photographs of his children on his desk, wrote four suicide notes to different family members and cocked the bolt on his rifle. His assistant, Mike Manatos, found him moments later, “the body…draped limply across his old leather chair…a trickle of blood emerg[ing] slowly from his right temple,” recounts Rodger MacDaniel. Despite attempts to conceal the cause of Hunt’s death, word of his suicide quickly spread around the capital and beyond.

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Lester C. Hunt

Hunt’s death was publicly attributed to “despondency over his health.” But columnist Drew Pearson, the Senator’s close friend, knew the truth; he attributed Hunt’s death to “one of the lowest types of political pressure this writer has seen in many years.” Hunt’s son Lester Jr. had been arrested by an undercover police officer for homosexual acts in Lafayette Park the previous fall; McCarthy and his allies had repeatedly threatened to expose him, as recently as eleven days prior to Hunt’s death. Lester Jr. learned that “they were going to canvass every house…in every town that they could and tell them what was going in the Hunt family,” a burden the Senator decided he couldn’t live with. Thus Lester C. Hunt became the most famous victim of the ’50s Lavender Scare.

Despite Lester Hunt’s dramatic suicide (which inspired a subplot in Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent) and thousands of lower-profile victims, the Lavender Scare remained, for decades, an incidental feature of the McCarthy Era. Ellen Schrecker, in her generally reliable Many are the Crimes, insists that “homosexuality was so far beyond the realm of acceptability that it rarely figured in any discussion of the [Communist Party]…though considered aberrant, most Communists were depicted as thoroughly straight.” Yet it isn’t easy to separate anticommunist hysteria from homophobic hysteria: both were considered complementary menaces to postwar America.

America’s LGBT communities came into their own through the early part of the 20th Century, forming a distinct subculture largely ignored by heterosexual society. During the heyday of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Washington DC became host to hundreds, perhaps thousands of gay men and women seeking employment with new government agencies. “Washington in the 1930s and 1940s,” David K. Johnson writes, “was not unlike New York and Chicago in the 1920s – a time and place where persons attracted to members of their own sex were able to construct vibrant and visible communities in both their home and work environments.”

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Gay bureaucrats on an outing in Arlington, 1950s

Indeed, these men and women became integral parts of the New Deal, working a variety of jobs throughout the bureaucracies. “G-girls” gained a sense of independence, not least those attracted to other women; one observer claimed that their jobs as clerks, typists and secretaries offered “better security than is provided by a husband.” Gay men were also assumed to have “considerable talent in stenographic, musical, clerical and special service activities,” per Allan Berube, though those who found work in those fields no doubt entered them because they were more easily accepted – which homophobic superiors from mocking them as “fairies.”

Many gay bureaucrats echoed Jeb Alexander’s comment that “life begins at 4:30 for me!” Even for those who didn’t enjoy their work, New Deal Washington offered a vibrant gay scene, from tonier bars like The Chicken Hut (which featured regular musical concerts and drag shows) to assignations in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. Such public liaisons risked the wrath of undercover police, but the mixture of camaraderie, pleasure and love seemed worthwhile. Alexander recalled laying on the lawn near the Washington Monument in a partner’s arms, discussing their futures “while the Moon beamed from a spacious sky and the cool breeze rustled our hair.”

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Nob Hill in the ’50s

Even Washington’s gay scene wasn’t immune to segregation: New Deal bureaucrats were overwhelmingly white, and gay and lesbians of the time were often little more accepting of blacks than their straight counterparts. In 1953 James Jones opened Nob Hill, a Columbia Heights established which became the locus for Washington’s gay, black population. Though derided by some as “Snob Hill” and “The Morgue” for requiring formal dress, it gained a reputation as one of DC’s best-known gay establishments until it closed in 2004.

World War II further triggered what historian John D’Emilio terms “a nationwide coming out experience.” Forced into sexually segregated military units, millions of gay men and women discovered their identity or found it easier to act upon their feelings. Bob Ruffing recalled that during his naval service, “all of the sudden you had a vast network of friends, usually through this eye contact thing, some through outright cruising.” One teenager serving in the Woman’s Land Army of America (a coterie of agricultural volunteers) encountered two colleagues flirting with each other; told that they were lesbians, she realized that “for the first time I had a name for myself.” 

