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Review Of Documentary, THE LAVENDER SCARE, and Exclusive Interview With Director Josh Howard!

 
Stonewall Inn, 1969 (from wikipedia)

  June is LGBTQ Pride Month in the US, established to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of late June, 1969. 
 
  For many years, police had been attacking gay clubs and social spaces, making mass arrests, and purposefully outing members of the community in an effort to shame them into submission, and into hiding. One night, in New York's Greenwich Village, the patrons at the Stonewall Inn, including gay men, lesbian women, and transgender women, decided to give them Arya Stark's response to Death... "Not today." As the police entered the establishment to round up "the gays", the bar erupted in defiance, violently ousting the police in a riot that spilled into the street, which would be followed by further escalation in coming days, as police sent larger numbers of officers into Greenwich Village, only to be met with stronger resistance. 
 
   These events would come to be known collectively as the Stonewall Riots, and sparked other mass protests and marches across the country. It's considered by most to be the birth of the Gay Rights movement... but the spirit of defiance that sparked this pushback has deeper roots, reaching back to the overtly discriminatory actions of Eisenhower's Employee Security Program in 1953, which called for the firing of all gay and lesbian government employees. This was done under the guise of "national security". Headlines reading things like "Sex Perverts Are Easy Marks For Russian Spies" served to underscore the narrative that this was justifiable. Under the guidance of Joseph McCarthy, the Red Scare ignited an insidious, hateful new campaign...  The Lavender Scare. Despite no one being able to produce a single example of a gay or lesbian person violating national security, tens of thousands of government employees saw their lives and careers destroyed, as a result. 
 
   One of those individuals was an astronomer with the US Army map service. His name was Frank Kameny, and he would become an internationally recognized leader in the movement for LGBTQ rights. 
 
He did not go quietly. 
 
He did not retreat into the closet. 
 
He did not accept the narrative that his sexuality was a mental illness, or that it compromised who he was or what constituted his quality as a human being and as an employee of the Federal Government. 

He fought back. 

 
 
  THE LAVENDER SCARE tells the story of Frank, and so many countless others, whose ousting, and outing, by the country they loved and worked for, would build the foundations of a social movement that would finally explode in that small Greenwich Village bar nearly a decade and a half after his firing. 
 
  Director Josh Howard based his film on the book of the same name, by David K. Johnson. It details the stories of many individuals affected by the actions of the government against the gay community, and explores the implementation of the campaign by members of the FBI and law enforcement community at the time. Their gleeful recollections of firing the "sodomites, CSers". "queers", etc., without due process or even being allowed to face their accusers, are stomach-turning, rage-inducing, and heartrending in equal measure. The (often successful) efforts to coerce the gay employees to out their friends in exchange for leniency (only to be fired and outed anyway) are horrifying. 
 
  Howard expands on Johnson's book through these law enforcement interviews, and it lends substantial weight and emotional impact to the film. You get a real sense of how absolutely, infinitesimally small one would feel in the face of such broad governmental and social hatred. 
 
  The film expertly weaves the stories of several individuals on the receiving end of this campaign of personal destruction with the recollections of those who perpetrated it in a way that palpably conveys a sense of hopelessness and dread that continued to build through the mid 50s. 
 
  The tone begins to shift with the introduction, and relation of the firing of, Frank Kameny. His refusal to cower in the face of such powerful social and institutional exclusion became contagious. The defiant manner in which he carried himself in response would slowly (at first) inspire others to stand beside him and speak out for equal treatment. In 1965, Kameny would lead a group of a dozen sharply dressed (he issued a dress code!) picketers in front of the White House... a full four years before Stonewall. This was an unprecedented act of bravery, and changed the tone of the conversation nationally. It is from this point that the film begins to feel hopeful as it relays the tale of the ones who took the first steps on the road out of the darkness. 
 
  Howard expertly carries the narrative across the decades with the help of archive footage, previous interviews, and new footage shot for the production. By the end of the film. we see both the individual outcomes of the persons whose stories drive the narrative, as well as the broader consequences of the work done by Kameny and so many others in fighting the discrimination of the Lavender Scare. It culminates with the signing of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" by President Clinton in 1995 (an action considered both groundbreaking and far short of an equality measure, but a necessary one), and Kameny's being honored by President Barack Obama in 2010, at a ceremony where the Don't Ask, Don't Tell act was finally repealed in favor of measures that got much closer to reflecting true equality.
 
  Several well-known personalities have lent their voices to the film, including Zachary Quinto (STAR TREK, AMERICAN HORROR STORY), Cynthia Nixon (SEX AND THE CITYTHE ADDERALL DIARIES), TR Knight (GREY'S ANATOMY, GENIUS), David Hyde Pierce (FRASIER, A BUG'S LIFE), and narrator GLENN CLOSE. Their readings of the letters and diaries from the cast of real-life characters to family, and to those who they were imploring for help, lend a delicately personal stamp to an already affecting narrative.
 
