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The Lavender Scare and Beyond: Documenting LGBTQ History from the Great Depression to Today

The Lavender Scare, a new documentary that will air on PBS on Tuesday, June 18th, documents the systematic firing and discrimination of LGBT people under the Eisenhower administration. The film is based on David Johnson's book The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. The film is directed and produced by Josh Howard, a producer and broadcast executive with more than 25 years of experience in news and documentary production. He has been honored with 24 Emmy Awards, mostly for his work on the CBS News broadcast 60 Minutes. Josh began his career at 60 Minutes reporting stories with correspondent Mike Wallace. He was later named senior producer and then executive editor of the broadcast.  Following that, he served as executive producer of the weeknight edition of 60 Minutes.

Recently, Eric Gonzaba interviewed Director Josh Howard via phone. This interview was transcribed by Andrew Fletcher and has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Gonzaba: I just wanted to let you know, I actually got to watch the documentary last night. I knew a little bit about it before watching it. I know the content quite well, but I knew of your work beforehand and I just want to say it was really fabulous to watch it finally and I find it extremely credible. It’s well covered and has lots of fantastic aspects to it, so I’m excited to talk to you today. 

Howard: Thank you, thanks so much.

G: Now I’m curious to start off thinking about your own part of this documentary. What drew you to the subject matter; what prompted you to think about this period in general?

H: Well, to tell you the truth, I came across David Johnson’s book, The Lavender Scare, and I was just surprised that I didn’t know this story. I’m a little bit of an American history buff and I thought I knew LGBTQ history, being old enough to have lived through a lot of it, and it was just shocking to learn how systematically it was that the government discriminated against gay people. I worked in TV news my entire career and I was happily retired from that career, but after reading this I thought this isn’t just history really, this is a news story; this is something that people don’t know about. It seemed natural to try to capture the stories of these people on film. That’s what drew me to it.

G: Now it’s funny, when I think about this story, especially thinking about the Red Scare in the fifties and the Lavender Scare at the same time period, I think grade school education in Social Studies and History have pushed this understanding of the Red Scare in different ways – even in other facets like The Crucible in literature classes and whatnot. It seems to be that public education has this knowledge that the Red Scare is an important part of history, but I’m curious why you think the story of the Lavender Scare hasn’t been told before and is not understood by the public.

H: Well, a couple of things. I think partly, gay history has traditionally been marginalized. It’s really only in the past three decades that we’ve come to recognize the need to understand the histories of different minority groups. We’re just more recently coming to the understanding of the need for gay history to be acknowledged as well. But I think the big reason that people didn’t know about this and even people within the community really didn’t know about it is that when this was going on in the fifties and sixties, and into the seventies, eighties, and nineties – you know, having seen the film, that it wasn’t until the 1990s that this policy was reversed – but particularly during those early years, it was in everybody’s interest not to talk about it. The gay men and lesbians who were being fired didn’t want to talk about, even to their close friends and family, why they had been fired because they did feel a need to remain in the closet at that time. The government, after some initial publicity about how we’ll track down these people and get them out of the government, as the years went on and the firings continued, the government stopped talking about how many people were being fired because then the question started to become ‘well why did you hire them in the first place? Why are you only finding out that there are gay people working for the government now, after they’ve been there for all these years? Why didn’t you have better security systems?’ It was really in everybody’s interest not to talk about it. The remarkable thing is even someone like Frank Kameny, who was right in the center of this battle for all these years, he didn’t know how widespread this was and how many people were either denied employment or fired. It wasn’t until the 1990s when a lot of documents from this time period were being declassified that David Johnson was able to do the research that really put together the enormity of what happened. It’s really a combination of the lack of gay history being taught but also the lack of knowledge in general of this time period. 

G: Something you said earlier that struck me a little bit was you said that thinking about this project, when you were reading Johnson’s book, you were thinking about how it’s not just history, it’s also kind of a news story with your news background. What do you mean by that – what is the difference between history and a news story?