Alfred Kinsey (left) and assistants

Mainstream awareness of homosexuality increased after the war; Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) asserted that 37 percent of adult males had engaged in same-sex behavior at least once (a follow-up volume claimed 28 percent of women did the same). Novels dramatizing same-sex romance, from Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar to Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, achieved mainstream success alongside lurid underground pulp novels. Unfortunately, this didn’t create increased tolerance or understanding; gay characters in fiction (often, even those by gay or lesbian creators) were still treated as depraved villains or, at best, tragic victims of mental illness.

Fiction only reflected the general consensus. Sympathetic voices like Morris Plascowe, who insisted that anti-sodomy laws “benefit no one except the blackmailer,” and Evelyn Hooker, whose 1957 study for the University of California helped destigmatize same-sex relationships, remained in the minority in the medical community. More common was the consensus that homosexuals were “generally unreliable in an essentially psychopathic way,” as one psychologist told Time in 1956. The “humane” cure was psychotherapy; one lesbian named Harriet described how she “went humbly to the doctors, and took whatever other nastiness they wanted to spew out about homosexuality, and…paid them and said thanks.” Less humane cures ranged from electroshock therapy (still used in “conversion therapy”) to lobotomies.

So it was inevitable, as America’s postwar attitude shifted towards conformity and reaction, that sexual outsiders became targets. Harry Hay, the pioneering gay activist, recognized early on that “the government was going to look for a new enemy, a new scapegoat…But blacks were beginning to organize and the horror of the Holocaust was too recent to put the Jews in this position. The natural scapegoat would be us, the Queers.” Indeed, as historian Landon Storrs writes, throughout the Red Scare “envy and lust mingled with fear in the right’s fantasy of a sexualized Communist underworld.”


Joe McCarthy’s Wheeling speech in February 1950, announcing 205 “security risks” in the Federal government, included reference to two bureaucrats accused of homosexuality. “You will find,” the Senator claimed, “that practically every active Communist is twisted mentally or physically in some way.” State Department official John Peurifoy countered that the government had discharged 91 alleged homosexuals, a claim which backfired as it implied Harry Truman had been lax in prosecuting them.

Republican National Chairman Guy Gabrielson took up the cudgel, saying that “perhaps as dangerous as the actual communists are the sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years.” Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska went further, saying that “you can’t hardly separate homosexuals from subversives…[people] of low morality are a menace in the government…and they are all tied up together.” Emboldened by the testimony of DC Police Lt. Roy Blick that “there are 3,750 perverts employed by government agencies,” the Lavender Scare began in earnest.

Republicans now had another issue with which to clobber Truman; his Administration was mocked for its “Fairy Deal,” the President and his advisers ridiculed for not protecting the government’s moral fiber. The charge was plain: the New Deal and its successor had not only socialized American but subjected it to gay infiltration. Now Truman, under pressure from Republicans, sought to correct this oversight, even as a Senate investigator warned that “even the most elaborate and costly system of investigating applicants…will not prevent some sex perverts from finding their way into government service.”

Dean Acheson

From the start, the State Department became gay-baiters’ principle target. Diplomats and bureaucrats were ridiculed as “lavender lads” and “cookie pushers”; one writer, as early as 1942, complained that “in American statecraft, where you desperately need a man of iron, you often get a nance.” Dean Acheson, himself widely ridiculed for his striped pants and affected British accent, responded that “we have men as distinguished, as able, as powerful, and as vigorous as any of my great predecessors.” To prove his vigor, Acheson authorized a crackdown on any gay employees.

Those charged with investigating homosexuality subjected suspects to polygraph tests and rigorous examination. A State Department manual advised them to obtain information regarding employees’ “hobbies, associates, means of diversion and places of amusement” along with noting “unusual traits of speech, appearance or personality.” A secretary named Miss McCoy lost her job after a coworker accused her of “lesbian characteristics” such as a “mannish voice” and “peculiar lips.” A man recorded as “C.L.” was questioned due to his involvement in a progressive organization; asked about gay colleagues, his polygraph showed “positive reactions” which terrified him into resigning.

Other departments followed suit. Madeline Tress worked as a Commerce Department economist when she received a summons by two Civil Service investigators. Denied the right to an attorney, Tress was told that the Civil Service Commission “has information that you are an admitted homosexual.” Initially refusing to answer, Tress was browbeat by her interrogator’s sneering insults (“You’ve never had it good until you’ve had it from a man”) into confessing; she was forced to resign on the spot. Learning that a male colleague had ratted her out, she called him a “son of a bitch” until escorted from her office. “My whole fucking life had changed,” Tress (who moved to San Francisco, becoming an attorney and activist) commented ruefully.

