June 1, 2023

The Lavender Scare

The anti-communist campaign referred to as the Second Red Scare, but more popularly known as McCarthyism, is a well known and discussed portion of American history. The fear mongering utilized by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy to identify suspected communists led to the removal of thousands of government employees and ruined the reputation of countless other individuals. A moral panic quickly arose from the notion of potential subversives being privy to classified government information and potentially causing further national security issues. Though the information McCarthy claimed to have concerning national threats was unfounded, fear continued to spread far beyond that of communism and grew to include another group of individuals.

A far lesser discussed aspect of McCarthyism and anti-communist fears is how this panic grew to include both political and moral alarm concerning the visible gay community and suspected homosexual individuals. The Lavender Scare, a term credited to David K. Johnson in his groundbreaking book of the same name, is used to refer to the mass dismissal of lesbian and gay people in the United States Government during the mid-20th century. As written by Johnson, it was believed that homosexual people “posed a threat to national security because they were vulnerable to blackmail and were considered to have weak moral characters.” Though the belief was completely unfounded, homosexual people were labeled as national threats and paired with communists in what Johnson refers to as a “classic case of scapegoating.”

Institutions throughout the United States had developed a system of regulations by which to remove suspected gay individuals well before the 1950’s and the official congressional investigations that took place during the Second Red Scare. The existence of such systems allowed the government and associated entities to discriminate further, and through the Lavender Scare response, normalize the persecution of homosexual people and institutionalize discrimination. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450 which set the standards for security within the federal government and explicitly banned homosexual people from employment within that branch. These restrictions led to thousands being forcibly outed and fired while subsequently being labeled as unemployable sexual perverts. Countless others “voluntarily resigned” or took their own lives.

The demonization of this community continues to bleed into the present with many of the restrictions put in place during the 1950’s only being rescinded in the recent past. In 1998, the law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was passed, but further discriminatory policies against LGBTQIA+ people constantly circulate government discussions and public consciousness. Jennifer L. Levi, the director of the Transgender Rights Project for GLGBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders has directly addressed the similarities between the Lavender Scare and the Trump administration’s 2017 ban on transgender service people. Levi notes that her inspiration for her current work derives greatly from how civil rights activists responded to McCarthy era policy and appreciates the importance of the history that precedes her.

Today’s more tolerant society is a direct testament to the efforts of activists who worked tirelessly to have discriminatory policies rescinded and continue to serve as an influence for further efforts to total equality. As stated by former United States Senator Alan K. Simpson, “the witch-hunt McCarthy and others conducted against homosexuals” is a lesser-known, but no less important, aspect of McCarthyism and mid-20th century history that continues to teach a lesson today.

Recommended Additional Reading:

David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in Federal Government.

Dick Sargent

Dick Sargent, born Richard Stanford Cox, is known to most as the second actor to play Darrin Stephens in the ABC television series Bewitched. When original actor Dick York fell ill during filming of the fifth season, York left the sitcom in favor of devoting himself to recovery. Sargent was then brought on at the beginning of the sixth season and continued in the role until the series ended after its eight season.

Years after Bewitched ended, on National Coming Out Day in 1991, Dick Sargent became known for something else entirely. His decision to come out as gay, at a time when very few actors were openly out, marked Sargent as a role model. When questioned during an interview conducted several weeks after his coming out, the actor claimed that the main reasons for his decision to be public about his sexuality were to clarify falsehoods spread in tabloids about the so-called “derogatory gay lifestyle” and show support for struggling young gay people and the high rate of suicide they face.

In addition to his visibility, pledging to support gay rights and the gay rights movement, along with continuing his activism, allowed for Sargent to make an even larger impact and cement himself as a role model for others. Much of the time before his death in 1994, and following his coming out in 1991, was spent donating time and effort to speaking arrangements, lesbian and gay organizations, AIDS research, and further work with the Special Olympics. He was even Grand Marshall, along with former Bewitched co-star Elizabeth Montgomery, of the Orange County Pride Parade in 1992. In the same interview conducted following National Coming Out Day, Sargent explained that his homosexuality showcased only a single aspect of his personhood, and his greatest achievement would be to help normalize the notion of people being people.

