On February 28, 1950, Undersecretary of State John Peurifroy testified before a US Senate Committee that 91 employees dismissed from the State Department were chased out over accusations of homosexuality. In the ongoing purge known as the Lavender Scare, thousands of gay employees left the federal workforce because of their sexuality.
The Rapid City Journal reported that Peurifroy said the department only fired one person. The remainder were given the opportunity to resign.
“Peurifoy described 91 of the 203 persons as homosexual cases. The department’s security regulations list such persons as bad risks because of the possibility that they might be blackmailed by espionage agents.”
Peurifoy’s statement created a media frenzy. The resultant public outcry prompted a witchhunt as the US government worked to weed out gay employees.
The Lavender Scare ran concurrently with America’s Red Scare, the Communist witchhunt of the 1950s. However, the Lavender Scare lasted longer and impacted more lives. Researchers say the American government fired thousands of gay employees or forced them to resign.
Australian diplomat George Welsh
The purge also spread to other countries. Pressure from superiors in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, then the Department of External Affairs, caused gay men to quit their positions.
George Welsh served in the Australian Diplomatic Service in the UK and then the USA in the 1940s and 50s. The department recalled him to Canberra in 1951 despite an excellent service record. Forced out of his job, George worked first for the Red Cross and later the Crippled Children’s Association. Later he moved to Cairns where he became a celebrated restauranteur and a local television personality.
But George Welsh was one of the lucky ones. The Lavender Scare ruined many lives and drove some to suicide.
Meanwhile, in the US, government committees formulated ideas for ridding federal agencies of gays. They scrutinised police and judicial records for evidence. They sought medical and psychological expertise. A senator inquired of the Surgeon General, “There is no quick test like an x-ray that discloses these things?”
It took until 1975 before the Civil Service Commission stopped barring gay people from federal civilian employment because of their sexuality. Of course, the military took much longer.
Senator McCarthy, Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover
Both the Red and Lavender Scares were instigated by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy and his assistant Roy Cohn. McCarthy and Cohn along with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover forced the firings or resignations of numerous government employees.
Sadly, we now know Cohn and Hoover were closeted gays. So, according to rumour, was McCarthy. He died of alcoholism at just 48.
Roy Cohn famously served as mentor to Donald Trump. But after years of relying on Cohn’s guidance and contacts, Trump dumped him when he discovered Cohn had tested positive for HIV.