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San Francisco lesbian bar, circa 1944

“I can’t describe that kind of fear,” Tress remarked, noting how the whole tone of gay Washington changed. Singles feared attending parties and bars for fear of being sighted; “all they had to do,” David Bowling said, “was have somebody say that they doubted your orientation.” Gay supervisors who’d previously welcomed gay and lesbian employers now “leaned over backward…to avoid hiring anyone he knows or suspects to be homosexual.” John Edward Collins worried that his acquaintance with a friend arrested by DC’s Vice Squad would uncover his own private life. “The chain reaction had caught up with me,” he recalled, wondering “when will my turn come?”

The military also sought to “clean” its ranks. A corporal serving at Keeler Air Force Base in Mississippi recalled how “eleven girls were called in and questioned about their alleged homosexuality” in 1950; she herself was warned that “if you don’t [confess] the consequences will be little short of fatal.” The Corporal requested the opportunity to prove her innocence at a court martial, which was denied. Another woman serving at Wright-Patterson noted that “I am forever refused the right to wear the uniform of my country” after being outed; she added that two of her colleagues committed suicide soon afterwards.

Frank Kameny, a young astronomer with the Army, saw his promising career cut short in 1957 when employers discovered his sexual orientation. When investigators refused to disclose who’d informed on him, Kameny responded that “I can’t give you an answer. You don’t deserve it. And in any case, this is none of your business.” Lacking a job, Kameny’s next few years “were extremely difficult,” he recalled. “By the time I got into 1959 I was living for about eight months on 20 cents worth of food a day, which even by 1959 prices was not terribly much. It was a great day when I could afford five cents more and put a pat of butter on my mashed potato.”

Frank Kameny in the Army

The era’s most notorious case involved Seldon Hooper, a retired Rear Admiral who’d served with distinction in World War II. In 1957, the Office of Naval Intelligence spied on a young sailor named Roscoe Braddock, suspecting him of espionage. Instead they found him on the island of Coronado, where he was living with Admiral Hooper. “Hooper and Schmidt kissed, and undressed, and turned off the lights,” Lillian Faderman writes, noting that the officers “returned night after night, peering through cracks and binoculars and periscopes, and taking notes and pictures.” Hooper was tried for conduct unbecoming and stripped of his rank and titles, with President Dwight Eisenhower ignoring his pleas for clemency.

Indeed, the already-harsh persecutions intensified under Eisenhower. During the Second World War, Eisenhower showed a willingness to shrug at, if not condone same-sex relationships among subordinates. On one occasion, Eisenhower instructed a WAC aide, Johnnie Phelps, to fire any lesbians on her staff; Phelps responded by telling Ike that “my name is going to head the list” and “you’re going to have to replace all the file clerks, the section heads [and] most of the commanders and the motor pool.” (“Forget the order,” Ike responded.) Even as president, Eisenhower retained Robert Cutler as National Security Adviser, a charming, Harvard-educated former General whose sexual orientation was an open secret in the Beltway.

But Eisenhower, whose campaign vowed to “clean up the mess in Washington” and allowed surrogates to gay-bait Adlai Stevenson, failed to extend this tolerance towards civil servants. Instead, in early 1953 he issued Executive Order 10450, banning the employment of anyone exhibiting “criminal, infamous, dishonest, immortal or notoriously disgraceful conduct,” including “sexual perversion.” The State Department remained the primary target, with R.W. Scott McLeod of the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs (a friend of Joe McCarthy who regularly fed the Senator information) pledging that “all forms of immorality will be rooted out and banished from the service.”

Eisenhower and Robert Cutler

McLeod lived up to his word. He expanded the existing investigative unit into the “Miscellaneous M Unit” which handled morals charges through interrogations of suspect employees, often using a polygraph machine. During 1953, its first year of existence, the M Unit boasted of firing 99 “perverts” (claiming a backlog of several hundred more). Lucky employees received hearings; most were summarily dismissed, often on flimsy evidence or the hunches of homophobic investigators. One such official proclaimed hearings “a waste of time,” boasting that if he “says the son of a bitch is a queer, out he goes!”

