By Joel P. Engardio
The students at San Francisco’s Lowell High School weren’t entirely bored with my guest lecture on the history of media and political campaigns. They laughed at the vintage TV ads, especially the “I Like Ike” cartoon from 1952.
But they had no idea who President Dwight Eisenhower was. Hormones and a warm, spring day can explain the lack of interest in dead presidents. Two boys in the front row held hands the entire time I spoke.
I wanted to stop the lecture and tell the affectionate boys they should thank Eisenhower if they’re going to the prom together. The Glee-era high school experience they enjoy today is connected to Eisenhower’s purge of gay people from the U.S. government 60 years ago.
It was May 27, 1953 when Executive Order 10450 went into effect, banning anyone engaged in “sexual perversion” from federal employment. Frank Kameny was fired from his job as a government astronomer. Thousands of gay and lesbian civil servants quietly accepted the shame of losing their career. Some chose suicide. But Kameny was the first to fight back. When the courts wouldn’t take his case, he picketed in front of the White House with a sign that demanded “First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals.”
Handholding boys might hear about 1970s gay pioneer Harvey Milk if they stream the Oscar-winning movie that recreates his political rise and assassination. A progressive textbook might mention the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City as the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement. But Frank Kameny came earlier. President Eisenhower’s war on gays sparked the outrage and courage needed to begin the long march to equality many young people now take for granted.
The story of the government’s mass firing of gay workers is told in the new documentary “The Lavender Scare” by former CBS News 60 Minutes producer Josh Howard.
Howard, 58, is a gay man of his generation. He remained closeted to many co-workers throughout his career.
“I worked for Mike Wallace and those old guys came from rough and tumble newsrooms,” Howard says. “The word ‘faggot’ got thrown around.”
That would never happen at CBS today, Howard says, which explains why he had a hard time convincing funders of his film’s relevance.
“Hollywood is making movies about Lincoln and Jackie Robinson, so it’s frustrating when people don’t value gay history,” Howard says. “This film matters because it honors the people who sacrificed everything to get where we are now. And it reminds us that we’re not done. You can still get fired in 29 states just for being gay.”
While Congress is again considering the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to protect LGBT workers, the legislation has a long history of failure and continued hurdles.
Life in a San Francisco high school might look good for two boys holding hands. But it can get them fired in a state like Texas, Georgia or Florida. And there are still 38 states that won’t marry them. Next month’s Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage are unlikely to grant any sweeping national rights.
That’s why all LGBT youth should care about what Eisenhower did to gay people and the way Frank Kameny reacted. It will give them an idea of how to carry on the fight and finish the work.