Lavender Scare: Finding my story in 1950s America

Trigger warning: Suicide, police brutality

I recently watched The Lavender Scare, and I must say that it was a surreal experience.

The Lavender Scare is a documentary about the “unrelenting campaign by the federal government to identify and fire all employees suspected of being homosexual”. It is estimated that between 5000 and 10,000 queer people lost their jobs due to an Executive Order banning LGBTQ+ people from serving in the US Federal Government.

Lavender Scare depicts the experience of queers in America 70 years ago. It was a time when thousands lost their jobs, many were outed to their families, many were kicked out of their homes, and many died by suicide. Their crime: being an LGBTQ+ person in the United States.

While the film was about the history of queers being fired and outed in the United States in the 1950s, it was odd how it mirrored my experience in contemporary Ethiopia. While I watched the film eating popcorn from a container decorated with the rainbow flag, outside the gilded walls of where I watched the film, being outed as queer would result in treatment that was a whole lot worse than what was being depicted in the film.

Some of the content in the film included the virulently homophobic views of civil servants and elected politicians. The way that queer people described how the FBI and other law enforcement agents would pay them a visit and then interrogate them until they “admitted” their queerness was something that I had come close to experiencing in Ethiopia. As I watched the film, I relived some of the terror that I experienced sitting with the police, who asked me so many personal questions while going through my phone. I cried silent tears for the terror and pain that those in the LGBTQ+ community faced. But I think those silent tears were also for myself.

I also wondered when I would develop the courage that I saw mirrored in the film. One of the most courageous actions included Frank Kameny organizing and then marching in protest in front of the White House with placards that indicated that they were fighting for gay and lesbian rights. I admired the way that one of the gay men fought for his right to be reinstated after he was fired.

I sat there, stuck between the past and the present. I rejoiced for Frank Kameny as he passionately and humorously recounted how he fought against his dismissal from his job and the critical role that he played during the Lavender Scare. America has come a long way. We are where America perhaps was 70 years ago.

And thus, watching how far the movement has come gave me hope. It also left me a little hopeless. My partner was teasing me when Frank Kameny courageously challenged the federal government. She kept saying, “Don’t get any ideas now”. I wondered if I would ever be that brave. I wondered what kind of Ethiopia we would leave our grandchildren. As an LGBTQ+ community, we are too scared to do anything that challenges the government to treat us like humans. We are justifiably scared to make sacrifices. And unless we do, nothing will change.

Will our grandchildren watch Lavender Scare in Ethiopia in secret in 70 years, in the same way that I did?

Where will we be? Time will tell.

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