That claims of gay and lesbians as security risk were specious is obvious to anyone not blinkered by homophobia. Intelligence analysts obsessed over the case of Alfred Redl, the Austrian spy blackmailed by Imperial Russia prior to World War I, as if it bore any relevance to 1950s America. There were, within living memory, sex scandals involving American officials: from the Newport Scandal of 1919, when Undersecretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt authorized an undercover investigation of gay sailors, to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles‘ 1940 resignation after drunkenly propositioning a Pullman porter.

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These justifications were specious: Redl’s sexuality was arguably incidental to his treason, and neither the Newport cases nor Welles’ scandal involved blackmail by outside parties. They also didn’t obscure (perhaps even highlighted) the fact that homosexuals were more often blackmailed by their own government than foreign powers. After all, it was J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, not the KGB, who (among others) blackmailed columnist Joseph Alsop with compromising photographs and tried using Bayard Rustin’s sexuality to discredit the Civil Rights Movement. It was Joe McCarthy, not Communists, who drove Lester C. Hunt to suicide by threatening to out his son.

That Hoover, Roy Cohn and other conservatives were suspected of same-sex relationships led to charges of hypocrisy – and liberal homophobia. Supporters of Alger Hiss, including Hiss himself, mocked Whittaker Chambers’s bisexuality, claiming that he “betrayed” Hiss due to unrequited love. Hoover’s enemies spread baseless slurs about his attending orgies in drag, which David Johnson dismisses as “a homophobic fantasy.” Joseph Welch, during his clash with McCarthy, baited Cohn as a “fairy” to the laughter of liberals nationwide. Audre Lorde, the renowned black poet, recognized this: she feared that her progressive friends, “among whom color and racial differences could be openly examined,” would “one day [ask] me accusingly, are you now or have you ever been a member of a homosexual relationship?”

Audre Lorde

Such prejudice, of course, existed outside Washington. From coastal cities to the Heartland, Americans were on the alert for sexual deviance. In 1953, a New Yorker fretted that “the situation here…is getting worse,” with “raids on gay bars, arrests on the beaches…and cops chasing [homosexuals] out of Sutton Place.” The following year, the murder of two gay men in Miami led to a crackdown on gay bars that lasted for nearly a year. A staggering 162 men were arrested in a single raid in Baltimore in October 1955. Nor were women immune; a San Francisco lesbian warned about “a paralyzing fear” in that city after police arrested 36 women at the Alamo Bar in September 1956.

That “paralyzing fear” received equal play outside the cities. In 1956, the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee was created to investigate subversion at Florida colleges and universities. Its chairman, State Senator Charley Johns, was a segregationist who initially used his committee to find a “conspiratorial web uniting Communists with political liberals, civil rights activists, and integrationists.” Before long, however, Johns became obsessed with finding “a causal link between homosexuality and political subversion,” as one historian writes. It was hard to find genuine Communists in Florida, even for a committee dubbed a “Mini-HUAC” by its detractors; it wasn’t nearly as difficult to find gay men and women. By the time the Johns Committee disbanded in 1964, it achieved the dismissal of 100 teachers and professors.

The Johns Committee reached its apogee in 1962, long after the worst of the Red Scare burnt itself out. Accusations of homosexuality at the University of South Florida led to a long, humiliating series of public hearings, with Johns and others dubbing USF “a veritable refuge for practicing homosexuals” and “a campus of evil.” Four professors were terminated, two of whom appealed the decision. John Caldwell, a theater professor, received backing from students, faculty members and administrators who denied that he’d behaved improperly. Nonetheless, Caldwell ultimately resigned because “I won’t subject myself to further indignities from that man [Johns] and what he’s doing to destroy teacher morale at the university.”

Charley Johns (center)

In the fall of 1955, Boise, Idaho was “shocked to learn that their city had sheltered a widespread homosexual underworld that involved some of Boise’s most prominent men and had preyed on hundreds of teen-age boys for the past decade.” This, in Time Magazine’s breathless description, explained how the arrest of three young Boiseans on morals charges spiraled into a massive persecution in which 1,500 men were questioned (and 16 arrested) for their role in an alleged “pervert ring.” Accusations flourished about adults assaulting minors at the local high school (some students later admitted that they engaged in homosexual activity, but only with each other), or underage male prostitutes procured for rich clients by “tough gang members.” 

