The Lavender Scare: Whisperings of Homophobia

The Lavender Scare and the Second Red Scare were major components of Cold War era society and politics, particularly during Senator McCarthy’s time in office from 1947 to 1957. McCarthy is closely associated with these “scares” as he popularized them both as well as used them for his own political gain. While the Red Scare has become a household term, the Lavender Scare is more obscure. As Friedman explains it, the Lavender Scare refers to the period in which “thousands of suspected homosexuals were investigated, interrogated, and dismissed by government officials and private employers” (1105). Where the paranoia of the Red Scare produced a massive wave of anticommunism, the Lavender Scare introduced widespread homophobia into culture and politics. Besides their ties to McCarthy’s administration, the Red and Lavender scares are also related through the belief that communists and homosexuals have similar traits. Friedman describes these shared characteristics as “moral corruption, psychological immaturity, and an ability to ‘pass’ undetected among ordinary Americans” (1106). The biggest intersection of these scares is that both groups were believed to be “enslaved” by their “passions” for other men as well as lacking “masculine autonomy” (1106).

            The smearing of Senator McCarthy demonstrates the interconnected nature of anticommunism and homophobia as during the Army-McCarthy hearing, “gay-baiting” was used to “fight against red-baiting” (1106). As McCarthy’s relationship with Roy Cohn and David Schine began to be dissected and overanalyzed, McCarthy was depicted as feminine and in turn, passive, weak, and easily controlled. Because McCarthy was willing to be so sensitive and yielding to another man, it meant that it was possible that he could also be taken advantage of by communists. The painting of McCarthy as queer meant that he had “betrayed the nation for his own degenerate desires” and that he could not be trusted to defend the nation as he was easily dominated by other men as seen through the infamous whispering photo (1123). This demonstrates how anticommunism and homophobia are connected as the public thought that if one was willing to give into desires for another man, they were also willing to give into communist demands. The apparent weakness that they saw in homosexuality was the same weakness they saw in communism.

            In learning about how the members of congress used sexual innuendos against McCarthy, I unquestionably see similar tactics being used in politics today. My first thought was about that video of North Carolina representative Madison Cawthorn that was leaked last year. The leaked video shows a naked Cawthorn jokingly(?) thrusting another naked man. The video was allegedly leaked by an “opposition group” and was conveniently leaked just weeks before the Republican primary election (Mallonee). While I believe that it is unclear where the video originated from or what the intent of its posting was, it is clear that it was used by Cawthorn’s opponents to portray him as gay to his more homophobic audience. Cawthorne addressed the video by stating that it was blackmail from his opponents. The Cawthorne video is a lot more extreme and straight to the point compared to the McCarthy smear, but I find them similar in how out-of-context media was used to portray homosexuality that is then used for the harm of one’s political image.

CNN article of the Cawthorn video:

Mallonee, Mary Kay. “Cawthorn Addresses Video Released by Opposition Group Showing Him Naked in Bed ‘Being Crass’.” CNN, 5 May 2022.

2 thoughts on “The Lavender Scare: Whisperings of Homophobia

  1. Abigail,

    I quite enjoyed your post. I agree that a lot of low-brow discussion of sexuality still exists in modern politics. I wonder why the Red and Lavender Scares connected so quickly to ideas of masculinity. Today I feel as though we’re more likely to see Russians hyper-masculinized (if still villainized) in the form of action movie antagonists. Likewise, we have a broader cultural notion than McCarthy and co. did about what masculinity is and what it means so share one’s life with another. Did both of these discussions really have anything to do with masculinity, or was that just the shoddy rationalization?


  2. I really like how you describe the lavender scare; it is unfortunate that as hard as it was to be homosexual during this time, you are now being called a communist too. I think it is crazy that people thought that there was a big correlation. Sexuality is a personal thing, why people make it public and scrutinize people for who they love will always be beyond me, like you pointed out about “moral corruption, psychological immaturity, and an ability to ‘pass’ undetected among ordinary Americans.” That is crazy talk. I agree with your statement of at the time the weaknesses in the gay community were like communism in their eyes. I wonder if McCarthy felt bad for calling people out and accusing them of being gay and a communist once the tables were turned on him. I do agree that sexual innuendos are being used today, maybe not in the same way but they are still being used.


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