H: Well, what specifically I was referring to was that it’s a news story because people don’t know about it. I worked at “60 Minutes” for many years and the goal was to come upon some stories that would surprise people and put some issue into a broader context, so on a very basic level it’s a news story because it was news to me. On that level it was news. But beyond that I think there is a real relevance to the message today that frankly I wasn’t expecting there to be when I started working on this, believe it or not almost ten years ago. I think we’re living in a precarious time right now and it is very similar to what was going on in the 1950s. The homophobia of the fifties, as the film explains, was a pretty direct backlash against an earlier period during which there was much less discrimination against LGBTQ people. We’ve obviously made enormous strides in the past decade and more, but I think one message of the film and one of the things that makes it relevant is to remember that progress in issues of social equality doesn’t necessarily continue in a straight line, and there can be a step back for every couple of steps forward. I think we have to be aware of that. On a broader perspective, the film explores a time when a specific minority group was demonized in the name of national security and patriotism and so forth. You could argue that we’re seeing a repeat of that today with different minority groups. I think there’s a message here that history has not looked kindly on by those who have embarked on those kinds of policies, whether it be Japanese-Americans during World War II or LGBTQ people. There’s a whole list, sadly. 

G: You know, funny that you mention that – I think one of the most interesting things for me and one of the things that I really enjoyed about the documentary was that you don’t just focus on the 1950s. When we think about the title of your film, we think you’re just going to be talking about the Lavender Scare the entire time, but we also hear about this incredible time in D.C. in the 1930s that you show; we hear about World War II and the birth of gay liberation at Stonewall and beyond that. I guess I’m curious about going beyond the moment of the 1950s – what does that do to your story? Obviously, it provides some context, but what were you trying to show by giving a broader narrative rather than just focusing on the fifties?

H: I think it was able to show how the discrimination of the fifties, just as that was a result of a more permissive earlier time; it also set the stage for the reaction of the sixties, in which people did decide to stand up for their rights and say ‘this is wrong.’ I think it’s really important – Stonewall obviously is a huge milestone in our history, but I think it’s really important to acknowledge that there were incredibly brave people in the 1940s and particularly the fifties and early sixties who were sowing the seeds of the Stonewall Rebellion and pay tribute to their contribution, but also to really remember and to respect the activism and commitment that they made – to keep in mind that as much progress as we’ve made, we have to keep at it. 

G: Well what’s interesting too is that going into this film, I always assumed that because we’re approaching the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall, that people are still obsessed with the seminal moment in 1969. Frank Kameny’s efforts and activism is, like you said, something that we need to acknowledge, so what I loved about your film too was that you argue that Kameny is also reacting to a gay activism that was before him, that was fighting along lines of civil rights but was also fighting along lines of separatism, or difference I should say, not along lines of marriage or employment rights or anything like that. That’s something that for a gay historian was really interesting to think of, even pre-Stonewall activists not being united about how to go forth in politics or culture. 

H: Absolutely, and it really is. One of the things that attracted me to the story is that there are three distinct acts in this story. There’s the Depression and World War II time when gay people are finding each other and building communities, and then there’s the fifties and the Lavender Scare when those communities are really under attack, and then we see how the community picks itself up and began the fight that led to Stonewall and led to marriage equality and where we are today. 

G: I’m curious, when did you begin this project? I was just thinking about how Frank Kameny is such a central figure to this film, as he should be, and I’m curious – did you get to interact with him at all? I know he passed away in 2011 I believe, but I’m curious if you had any contact with him and how his story helped you craft this larger story.

H: I read David’s book in 2009 and reached out to him. I had assumed that a documentary must have been made on the subject because it just seemed like such a natural. I tracked him down and my question really was where can I find the documentary and obviously he told me that none had been done. David and I met for the first time to discuss the possibility of doing this film on July 4th, 2009. Not only is this the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall, but it’s also the tenth anniversary of David and I [beginning the project]. It’s a big year for anniversaries. So we talked about it and I’d never done an independent film before. I had always worked for broadcast companies – CBS and later NBC – so I really didn’t appreciate the difficulty in raising funds and really doing something on my own. But in any event, reading the book and talking to David and learning about the story – I did realize that Frank was, in a way, the central character. And so really before seriously figuring out how to raise money or go about doing this, I hired a camera crew and spent three days with Frank in July 2010. [I] interviewed him over three days, so the interviews of Frank that you see in the film were done by me. I spent three days with him, and it was, you know, the word ‘fascinating’ and ‘an honor’ and all those words really undersell it. I knew, even before reading David’s book, of Frank and certainly knew the details of all his contributions and activism. We didn’t shoot in his house – you might have noticed the snapshot of Frank sitting next to his desk which is piled high with folders and papers. Frank’s house didn’t lend itself to being a place that we could get a camera crew into. We shot at a different location, and for each of the three days I drove to Frank’s house and picked him up and drove him to the interview location, and I remember driving thinking ‘this is the Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony; this is the person that started our movement,’ and it was just incredibly moving to be able to interact with him. I will say, after three days I started to have some sympathy for the people in the federal government who had to interact with him because Frank is single-minded and doesn’t take direction easily and is quite a character, which is why he became the incredible person he did. It was just an amazing experience to be with him and I’ll never forget it. 

