The Washington Post: Kerry’s “Lavender Scare” apology reveals an important shift in LGBT politics
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.)
Rick Valelly '75 is Claude C. Smith '14 Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College, where he joined the faculty in 1993. He is the author of the award-winning The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (2004), American Politics: A Very Short Introduction (2013) and Radicalism in the States: The American Political Economy and the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (1989). His current research focuses on the political development of LGBT rights in the U.S. with a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.