Cynics wondered how much political feuds or personal scores fueled Boise’s panic. One victim blamed it on “a city councilman and a friend of his, an attorney” (presumably J. Charles Blanton, involved the subsequent prosecutions) who “were after a prominent city official.” Among those arrested were Joe Moore, Vice President of the Idaho First National Bank, charged with molesting a 15 year old; another was Frank Jones, the 17 year old son of Councilman Buck Jones, whose hopes of attending West Point were dashed (decades later, Frank committed suicide). The Idaho Statesman, whose lurid headlines demanded that officials “Crush the Monster,” hated Mayor R.E. Edlefsen and fanned the scandal’s flames to embarrass him. Perhaps some of these men were guilty; it’s hardly impossible that businessmen or politicians engaged in tawdry behavior. But in this hysterical atmosphere, it proved impossible to sort truth from fiction.

An equally unnerving saga unfolded in Sioux City, Iowa around the same time. In August 1954 eight year old Jimmy Bremmers disappeared; he was found two weeks later, having been “struck several times in the head and sexually molested.” Suspicion centered on Ernest Triplett, a vagabond whom one writer likened to “a character from one of William S. Burroughs’ novels.” He’d been arrested in Omaha for soliciting sex (reportedly pimping his own wife) and selling marijuana; now working as a music salesman, Triplett’s eccentricities and perpetually rumpled appearance led one acquaintance to describe him as “the creepiest person I ever laid eyes on.” Triplett became an easy target for authorities, who arrested him soon after Bremmers’ death.

Ernest Triplett

Triplett was subjected to psychological torture; a psychiatrist, Dr. Anthony Sainz, repeatedly injected him with a “truth serum” made from LSD and sodium amytol until he confessed to killing Jimmy Bremmers. This was enough for prosecutors, who proclaimed Triplett “psychotic as well as homosexual” and moved to convict him despite a lack of physical evidence or eyewitness testimony. During his trial, Triplett recanted his story, claiming that he’d been watching Liberace on television when Bremmers disappeared – a claim which only cemented his guilt. “They had a weak case against Triplett,” a juror admitted, “but he admitted in open court that he listened to Liberace…and a man who does that is liable to do anything.”

Triplett’s conviction (he ultimately served 18 years in prison) was only the beginning. On July 9th, 1955, with Triplett safely behind bars, two year-old Donna Sue Davis was kidnapped from her home; she, too, was molested and killed by a blow to the head. When police failed to find the culprit, they exploited a recently passed “sexual psychopath” law to round up twenty gay men, holding them without trial before committing them to a mental institution. Most spent several months there, enduring psychotherapy and other forms of humiliation; a few recanted their homosexuality (“You people taught me a lesson,” one assured his psychiatrist upon discharge), but none was ever connected to either murder.

Frank Kameny leads a Mattachine society protest, 1965

Victims of the Lavender Scare ultimately ranged into the thousands. Lillian Faderman estimates 4,954 Federal government employees were dismissed for same-sex behavior, with an unknown number of others discharged or arrested by local and state officials. Others, unable to find a living or clear their names, committed suicide. Yet there was a silver lining to the witch hunt: one victim recounted how the purges forged “a wonderful feeling of comradeship.” This in turn spurred early gay rights movements like ONE and the Mattachine Society, which began the LGBTQ community’s march towards the political mainstream.

Frank Kameny, the former Army astronomer, became the head of Washington’s Mattachine Society and a major figure in the early gay rights movement. “Morality is a matter of personal opinion and individual belief on which any American citizen may hold any view he wishes,” Kameny opined, “and upon which the government has no power or authority to have any view at all.” Nonetheless the United States government has often insisted on applying it; restrictions against gay and lesbian Civil Service employees weren’t abolished until 1969. Fifty-one years later, the legacy of the Lavender Scare, and the fight to overcome it, continues.


Sources and Further Reading

The definitive book on this subject remains David K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (2004), which inspired Josh Howard’s 2017 documentary. Others consulted include John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (1983); Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle (2015); Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (2012 edition; originally published 1992); and Stuart Timmons, The Trouble With Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement (1990).

For specific incidents, see Rodger McDaniel, Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester C. Hunt (2013) and Neil Miller, Sex-crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the Fifties (2002), on the Sioux City murders. For general background, with varying levels of discussion of gay and lesbian victims, see Ted Morgan, Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth Century America (2003); Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998); and Landon R.Y. Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left (2012)