Lavender Scare: U.S. Fired 5,000 Gays in 1953 'Witch Hunt'

PHOTO: Joan Cassidy, now 84, watched dozens of gays and lesbians fired from the Navy during the 1950s.
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Joan Cassidy, 84, has the U.S. Navy in her blood. Her father and mother, a proud Yeomanette, served active duty in World War I. Her brother and sister were in World War II.

By 1953, Lt. j.g. Cassidy, then 26, was head of a Navy intelligence division with highest-level security clearances.

But while serving in Pearl Harbor, she resigned from a promising career and joined the Navy Reserve, forced to throw away her dreams because she was a lesbian.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower that year declared homosexuals a threat to national security and ordered the immediate firing of every gay man and lesbian working for the U.S. government.

The State Department fired hundreds of gay men and women, calling them sexual "perverts" who would be vulnerable to blackmail; 5,000 government workers, including private contractors, were publicly exposed and sent packing.

"It was a witch hunt," said Cassidy, who lives in a senior housing complex in Centreville, Md.

"I thought to myself, what if somebody goes digging around and finds out, I would lose everything," she said. "I wanted it so badly, but it scared the living daylights out of me."

Now, a new film, "Lavender Scare," explores this untold story, a dark chapter in U.S. when the government worried "more about homosexuals than communists."

"We were supposed to be in touch with the Russians," said Cassidy, who was among several other eyewitnesses interviewed in the documentary.

Based on the book by David K. Johnson, the documentary was produced and directed by Emmy Award-winner Josh Howard, a former "60 Minutes" producer. It is his first independent film.

The title of the film is a reference to the color lavender, which is often associated with the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

"There was a conspiracy of silence," Howard, 57, said. "Many had deals with the government and resigned for medical reasons because they didn't want to talk. The government didn't want to talk because people would question why their hired them in the first place."

The documentary, which is expected to be ready for the film festivals this fall, also includes one of the last interviews with Frank Kameny, a Harvard-educated astronomer, who was one of the first gay rights activists and died in October.

Kameny, considered to be "grandfather" of the modern gay rights movement, was working for the Army Map Service on classified missile projects in the hopes of being an astronaut when he was fired.

Four years before the Stonewall riots in New York City, Kameny led pickets at the White House in 1965 to protest the government firings. He petitioned the Supreme Court, which ultimately refused to hear his case.

Only in 1995 was that order rescinded by President Bill Clinton, who also instituted the controversial military policy, "don't ask, don't tell." Congress voted to end the policy last year.

"Chilling stories like Joan Cassidy's underscore the fear that these people lived with every day, afraid of losing their jobs, and all the people who never tried to fulfill their dream because they knew they were not going anywhere," said Howard, who is gay.

'Witch Hunt' Against Gays Lasted Decades

Cassidy said she watched the "witch hunt" unfold as the Office of Naval Investigation began its crusade to cleanse the civilian service of homosexuals.

She said many of her friends were called in: "They sat behind the big lights and started grilling them, saying, 'We know you're a homosexual, because your partner is in the next room.' She told us, 'You might as well confess.'"

Her moment of clarity came while looking out her window when she saw 15 to 20 Navy women -- "in those terrible gray, seersucker suits" -- and realized they had been rounded up for firing.

"They had been identified as homosexuals," she said. "They had their heads held high and their shoulders squared and it made me shiver."

Their parents would receive the dreaded letter: "We are sending your homosexual child home," she said.

Up until that point, Cassidy never frequented lesbian bars, because it was too dangerous. Gossip could destroy a career.

She had learned that she had been identified by an enlisted woman. "I had never said a word to them," she said. "I don't know what it is that I did -- or how I walked or held myself. But word spread quickly."

Lesbians were careful to only socialize at private parties, and often with gay men for protection from scandal, women on one side and men at the other. She remembers a time when they heard a knock at the door, and women scrambled to change their seats.

"It was automatic," Cassidy said. "We'd be guy, girl, guy, girl, with our hands on the guys and their arms all around us."

Progress has been made but, director Howard said, "There are still battles to be fought."

President Obama is considering an executive order to create anti-discrimination policies for private government contractors.

"That would be huge, particularly in these times of outsourcing," he said, citing a UCLA Williams Institute study estimating that a half-million gay people work in private companies who do business with the government. Thirty states still have no anti-discrimination laws.

Howard said that learning this history is important, because the mass firings set the stage for the homophobia that still persists today in schools and in the workplace.

As for Cassidy, she would have stayed on in active duty. "I loved the Navy," she said.

"There are so many people who have no idea what that time was like," she said. "They have no idea of the kind of fear ... They made us feel as though we were below consideration."

But Cassidy and Howard acknowledge significant progress in LGBT rights since the McCarthy Era firings. Gay marriage is legal in seven states and the District of Columbia.

Cassidy is now living proof of new societal attitudes. She and her same-sex partner of 13 years were legally married in Washington, D.C.

The tragedy of what happened 59 years ago was, Cassidy said, "that every one of us had joined the Navy because we were so proud of our country and wanted to serve."

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