The Lavender Scare


Before the rainbow.

(2017) Documentary (Full Exposure) Frank Kameny Glenn Close (narrator), Zachary Quinto, David Hyde Pierce, T.R. Knight, Cynthia Nixon, David K. Johnson, John D’Emilio, Lillian Federman, John W. Hanes, Carl Rizzi, Peter Szluk, Jen Totka, Vince Ferrence, Rev. Bruce Forbes, Joan Cassidy. Directed by Josh Howard

Most of us are aware of the strides that the LGBTQ community have made in recent years in asserting their rights and gaining mainstream acceptance. To truly appreciate how far they’ve come, however, it is important to note where they came from.

During the so-called “Red Scare” during the late Forties and Fifties, Americans became convinced that every echelon of our society had been infiltrated by communists and that our way of life was under immediate threat. That belief was amplified when the Russians detonated their own atom bomb in 1949, much sooner than most experts thought they should be able to. It was (correctly, as it turned out) assumed that the Russians had gotten help – from spies or traitors smuggling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

This gave rise to one of the most shameful periods in our history, when constitutional rights were routinely violated in the name of national security, when scum like Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn both rose to power. Most remember how the McCarthy hearings went after communists in Hollywood as well as in government service. Few remember what happened to the gay community.

President Eisenhower, in one of his first acts after taking office, signed an executive order banning homosexuals from working for the government. The thinking went that those with socially unacceptable sexual preferences were vulnerable to blackmail (although there is no evidence that this ever occurred in America). This led to investigations of people who would be accused of being gay or lesbian.

During the Thirties and Forties, many gay men and lesbians came to Washington to get government jobs which were plentiful. There was tolerance for their lifestyle and there were plenty of bars that catered to that clientele. They were cautiously uncloseted but this very freedom would be worked savagely against them as regular attendance at a gay bar would be enough to get you fired; most went quietly, not wanting to let their secret get out. Most were aware that they would have a hard time getting employment for the rest of their lives.

People would be brought into a room by a pair of federal ages without any legal representation. Their accusers would never be identified; they would be badgered and humiliated, and left little choice but to resign otherwise their secret would come out. Most went meekly into the night.

Not Dr. Franklin Kameny, though. An astronomer for the Army Map-making Corps, he was unceremoniously fired from the job he loved. Not about to take this lying down, he became an activist fighting for the rights of homosexuals; his chapter of the Mattachine Society (an early gay rights organization) was the most in-your-face chapter of the society, with Kameny organizing picketing, demonstrations and marches. In 1963, he became the first openly gay man to testify before Congress and he brought lawsuit after lawsuit trying to overturn the unjust laws which he was remarkably unsuccessful at, although nobody could doubt his intelligence and bulldog tenacity. However, Eisenhower’s executive orders banning gays from government jobs were  finally overturned by President Clinton in 1995.

Director Josh Howard seems to subscribe to the Ken Burns school of documentary filmmaking, using actors (including Hyde Pierce as a young Frank Kameny) reading letters and journal entries of those affected by the persecution of that era, supplemented by interviews with historians as well as those who still survive from that era. There’s also a lot of archival footage, both of pre-Stonewall gay life and anti-Gay propaganda pieces popularizing the myth that gay men are child molesters. The narration of Glenn Close brings everything together nicely, offering up context.

Some of the interviews are heartbreaking, such as Joan Cassidy who aspired to be the first female admiral in the United States Navy but who didn’t dare look for advancement lest her sexuality be discovered. Some are hilarious such as postal employee Carl Rizzi offering smarmy federal agents a better picture of himself in drag for their files. Some are reprehensible, such as the audio interview with investigator Peter Szluk who takes great delight in his accomplishment of ruining lives.

If there is anything that the film gets wrong is that it tends to be repetitive, making a lot of the same points over and over again despite a fairly short 1 hour and 14 minute length. That’s okay to a degree but repetition gets amplified the shorter a film is.

Kameny, who is interviewed here late in life, didn’t live to see the Defense of Marriage Act overturned in 2013 (he died in 2011) but chances are he would have growled “We still have a long way to go” before tilting at another windmill and he’s absolutely correct on that account. Gay rights remain very tenuous and fragile; already there is legislation that seeks to undo all that is done, particularly in red states. There is still plenty of anti-gay behavior out there and the struggle to end repression for our gay brothers and sisters is ongoing. It behooves us to take heart however, in that the cause has come a long way. The efforts of men like Frank Kameny are important to note, if just to remind us that we need more people like him in our society even now.

REASONS TO SEE: The celebration of a largely forgotten but important figure in early gay activism. Lots of nifty archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Despite the compact length the film is repetitious in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as sell as adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was based on and inspired by the book of the same name by historian David K. Johnson
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Stonewall
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Oceans 8

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