G: I liked in the film, John D'Emilio called him stubborn and that stubbornness has gotten him in trouble, but in some ways, it also helped fuel the movement that needed someone like him, to believe how right he was.

H: Absolutely. We estimate about 5,000 people had been fired before Frank, and all of those 5,000 obviously went quietly, and it never would have occurred to Frank to go quietly. Yet it also worked against him in ways. This didn’t make it into the film, but Frank founded the Mattachine Society of Washington and was the driving force and so forth, and at some point, he was thrown out of the organization because he was so difficult to work with. He was voted out as president by his own organization, and many years later he was quoted as saying, ‘the only thing I did wrong with the Mattachine Society was making it a democratic institution.’ That captures Frank and it was that personality, though, as you say, that without that he wouldn’t have been who he was and who knows when someone would’ve come along to start the movement that he did. 

G: I’m curious, Frank’s such a fascinating person, and I think for the wider public, even among historians, I think Kameny’s name is nothing, in terms of general knowledge about LGBT history, anything to Harvey Milk, who is lauded in the movement. Do you see your film as kind of correcting this larger historical ignorance of Kameny and the early activist work in the 1950s and 60s? 

H: I do. I mean, I really do think he deserves more attention and more credit than he’s gotten. A friend of mine does trivia, runs a little weekly trivia contest at a bar in San Diego, and every once in a while, he’ll throw in the question: who was Frank Kameny? Younger gay people, and older gay people as well I assume, don’t know. I asked him [Frank] about this when I interviewed him, and he was thrilled with the recognition he got at the White House, and he liked that idea that he was, as he put it, on a first name basis with President Obama, but he didn’t seem overly concerned about his place in history. I think it really is he did what was right for him to do, and if people know about it, great, and if they don’t, that’s ok too. I think he should be on a stamp, and he deserves recognition, because he did incredible things. I should also add, there were a handful of other people – Barbara Gittings, Jack Nichols – who were equally active and vocal, but no one like Frank who really stuck to it his entire life and really devoted every minute of the rest of his life to the struggle. 

G: Moving a little bit to your filmmaking, one of the interesting aspects of the documentary is that we’re not just hearing from people who were kicked out of their occupations or just from their families or even just from historians, we’re also, in the documentary, we get to hear from the very people who were involved in the kicking-out process. You actually have interviewed people like John Hanes and Bartley Fugler. What was your interest in including their perspectives on the story and what was your reaction after hearing those perspectives?

H: Well, I’m so happy you ask that, because in a way, those stories are my favorite stories in the film. The people who were fired – obviously their stories are moving and tragic and infuriating – but you kind of know how the story is going to go. You understand what happened to them. I found fascinating, talking to these guys all these years later, who initiated these policies and carried them out, and were generally unremorseful. The most they would say would be ‘I wouldn’t do the same thing today,’ but every one of them said, for the times, it was the right thing to do. The credit for this, by the way, goes to my brilliant associate director Jill Landes, who I had worked with at 60 Minutes and then later at NBC and I dragged her into this project as well. She was the one who tracked down the government officials. David, in his book, really focused on the victims. Jill was able to find the investigators, and particularly John Hanes, who was the number three person in the State Department at the time and was directly responsible for this policy. I just thought it was so amazing, here was a guy who Frank Kameny wrote to in 1960-something, and Haynes responded to him and said don’t write to me anymore because I’m not changing the policy. When we interviewed him, he had no recollection of who Frank Kameny was, or why they were corresponding. You mentioned Fugler – Fugler was the one person, the one government official who said he would still not hire gay people today. After the interview, my director of photography said to me as we were cleaning up that ‘you must have wanted to slug that guy,’ and I said as a filmmaker, to tell you the truth, I wanted to give him a kiss, because that’s what you need – someone to be honest on camera and portray the story that needs to be told. I’m really grateful to him, to Fugler, that he was completely honest and shared his point of view. 

