Court Forces Agencies to Come Clean on Mid-Century Purge of Gay Feds

Between 7,000 and 10,000 LGBT federal employees lost their jobs in the 1950s, group says.

The FBI will soon have to turn over documents involving its role in purging the federal government of gay and lesbian employees, under a recent court ruling.

A lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group called the Mattachine Society challenged the Justice Department after its records request into the decades-long incident initially yielded little in the way of actual results. The removal of LGBT federal employees occurred after a series of government rulings, culminating in a 1953 executive order issued by President Dwight Eisenhower that mandated employees in positions related to national security must be free of “sexual perversion.” The order led to the removal of 7,000 to 10,000 employees in the 1950s, according to the Mattachine Society. The practice was not officially banned until President Bill Clinton signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination against gay and lesbian federal employees.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in his ruling cast doubt on the government’s argument it had no documents on the enforcement of the order, which has become known as the Lavender Scare.

It “strains credulity” that the FBI found no documents relating to Warren Burger, then Civil Division chief for the Justice Department, the judge found, adding it was “suspicious at best, and malicious at worst.” Lamberth also faulted Justice for improperly redacting certain documents. He said bringing more transparency to the government’s efforts, as spearheaded by then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, would allow “the public to better study the effects of EO 10450 on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender federal employees who were surveiled, harassed, and/or terminated under this program and others like it.”

Congress worked in concert with the executive branch’s efforts to identify and ultimately fire LGBT employees throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with the Senate’s Subcommittee on Investigations releasing a report in 1950 titled “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government.” The subcommittee ultimately determined “homosexuals and other sex perverts were not proper persons to be employed in government for two reasons -- first, they [were] generally unsuitable, and second, they constitute[d] security risks.”

Mattachine Society Director and Treasurer Pate Felts said the victory in court was made even more significant after Justice recently submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in a Civil Rights Act case in which it argued the law does not prohibit workplace discrimination against LGBT employees. That argument contradicts a ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Obama administration that the discrimination was illegal.

“Now that the Department of Justice has declared ‘sexual orientation’ is not protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for workplace discrimination, we believe the brutal evidentiary history of federal discrimination is even more important for the legal community, lawmakers and the public to review and understand,” Felts said. “History calls out for the release of all the Eisenhower ‘sexual perversion’ papers.”

President Obama signed an executive order extending the discrimination protections entitled to federal employees to transgender workers. He signed another order that prevented federal contractors from discriminating against their LGBT employees. In 2014, the Merit Systems Protection Board found LGBT employees would not be fully protected until Congress enacted legislation codifying Clinton and Obama’s orders.