The “retroactive role model,” as he jokingly referred to himself, passed away from prostate cancer in 1994 but left behind a legacy.

Queer Witchcraft

Witchcraft and the concept of the witch have circulated through both popular culture and public consciousness in the United States since the colonial period. Fear of the stereotypical sexually consumed woman in league with the Devil has persevered through belief systems dating back to the Middle Ages and earliest days of the Biblical period. In recent years, the interest in witchcraft has increased dramatically with members of the LGBTQIA+ community at the heart of the resurgence.

Today, while one is safe from the gallows should they choose to practice witchcraft, the possibility of persecution remains distinctly intact. The parallel between the familiar witch figure, regularly used as a scapegoat and victimized, aligns relatively with the systematic mistreatment many LGBTQIA+ people face to this day. A 2015 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that one in five transgender individuals has experienced rejection in a faith based community. Another study conducted by the Pew Research Center reported that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are twice as likely to be a part of non-Christian faith communities. The intersection between the LGBTQIA+ community and those practicing witchcraft has grown more common in recent years, and the modern witchcraft movement includes aspects of social justice and feminism that empower a historically oppressed group of people.

The first wave of feminism focused primarily on suffrage and other legal-based obstacles to gender equality while the second wave broadened the scope to include issues concerning sexuality, reproductive rights, family, and other legal inequalities. In this second wave came the introduction of the witch as a figure of power and a means to stand in opposition to the so-called “ideal woman.” Groups such as the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, stylized as W.I.T.C.H. most often, branched from other radical feminists groups to advocate for issues outside of patriarchy and bring about social change on a larger scale.

With third wave feminism and the current rise of queer witchcraft, the originally white and female centric iconography of the second wave has given way to a more inclusive look at the witch and empowered other marginalized groups. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community have been rejected from various institutions, and witchcraft has provided many with the means to reclaim their personal agency and utilize their voice in safe, diverse space.

Amanda Kohr perfectly surmises the appeal of witchcraft to the LGBTQIA+ community by stating their belief that “what makes the intersection of the queer community and witchcraft so natural – they are both expressions of otherness.” Through witchcraft and other acts of magic, queer individuals are able to explore their identities freely and cultivate feelings of empowerment.

Understanding Our History:

The AIDS Crisis


Our museum’s mission is to be the voice of the innocent victims of the Salem witch trials of 1692 while also bringing awareness to how the lessons and patterns of historic witch-hunts relate to society today. In our exhibit, Witches: Evolving Perceptions, we present a formula that can be used to describe the pattern of behavior responsible for sparking contemporary witch hunts. In this exhibit, we highlight three twentieth century examples that closely follow the formula for a witch hunt. One of these examples is the scapegoating of the gay community during the AIDS epidemic.

The acronym AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. This illness is caused by an infection from the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Once infected, this illness will target an individual’s immune system, leading to an increased risk of tuberculosis, opportunistic infections, and tumors. According to the Center for Disease Control, HIV originated in chimpanzees in Central Africa. It is believed the virus was passed to humans after coming in contact with infected animal’s blood while hunting. Humans may have begun contracting this disease as early as the 1800s. HIV can be transmitted through unprotected sex, exposure to blood, blood transfusions, use of hypodermic needs, and from mother to child during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.

HIV was first clinically observed in the United States in 1981. When this disease initially emerged in the U.S., the group with the largest rate of infection was the LGBTQ community. In these early years, gay men were among the first to be diagnosed and quickly became one of the demographics most impacted by the disease. As a result, the association between the gay community and this new and frightening disease quickly became cemented in public discourse. However, HIV was, of course, not limited to individuals who identified as gay, and the illness rapidly spread indiscriminately across the country.

