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

Joan Cassidy left active duty in the Navy for fear of being outed as lesbian.

ByABC News
March 5, 2012, 9:33 AM

March 5, 2012— -- 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.