December 2, 2016 at 4:06 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
EXCLUSIVE: State Dept. asked to apologize for ‘lavender scare’ firings

John Kerry, GLIFAA, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to publicly apologize on behalf of the State Department to employees who were fired during the so-called “lavender scare” after the Cold War. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Washington Blade has learned that U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to formally apologize to the State Department employees who were fired during the so-called “lavender scare.”

Cardin notes to Kerry in a Nov. 29 letter that “at least 1,000 people were dismissed from” the State Department “for alleged homosexuality during the 1950s and well into the 1960s before the ‘scare’ ran its course.” The letter cites the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security that says employees “were forced out . . . on the ostensible grounds that their sexual orientation rendered them vulnerable to blackmail, prone to getting caught in ‘honey traps’ and made them security risks.”

Cardin writes the State Department also had a screening process to “prevent those who ‘seemed like they might be gay or lesbian’ from being hired.”

“I know that you feel every bit as strongly as I do about the issue,” Cardin told Kerry in his letter. “You have an unimpeachable record of honorable service to this nation and the ideals and values for which it stands.”

“There is little we can do to undo the hurts and wrongs of the past,” adds Cardin. “But we can take steps to assure that the lessons of these episodes are learned and remembered, and in so doing make a contribution to assuring that such injustice will never transpire again.”

Cardin: Senate ‘bears a special measure of responsibility’

The “lavender scare” sought to purge gay men and lesbians from the State Department in the years after the Cold War began. It coincided with an anti-Communist crusade that then-U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) launched in the 1950s.

The Wisconsin Republican tapped Roy Cohn, a lawyer who later represented and mentored President-elect Trump, as his legal counsel. Cohn, who was widely rumored to be gay himself, played a prominent role in McCarthy’s efforts to identify and remove suspected Communists from the federal government.

A State Department document titled “McCarthyism and the Cold War: Diplomatic Security in the 1950s” notes McCarthy on Feb. 20, 1950, announced on the Senate floor that there were “81 loyalty risks” at the State Department. Then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson was among those who appeared on Capitol Hill to dispute the allegations.

McCarthy a few weeks later described one of the “81 loyalty risks” as “a flagrant homosexual.” Then-U.S. Sen. Millard Tydings (D-Md.) publicly challenged this accusation during a committee meeting and denounced McCarthy in a report.

“The Senate bears a special measure of responsibility for the ‘lavender scare,’” Cardin tells Kerry in his letter.

President Eisenhower in 1953 issued an executive order that banned gays and lesbians from working in the federal government.

Frank Kameny, a pioneering gay rights activist, was an astronomer at the U.S. Army Map Service in D.C. until he was fired in 1957 because of his sexual orientation. He later challenged his termination in court.

Kameny in 1961 petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to accept his case, but the justices declined. The Blade previously reported that historians and advocates have said Kameny is the first person to ask the Supreme Court to hear a gay rights case based on constitutional grounds.

President Clinton in 1995 signed an executive order that bans the federal government from denying security clearances to anyone based on their sexual orientation.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 announced same-sex partners of Foreign Service personnel are now eligible to receive diplomatic passports, access medical facilities at overseas posts, receive coverage of “emergency travel” to visit ill or injured relatives or employees and other benefits.

The Supreme Court in 2015 ruled in the Obergefell case that gays and lesbians have the constitutional right to marry throughout the country. The State Department announced last fall that it would no longer offer domestic partner benefits to unmarried gay couples as of Oct. 1, 2018.

It remains unclear whether this policy will remain in place once Trump takes office.

“The men and women who serve in our nation’s diplomatic corps represent some of the finest public servants America has to offer,” Cardin told the Blade on Friday in a statement. “Not too long ago, however, many were harassed, hunted and forced out of their jobs by their own government because of their perceived sexual orientation. This unacceptable and un-American behavior, called the ‘lavender scare,’ has never been fully acknowledged by the federal government.”

Cardin said the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” provides an additional backdrop for his request.

“We’ve begun to make amends to LGBT men and women of our armed forces, who were similarly chased out of the military, and now it is time to show the same respect and right the wrongs that were leveled against our U.S. diplomats,” he told the Blade. “I have asked Secretary Kerry to formally start this process with an official apology from the Department of State and other appropriate steps.”

Cardin told Kerry he plans to introduce a bill in the new Congress that would “acknowledge this history, offer an apology on behalf of the Congress, provide for a ‘board of corrections’ for those wishing to address their employment records.” The Maryland Democrat said the measure would also “provide guidance” to the State Department on securing visas for same-sex spouses of Foreign Service personnel who are posted overseas and other issues “remain on the still unfinished agenda to ensure greater inclusivity, equality and dignity for all of the department’s employees.”

“The measures we take today cannot bring back years of anguish or erase decades of institutionalized homophobia, but we can ensure that such injustices levied against the LGBT community are never repeated again,” Cardin told the Blade.

A State Department official told the Blade it has “received” Cardin’s letter and is “preparing a response.” The official did not provide a potential timeline as to when the State Department will officially respond.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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