  THE LAVENDER SCARE is an engaging, touching, often heartbreaking look at the experiences of a community, and the individuals within it, as they experience, and respond to, a nation gripped by fear, paranoia, and hatred. It is very much a tale for modern times, and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see parallels with what we see today from the Trump administration and its attitudes toward Muslims, immigrants, and, not-ironically-in-the-least, the LGBTQ community. I see this film as a clarion call to wake up and pay attention to the things we see taking place, and to respond to them. 

  If we don't learn from our history, we will forever be forced to repeat it. 

  If you are, as I am, a member of the LGBTQ community, this film will enrage and crush you, and leave you with both a sense of hope, and of urgency to hold onto the progress made. 
 
  If you are not a member of the LGBTQ community, I urge you, please, watch this film. It will reveal to you a part of our history that has, for too long, been swept under the rug. Through that, I hope, you will gain empathy and understanding that we ALL have a role to play in the future, and within society. 

  I hope. 
  
LAVENDER SCARE director, Josh Howard

  I sat down for a talk with THE LAVENDER SCARE director, Josh Howard, to discuss the film, the people whose stories it relays, and how it might apply to today's climate. Introductions and pleasantries exchanged, I began by asking: 
What inspired you to make the film?

  "Well, I came across this story of the Lavender Scare, and I knew nothing about this. It's such an important slice of our history. Tens and tens of thousands of people were fired from jobs or were denied employment, and I just felt that it was a natural for a documentary, and an important one."

  I've read that you quit your job to pursue making this film, is that true?

  "Well, I was happily retired. I don't know that I specifically quit the job to make this particular movie. In fact, I wasn't really planning on continuing in this business. I was in the TV news business for close to thirty years, and I just happened to come across this book. As I said, I was pretty happily retired, and it just felt that this was a film worth making."
 
  What was the emotional journey like as you got into this, and read the book?

  "Well, it certainly began with surprise as I read the story. I had no idea that this had happened. As I started to meet the characters, and meet the people involved, it became more like heartbreak, because, you know, lives were ruined. There were people who had set out on careers, and had jobs, and jobs they liked and wanted to continue to do, and they were not only driven from those jobs, but pretty much after being fired from the government for being gay, the rest of their lives were ruined. This followed them for the rest of their lives. So, heartbreak was the second emotion, and then the final emotion, I think, would be outrage. That came when we began interviewing some of the government officials who implemented this policy and carried it out... and they were not repentant. They were sticking by the idea that what they did during the 1950s was the right thing to do. So, there were a range of emotions as I proceeded through this process."

  Yeah, you see a lot of that is coming back around today, in several segments of society, unfortunately. 

  "Well, that's another one of the reasons I wanted to make the film. I think there's, aside from being an important story that's been overlooked in our history, I think there's there's a real message there about the ease with which society can demonize a particular minority group in the name of patriotism, or national security, and I think that goes beyond the LGBTQ community."

  Oh, it absolutely does. There's a lot of, you know, "just doing their job" going on right now. 

  "Exactly. I believe Mark Twain is credited with the line, "History may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes," and I think we're in a time that's beginning to rhyme right now with the 1950s, when you look at some of the policies right now with the Trump administration, and some attitudes today in society, in general."

  You've got some pretty heavy hitters, in terms of talent, involved in the film. How did you get them involved? 

  "Each one came from a slightly different place, but recruiting some big names was something I'd wanted to do from the beginning, because I did have these voiceover roles throughout the film, but it wasn't until after the film was finished and started getting some traction at film festivals that I started getting responses from some of the people I was writing to. I think celebrities didn't want to take a flyer on something they couldn't actually see. It's a somewhat... you know, this was my first independent documentary. I'd worked in television my whole life, but I started showing the film at some festivals, and began to attract some interest that way, and was very lucky that these five people agreed to participate."

  I saw that this was Frank Kameny's last major interview. Your film introduced ME to him as more than just a name I'd heard in the news. What was he like in person?

  "Well, I mean, Frank is a character, and another reason I wanted to make the film was to bring his story to people. He is the Rosa Parks and the Susan B. Anthony of the Gay Rights movement, and he's largely overlooked in the telling of American History. He was single-minded, brilliant (a PHD from Harvard), and he knew he was right, even when no one else did. That not only applied to his relations with the government, but it applied during the shooting of this film, and he was a handful. So, I started having a little more respect for the people in the government who had to deal with him over the years. It was such an honor to be with him, and get a sense of his personality, and to be in his presence. It  was a thrilling experience for me, and I hope that the film brings his life and his story, and his personality, to a broader audience.

  I would agree. He completely deserves to be an icon in the civil rights discussions. It's incredible what he did at the time. 

  "Well, its... people say you know, 'it must have taken so much courage', and, as Frank would say, "It didn't take courage. I just knew I was right, and they were wrong." It didn't matter that society looked at him as a criminal, and mentally ill, he just didn't believe that. And look how it turned out. Society came around to his point of view. Probably 5,000 people, we estimate, were fired before Frank, and every one of them went quietly, and Frank was the first person to stand up. Who knows what would've happened if it hadn't been Frank?"

  Well, I owe him a personal debt. I came out late in life because of where I grew up, and the environment that I was in, so seeing someone do what he did, in that environment, is just incredible.

