“They just disappeared.”
While The Lavender Scare reminds us that the political systems which reproduce our oppression can never be trusted upon for our freedom, it fails in its glorification of American patriotism. Josh Howard’s documentary details the height of McCarthyism in the late 1940s to 50s, when gays and lesbians were purged from state offices for fear that they were “morally susceptible” to Communist influences.
The documentary meticulously pieces together interviews and quotes from the gays and lesbians who were fired on the basis of their sexuality, as well as the “documents” which legislated the evidence of their “homosexual tendencies.” This, however, is not an easy feat given that political authorities simply fired, and arrested gay people for no reason at all other than that of virulent homophobia. In many cases, there were no documents behind these arrests. As an interviewee says, they just disappeared. Many gay people were forced to live in silence after the news of these arrests broke. Most never came out to family about the trauma they underwent. There is a harrowing moment in the documentary when one of the investigators in charge of the arrests mentions – with utter indifference – how gay people just vanished off the face of public life altogether for fear of being caught. To this day, we do not know the exact number of lives destroyed by The Lavender Scare. It is terrifying to know how a life could have just disappeared from view without anyone ever knowing about it.
As the documentary terrifyingly reveals, it was state-sanctioned violence against gays which created the visibility of sexuality and in doing so, concretised the tangibility of our existence. For instance, one was officially declared a homosexual during the exact moment of their arrest by the authorities. Reasons ranging from effeminate styles to even the mannish lesbian were invoked for justification, but were absolutely groundless. The notion that an individual’s sexuality could be read for was sheer falsehood. Instead, such reasons were wielded for the sole purpose of creating the “traces” of homosexuality – which then provided justification for homophobia.
Insidiously, behind the purging of gay people from public discourse was a violent absence of nothingness at all. It was not that gay people were more morally susceptible to Communism, or that they were naturally deviant. The era of the Lavender Scare was driven entirely by hate, and politics created bogus, and ludicrous reasons to justify that hate. Michel Foucault argued in The History of Sexuality that homosexuality as a category did not exist until politics categorised it as a medical condition, and placed sexuality into discourse for the sole purpose of classification and subjugation. Indeed, as the documentary shows, people were branded as gay by the state. Homosexuality, far from being essential or intrinsic, was a modern invention used to consolidate state power.
It is in this regard that Howard’s documentary does well to illuminate the unjustified violence behind state-sanctioned homophobia. However, what I find particularly worrying about the documentary was its glaring failure to criticise American patriotism. In several scenes, Howard’s documentary highlighted how military recruitment for World War 2 gave gays and lesbians “a sense of community” because of the segregation of sexes within the system. It was even described as “a revolutionary thing that happened to lesbians and gay men.”
I personally think that the murderous imperialism embodied by the American military is a horrific thing of this world. It seems absurd to suggest that the military is revolutionary for the LGBT community, when these same politics have been complicit in our literal deaths. In one scene, an interviewee was shown to be upset about passing up a promotion in the Navy for fear of being found out as a lesbian. I do relate to her fear, but I cannot empathise with the desire to rise up the ranks of a fundamentally homophobic political institution. Yet, the documentary does not condemn this patriotism, but rather sells it as a tearful moment which begs for our sympathy. Since the documentary has previously highlighted how homophobia is state-sanctioned, this explicit patriotism feels like a detrimental oversight in its attempt to indict the cruelty of politics.
Progress cannot and should not be framed as positive when it comes at the price of advancing the chokehold systems of oppression have on us. Instead of attempting to enter the system that remains indifferent to our pain, what we should be doing instead, is question these same systems for their bigotry, hate, and violence. It is this questioning that The Lavender Scare fails to do and as such, ends up being complicit with the very same system it tries to criticise.