By 1983, 1,450 cases of AIDS had been reported, of which 558 died. By 1992, AIDS was the leading cause of death for men in the United States between the ages of 25 and 44. As fear increased across America, the gay community became the scapegoat for this disease. Though the CDC began using the acronym AIDS in 1982, this mysterious illness was often publicly referred to as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) as well as by other derogatory terms such as a “gay plague” and “gay cancer.” Though the death toll was rapidly increasing in the United States, it was not until 1985 that President Ronald Regan used the word AIDS in public for the first time. In his groundbreaking text And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (published in 1987), journalist Randy Shilts described the political incompetence and stigma that prevented the disease from being addressed in a more effective and meaningful way in the early years of the epidemic. Shilts observed,

“People died while public health authorities and the political leaders who guided them refused to take the tough measures necessary to curb the epidemic’s spread …. People died and nobody paid attention because the mass media did not like covering stories about homosexuals and was especially skittish about stories that involved gay sexuality.”

From 1987 to 1996 the CDC began a poster campaign to promote awareness about the spread of HIV/AIDS. While these posters sought to normalize the idea that anyone could be at risk for AIDS, and thus began to deconstruct the idea that this was a “gay disease,” these campaigns were criticized by many, as they primarily used scare tactics (typically making no mention of ways to prevent the disease), and targeted groups at a low risk of exposure. In addition, as Natasha Geiling notes in her article “The Confusing and At-Times Counterproductive 1980s Response to the AIDS Epidemic,” in 1987 Congress banned the use of federal funds to be used for AIDS educational campaigns that “[promoted] or [encouraged], directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.” Though public measures were being enacted, they were biased by the stigma against those most gravely impacted by the epidemic.

The public understanding of AIDS was instead largely altered by campaigns led by gay activists and the diagnosis of notable heterosexual figures. Three particular examples come to mind; tennis champion Arthur Ashe, 13-year-old Ryan White, and LA Laker Earvin “Magic” Johnson. These cases helped to increase awareness that HIV could be contracted through blood transfusions and unprotected sex. Anyone could be infected, this was not a “gay disease.” Additional public actions, such as Princess Diana famously shaking hands with a patient with HIV, further broke down the stigmas that the disease could be contracted through simple human contact.

When giving tours of the exhibit Witches: Evolving Perceptions, our tour guides sometimes are confronted by visitors who feel it is inappropriate for the AIDS epidemic to be labeled as a witch hunt. We are asked: “If the gay community had such a high rate of infection, weren’t they spreading the disease? If that is the case, it doesn’t make sense to call them a scapegoat.” The reality is far more complex. Though the gay community were impacted by the disease, they were certainly not the only reason AIDS spread throughout America. Additionally, as Randy Shilts demonstrates in his remarkable book, there was a lasting hesitance to publicly address the epidemic because it initially impacted groups already perceived as outsiders. Writing in 1988, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Susan Sontag similarly observed in her text AIDS and Its Metaphors,

“The sexual transmission of this illness, considered by most people to be a calamity one brings on oneself, is judged more harshly than other means—especially since AIDS is understood as a disease not only of sexual excess but of perversity. (I am thinking of course, of the United States, where people are currently being told that heterosexual transmission is extremely rare, and unlikely—as if Africa did not exist).”

Unfairly assigning blame to one group, particularly a group perceived to be social outsiders, is the very nature of a scapegoat. Though science has come a long way, and major strides have been made in controlling and preventing this illness, it is important to look back at the history of this epidemic and to observe these systemic behaviors. After reaching a peak in the early 1990s, there was a decline in the rate of HIV infections. This is largely attributed to the government’s shift in policy. Over time, resources were channeled towards more effective public education programs and HIV/AIDS research. Had these measures been implemented in the early 1980s, hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths may have been prevented. By remembering this period in our nation’s history, we are reminded of a common pattern in human behavior. It is only by learning about this pattern and reminding ourselves to step away from our fear and look at the cold hard facts, that we can hope to do better in the future.

Useful resources for further learning:




Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic.

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