G: What does it mean for those people, for these two men, to agree to this interview knowing that they’re probably not going to be on the side that this documentary is going to be supportive of? By them sticking to their points of view, what does that tell you, or did that surprise you at all?

H: It surprised me that they agreed to the interview as readily as they did, but I think – I’ve given this a lot of thought because it’s a great question – I think they felt that they really didn’t have anything to hide and didn’t do anything wrong, and if anything they were happy to defend their positions. From our point of view, I might think they’re going to run from the cameras because they don’t want to be associated with this, and I think from their perspective this is what they did, they were right when they did it, and they were happy to talk about it. None of the interviews ended with any confrontation. With John Hanes, after we shot the interview – he has since passed away but at the time he lived in Montana, in Boseman – we went and we had drinks at his house, it was all very friendly. You know, they said what they wanted to say and believed it, and that’s great. 

G:  Moving away from that side, you say David Johnson focused so much on the people who were fired; I don’t want to give anything away to people who are going to read this, but there are some great details about some of the people that you followed in this documentary, like Madeleine Tress and Carl Rizzi, that you leave for the very end of the documentary, literally the last minute or two, that are some really major details and some of the biggest things that I keep thinking about, which is an applause for your fantastic documentary style. I’m just curious about why: was that a conscious placement of those details at the very end, or were you trying to elicit responses from the audience?

H: Well I guess, I mean everything at some point is a conscious decision. We went through several different versions of scripts and structures, and at one point there were a couple more characters who didn’t wind up getting included. The first rough cut was something like three hours long. As a filmmaker, you know that people only have so much attention and time they can devote to something. I think the way it worked out, the epilogue there was a way to encapsulate everybody’s stories and review really what their contributions were. 

G: Something that stuck with me is the very last thing I hear about Madeleine Tress is that she’s continually denied a passport to travel away from our country. Her experience of the Lavender Scare is not something of the distant past, it’s something she has to live with the rest of her life, which speaks to the terror that so many people have, right? We can laud Kameny for being great, but in some ways hearing stories like that you totally understand why people stayed private, or like you say in the beginning of the film, it’s one thing to get fired, but so many people just didn’t even want to face that; they resigned their posts. I’m curious what you’ve seen as the biggest reaction to the film since you started screening it and what’s the biggest surprise you’ve gotten from that reaction from viewers?  

H: Well I guess the biggest surprise I see from audiences is just the story itself, that people say how is it possible that I didn’t know this, particularly from older people who lived through the McCarthy era or at least shortly in the period thereafter and were familiar with it. That’s the biggest surprise from audiences. I think for me, a big surprise, and I guess this is naïve of me still – we did close to 100 film festival screenings – and I would say, at more than half of them, someone got up during the question and answer period and said ‘I worked for the government, and I was fired because I was gay.’ I guess I’m still surprised when I see how many people this affected. There was one event – we were at a screening in Ocean Grove, New Jersey in the basement of a church, so not a big event. There might have been 50 people there. After the film and after the Q&A these two elderly women came up to me – I later found out that they were both in their nineties – and they told me that they had met in the 1950s when they were both secretaries for the Social Security Administration. They were partners and have been together since, and back in the 1950s when it was discovered that they were lesbians they were fired, they were both fired from the Social Security Administration. They said to me, ‘we never knew, for all these years, that this was part of something bigger. We thought it was just us. Thank you for telling our story.’ It’s that kind of thing that really sends the message home about how many people this affected and as you just said, how it remains with you your entire life. 

G: It was a very powerful documentary, and I was excited to see that it will continue to be screened more this summer, and I’m excited to hear more reactions from the film, because it’s something that definitely needs to be seen, so congratulations. 

H: We’re going to be at the Avalon Theatre, so on June 5th I’ll be there if you can stand seeing it again. CBS Sunday Morning is doing a piece about it and it looks like they’ll be filming the question and answer there, and David Johnson (and Jamie Shoemaker) will be there as well. Hope maybe you’ll be there!

Note: HNN did go to the screenign at the Avalon Theatre. You can read Andrew Fletcher's excellent write-up of the event here