Gay or Soviet?

The Lavender Scare was a moral panic pertaining to gay people in government. It coincided with the Red Scare in terms of mass hysteria about otherized boogeymen infiltrating and sabotaging the American system. The Red and Lavender Scares received relatively little serious resistance, as all involved parties were happy enough to use associated buzzwords to their political advantage. Government officials had a readymade case against political rivals, the public were in no position to doubt the potential threat of the USSR, and “the media publicized the lavender scare, providing their audience the necessary context for interpreting the coded sexual smear that they also published” (Friedman). Case in point, McCarthy himself was subject to rampant rumors about his sexuality and relationship to his chief counsel Ray Cohn.

Taking a broader sociological view of things, one could argue that the cultural fear of gay people briefly outweighed the cultural fear of Russians. This ignores obvious poor decisions on McCarthy’s part and hyperbolizes the institutional willingness to respond to the supposed threat of gayness (the government weren’t stockpiling nukes to launch at gay people, as memory serves,) but proved at least momentarily true for Joe McCarthy. This sort of “sexual smear helped to accomplish a purge, of sorts, when McCarthy found himself condemned by his colleagues in the Senate, shunned by most of his former allies, and ignored by the journalists who had helped make him a household name” (Friedman). More cynically, it could also be the case that McCarthy’s fifteen minutes of fame were up, and his list didn’t interest the public anymore. Perhaps he fell victim to tautology: when everyone is a Communist, no one is.

Sexual innuendos are still present in American politics today, though the term ‘innuendo’ does some heavy lifting given how readily discussions of sex are brought to the forefront of American discourse. The wink wink nudge nudge gossip-mongering of the era has been replaced with acute national interest in trans rights and inclusivity. Put less politely, throwing around terms like ‘grooming’ is now cheap political fodder. As the number of openly gay House Representatives and Senators rises year on year, accusing a political rival of being a homosexual becomes an ever more baffling tactic (not to imply it was ever sound in the first place). With the DSM no longer defining gayness as a mental disorder and gay marriage legalized in the US, what we might call the mere reality of gay people is an established fact. There is no more pretending that they don’t exist, if only on the national level. What remains to be seen is if institutions will accept gay rights as a lived reality beyond changing their logo to rainbow colors for Pride Month.

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