The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government

University of Chicago Press
2
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The McCarthy era is generally considered the worst period of political repression in recent American history. But while the famous question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" resonated in the halls of Congress, security officials were posing another question at least as frequently, if more discreetly: "Information has come to the attention of the Civil Service Commission that you are a homosexual. What comment do you care to make?"

Historian David K. Johnson here relates the frightening, untold story of how, during the Cold War, homosexuals were considered as dangerous a threat to national security as Communists. Charges that the Roosevelt and Truman administrations were havens for homosexuals proved a potent political weapon, sparking a "Lavender Scare" more vehement and long-lasting than McCarthy's Red Scare. Relying on newly declassified documents, years of research in the records of the National Archives and the FBI, and interviews with former civil servants, Johnson recreates the vibrant gay subculture that flourished in New Deal-era Washington and takes us inside the security interrogation rooms where thousands of Americans were questioned about their sex lives. The homosexual purges ended promising careers, ruined lives, and pushed many to suicide. But, as Johnson also shows, the purges brought victims together to protest their treatment, helping launch a new civil rights struggle.

The Lavender Scare shatters the myth that homosexuality has only recently become a national political issue, changing the way we think about both the McCarthy era and the origins of the gay rights movement. And perhaps just as importantly, this book is a cautionary tale, reminding us of how acts taken by the government in the name of "national security" during the Cold War resulted in the infringement of the civil liberties of thousands of Americans.
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About the author

David K. Johnson is a writer and editor in Chicago who has taught U.S. history at Roosevelt University and Northwestern University.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Feb 13, 2009
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Pages
312
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ISBN
9780226401966
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Language
English
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Genres
History / United States / General
Social Science / General
Social Science / LGBT Studies / Gay Studies
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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In 1951, a new type of publication appeared on newsstands—the physique magazine produced by and for gay men. For many men growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, these magazines and their images and illustrations of nearly naked men, as well as articles, letters from readers, and advertisements, served as an initiation into gay culture. The publishers behind them were part of a wider world of “physique entrepreneurs”: men as well as women who ran photography studios, mail-order catalogues, pen-pal services, book clubs, and niche advertising for gay audiences. While such businesses have often been seen as peripheral to the gay political movement, in Buying Gay David K. Johnson shows how gay commerce was not a byproduct of the gay-rights movement but an important catalyst for it.

Offering a vivid look into the lives of physique entrepreneurs and their customers, and presenting a wealth of illustrations, Johnson explores the connection—and tension—between the market and the movement. With circulation rates many times higher than the openly political “homophile” magazines, physique magazines were the largest gay media outlets of their time. This network of producers and consumers helped foster a gay community and upend censorships laws, paving the way for open expression. Physique entrepreneurs were at the center of legal struggles, especially against the U.S. Post Office, including the court victory that allowed full frontal male nudity and open homoeroticism. Buying Gay reconceives the history of the gay movement and shows how consumer culture helped create community and a site for resistance.

In 1951, a new type of publication appeared on newsstands—the physique magazine produced by and for gay men. For many men growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, these magazines and their images and illustrations of nearly naked men, as well as articles, letters from readers, and advertisements, served as an initiation into gay culture. The publishers behind them were part of a wider world of “physique entrepreneurs”: men as well as women who ran photography studios, mail-order catalogues, pen-pal services, book clubs, and niche advertising for gay audiences. While such businesses have often been seen as peripheral to the gay political movement, in Buying Gay David K. Johnson shows how gay commerce was not a byproduct of the gay-rights movement but an important catalyst for it.

Offering a vivid look into the lives of physique entrepreneurs and their customers, and presenting a wealth of illustrations, Johnson explores the connection—and tension—between the market and the movement. With circulation rates many times higher than the openly political “homophile” magazines, physique magazines were the largest gay media outlets of their time. This network of producers and consumers helped foster a gay community and upend censorships laws, paving the way for open expression. Physique entrepreneurs were at the center of legal struggles, especially against the U.S. Post Office, including the court victory that allowed full frontal male nudity and open homoeroticism. Buying Gay reconceives the history of the gay movement and shows how consumer culture helped create community and a site for resistance.

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