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Kerry’s “Lavender Scare” apology reveals an important shift in LGBT politics

- January 19, 2017
In this file photo, the White House is illuminated in rainbow colors after the Supreme Court issued its ruling legally recognizing same-sex marriage throughout the U.S. on June 26, 2015. (REUTERS/Gary Cameron)

Unless you read the LGBT newspaper The Advocate or lurk about the State Department website, you may have missed it — but John F. Kerry accomplished something unprecedented on Jan. 9. Responding to a request from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Kerry apologized for the persecution of State Department and Foreign Service officers who were gay.

The homophobia at State began in the late 1940s, lasted into the 1970s, and even briefly came back in the early 1990s. Thanks to the linguistic ingenuity of a pioneering historian, we now call those Cold War purges “the Lavender Scare” — a coinage that encapsulates the over-the-top rhetoric of the time while also distinguishing the firings from the contemporaneous Red Scare.

After affirming the State Department’s commitment to the careers and family needs of officers who belong to sexual minorities and also describing the history of prejudice in the Department, Kerry stated:

these actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today. On behalf of the Department, I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the Department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community.

Is this a big deal? Yes. It underscores that political apologies now encompass gay men and women here in the U.S. (and just as they have in Britain — think here of the British Government’s apologies for the mistreatment of World War II cryptographer Alan Turing and for criminalizing same sex relations.)

The U.S. process began in 2009 when Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, then the most senior openly gay public official to serve in the federal government, issued an apology to the late great gay activist Frank Kameny, at an Office of Personnel Management ceremony with first lady Michelle Obama in attendance. In 1957 the Army Map Service dismissed Kameny — a World War II veteran and Harvard PhD in astronomy — because of his sexual orientation.

That experience of losing a job he loved and for which he was very well qualified radicalized Kameny. It propelled him into decades of tireless writing, speaking, organizing, and public protest. Kameny was thus honored — an astonishing outcome — for the life he led after his 1957 setback.

With Kameny’s passing the quest for accountability has fallen to the Mattachine Society of Washington and a blue ribbon Washington law firm, McDermott Will and Emery. The Mattachine Society is named after the association that Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols, the gay son of an FBI agent, started in 1961 to protest the pervasive discrimination against gay and lesbian federal employees and military officers.

Its re-founder, Charles Francis, is a talented “archive activist.” He dedicates himself to using the Freedom of Information Act along with a legal team inside McDermott Will and Emergy to find the paper trails left by decades of discrimination. The MSW website offers a treasure trove of original documents. Many of them buttressed MSW’s amicus brief in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Some readers may wonder why this matters. Common wisdom now has it that the gay rights struggle is one of the great civil rights struggles of our time. That understanding has so transformed U.S. politics that President Obama, in his second inaugural address, could speak of an arc that went from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall.

But there is more here than rights. These apologies open up a new angle on LGBT politics: that it has been about public and military service. Many associate LGBT politics with mutual self-help during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the struggle to decriminalize intimacy, protection from hate crimes, and the dignity of marriage and family recognition. Alongside this politics of respectability is an old-fashioned politics of embracing public and military service in the nation state, with its life-altering demands. It is a loyalist politics — but one with a critical, reformist edge.

This pursuit has been the experience of internal exile. In political theorist Judith Shklar’s discussion of political exile, she asked, “What is an exile? . . . An exile is someone who involuntarily leaves the country of which he or she is a citizen.” Shklar underscored that this involuntary loss includes “internal exile,” which will “appear in constitutional regimes on those occasions when these engage in exceptionally unjust and immoral policies.”

Shklar traces the cases of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus and of Japanese-American sequestration in concentration camps during World War II, emphasizing that internal exiles confront their predicaments by developing a range of “arguments.” In response to their sense of betrayal and injustice, faced with very bleak options, they must summon reserves of courage and personal resilience — and think about the “arguments” that they may or may not have a chance to make to themselves and to others about why their exclusion is wrong.

Frank Kameny was one of dozens who did just that after his dismissal, eventually filing a petition to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari that he wrote himself — a writ that might be seen as a pioneering work of American political thought.

Such intellectual ferment, conducted sometimes alone and sometimes among others, helped to produce a new standard view of public and military service. This new view holds that sexual orientation has no bearing whatsoever on being able to serve one’s country, to work for it, to represent it, to defend it, to spy for it, or to hold high elected office. Once considered all but treasonous, it now has the ring of common sense.

One person who grasped this memorably was Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.). In a famous 1993 letter to The Washington Post Goldwater wrote, “You don’t need to be ‘straight’ to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight.”

There may not be any more public apologies of the sort that John F. Kerry — and before him John Berry — issued. Imagine, though, if every agency of the federal government issued an apology, along with each of the armed forces, for comparable conduct. You might call that a utopian dream, as it undoubtedly is.

Or perhaps it is already ingrained in American culture that, as a Republican-appointed federal judge in Pennsylvania wrote when ruling for same-sex marriage in 2014, “it is axiomatic that sexual orientation has no relevance to a person’s capabilities as a citizen.”

Rick Valelly is professor of political science at Swarthmore College and non-resident senior fellow at the Fox Leadership Program of the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is American Politics: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2013.)