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On the eve of Pride 2019, D.C. LGBT Community Reflects on its own history with Lavender Scare

“I really think it is so important to remember that there were people who were taking a stand in the years before Stonewall and people who really had thecourage to get the movement rolling in the 1960’s. Their efforts should be recognized.”

As the question and answer session after Wednesday night’s screening of The Lavender Scare was wrapping up, director Josh Howard reminded the audience of the focus of his documentary: the systematic firing and discrimination of LGBT people under the Eisenhower administration, from their perspective. The screening included a Q&A afterwards that featured  Howard, David Johnson – the historian author of the  book that inspired the film, and Jamie Shoemaker–who is featured in the film as the first person to successfully resist the law. The screening was timely as D.C.’s Pride parade is Saturday, June 8, and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots is Friday, June 28.  The Lavender Scare will premiere on PBS on June 18. 

Most of the seats in the Avalon Theatre were filled. After the film and applause ended, Howard asked a question he likes to ask every audience at a screening: how many of you were personally affected or knew someone who was affected by the Lavender Scare? Almost everyone in the audience raised their hands. 

The Q&A was an open dialogue, with several people standing and telling stories of how they were personally tied to the events of the film and the movement in general. Several were connected to the central figure of the documentary, former prominent activist Frank Kameny. One man who had grown up with another prominent activist, Jack Nichols, explained, “when Jack was picketing in front of the White House, I was quite aware. In fact, Frank and Jack did some of the planning in my apartment at the time; but because I was a teacher, I couldn’t have anything to do with it, because if my picture was in the paper, then my career would’ve been over.”

The policy harmed the careers of some in the audience, though. “I had gone to Frank for guidance before my interview at NSA,” one gentleman recalled, “and he told me ‘don’t say anything, don’t answer anything that you’re not asked,’ and so forth. Anyway, I was not hired and I’m frankly very glad now that I was not hired.” Experiences such as those reflect just how wide-reaching the policy was; it not only removed the gay community from office, but also discouraged them from applying to positions in the first place. 

Frank Kameny’s impact on the D.C. community was evident. In attendance was his former campaign manager from 1971, who recalled that the day after they announced the campaign, “we received a check in the mail for $500 from actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. We used that money to travel to New York to meet with Gay Activist Alliance of New York.” Similarly, one of his former colleagues on the board of the ACLU in Washington recounted that as they defended their license to meet, “the issue was whether names [of gay members] would be revealed, and while Frank was very happy and very brave to have his name revealed, he didn’t feel that he could just turn over names of other people. That’s what he was fighting against in the agencies.” 

While the film successfully showed the struggle faced by the LGBT community, the conversion afterwards reflected the hope that many in the community feel today. Jamie Shoemaker, who was once almost fired from the NSA, evidenced the progress that he’s seen. “All of the security clearance agencies now have LGBT groups that are very active, including the NSA. One year after I retired, they payed me to come out to give a speech about my experiences… they (the groups) are very active and it’s really a good scene in these agencies now. What a difference,” he said. The theatre was immediately filled with applause. 

Many expressed a desire for reparations in some form or another. David Johnson, who authored The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, threw light on the LOVE Act, an act introduced into the Senate that would “mandate that the State Department investigate all of its firings since 1950. They would collect information from either fired employees or their families, and I think most importantly, though, it would mandate that their museum, the US Diplomacy Center, actually have a permanent exhibit on the Lavender Scare.” Once again, the room broke into applause.

The Capital Pride Parade will take place on Saturday, June 8th across multiple locations in Washington. The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots is Friday, June 28.  The Lavender Scare will premier on PBS on June 18.