  "Well, I think I'm in a similar boat, though I suspect I'm older than you.  I remember seeing Frank, as a kid, when I would surreptitiously watch the David Suskind Show because I heard that there was a discussion about this subject. I was closeted for most of my life as well, so I identify with that."

  Yeah... you know, sitting through the film, up until it started talking about Frank, I was obviously emotionally impacted by it, but seeing him take the stand that he did, it's just, I think that's the point in the film that kind of broke me. It was all absolutely impactful in the most inspiring and heartbreaking way, but seeing Frank's stand... you hear the old adage that "anger is a gift"... he probably used that to his advantage better than most people.

  "And it came naturally to him. Nothing Frank did was an act. That was Frank."

  A lot of the stories of the people who were affected by the Lavender Scare, the witch hunt... of the ones you covered in the film, was there one who really stood out, as kind of a worst case?

  "Each character, I think, brought something slightly different, and represented something a little bit different in the film, and I became very fond of all of them. Joan Cassidy, who gave up the chance for promotion in the Navy was just a wonderful person, but I'd hate to single out any one particular character. Frank, you know, is certainly the central character, obviously, in the story, but what I liked about the other characters was that they came from such a broad spectrum: a secretary in post office, a multi-lingual foreign service agent... this affected such a broad range of people, from every economic group and educational background, and the only thing they had in common was that they were gay. Taking a moment to answer your questions in a different way, one of the most moving moments with the film for me was when the film was finished.  I was at a screening, and it was a small screening in a church basement, and there were maybe twenty-five people there. After the screening, these two elderly women came up to me, and they later told me they were both in their mid-nineties, and had met in the 1950s, when they were both secretaries for the Social Security Administration, and it was discovered then that they were both lesbians, that they were partners, and they were both fired. They told me that they never knew that anybody else had ever been fired for this reason, and that they thought it was just them all these years, and they said, "Thank you for telling our story." It just amazes me that there are so many stories out there that have never been told."

  That's something that also struck me, because, though I haven't been fired directly for it, I had a job where I had risen to the point where I was training other people to perform those duties, and had a guy who came in, and in one day, blew it, left, and never came back. The first thing my supervisor asked me was. "Did you tell him you were gay or something?" I was like, "Come on." It was awful.
 
  "Yeah, those were the times. I think young people don't necessarily understand that equality isn't a given, and there were tougher times. I can't imagine what it would be like for me having grown up seeing same sex wedding announcements in the newspaper. I mean, the only time a gay person was mentioned in the newspaper was in the police blotter section, when they were arrested for something. We had a different experience growing up than young people today."

  Yeah, it's like you said, you never heard they were gay unless there was a negative connotation to attach, like today, with any of the other minorities or civil rights groups, you know? The headlines are often, "Black man arrested for _____," and so on, today. You spoke briefly about the parallels with the way things are going with the current administration, the current climate. Do you see this continuing to get worse, before it gets better, or that we're at, at least one would hope, sort of the climax with this governmental bigotry that we're seeing now?

  "Well, I hope so. I think this upcoming election is going to be a turning point, one way or the other. In a way, this is one of the most crucial decisions that this country is making, because the choice is not going to be clearer, and I hope that the film, in a historical way, sets off alarm bells for people today. You know, don't be complacent. Get involved. Look at Frank's example... we have to be vigilant. There's a history in our country of demonizing particular minority groups, at certain times: Mexicans during the Great Depression, Japanese people during World War Two, and then gay people during the McCarthy era; and history has not looked kindly on those events. I think it would be good for people to think, "How are these days going to be judged ten and twenty years from now? How will people look back at how we treated immigrants and minorities?" You know, what are we doing today? I think that's something that people should think about."

  Would you say that is the biggest takeaway that you hope people carry from seeing this film? 

  "I would say so. I think that, for a broad audience, is certainly the message. For the LGBTQ community, in particular, I think it's important for them, to know that equality isn't a given. The homophobia of the 1950s was clearly a backlash against an earlier time when being gay was less of a big deal. This is, I think, one of the eye-opening things, for me, frankly, that I didn't realize how accepted homosexuality had been in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. I think a big takeaway from the film is that the move for social equality does not continue in a straight line, necessarily, and we have had great victories over the past decade and more, but there can be a step or two back, along the way, as well. We have to be vigilant about protecting the rights that have been won."

  Absolutely. I think hindsight can be critical, from both perspectives, but an example like the signing of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" by Clinton, in '95 was huge, at the time. You hear people talk today, and they say, "Oh, it wasn't nearly enough, and he should've done more," but that was huge then. It changed a lot of people's lives. 

  "It did. It did, but it also underscored the idea that we should stay in the closet and not express our true personalities. But again, as you say, it was a step moving in the direction that we eventually arrived at. You know, President Obama was not a supporter of gay rights at one time, but he, as he put it, evolved."

  And that's what it takes, as individuals, and as a society. 

  "Yes." 

Watch the trailer for THE LAVENDER SCARE below, and do yourself the favor of catching it upon release. Screenings are listed at https://www.thelavenderscare.com/







That's all for now. 
Until next time, happy Pride! 
 
Benny No-Good
 
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