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Not About or For Everyone

In the 1950s, immediately after World War II and preceding the Cold War, fear of communism and lapsing national security, Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin conducted his own witch hunt for individuals he labeled America’s enemies. He used a hollow portrait of moral behavior to argue that civil servants who worked for our government and who either identified or could be construed as communist or homosexual should be denied the privilege and ability of serving our country.

The Lavender Scare is a documentary produced by PBS, billed by its production team as “a compelling story of a fight for justice and a chilling reminder of how easy it can be, during a time of fear and uncertainty, to trample the rights of an entire class of people in the name of patriotism and national security.”

It is that, for sure: compelling, and a chilling reminder about what has been and may be again in an era of unchecked surveillance and intimidation authorized and conducted by our government.

The documentary gets a lot of things correct in its hour of screentime. Memorandums from the period are reproduced with exacting detail; actual victims of these tactics are interviewed about their experiences. But there is so much additional detail that it omits or gets wrong.

The documentary carries itself like a victory for the entire queer community, except for the reality that it simply isn’t for or about all of us. I can’t tell you, even now, who this documentary figures its audience to be, or if its producers undertook a careful examination of what their goal was in producing this film.

For one thing, every person interviewed for the documentary is white, even though many queer people of color were denied employment, fired, or targeted for discharge along the way.

The transgender community is also entirely absent.

In one case, the narrative centers on a gay man who performed drag, without even so much as a passing mention about the transgender community. But at least there’s drag included at all; there are no mentions of bisexual people.

Later, the documentary uses imagery of the Stonewall Inn and talks about the riots that originated there, but doesn’t mention important figures related to that movement like Marsha P. Johnson or Sylvia Rivera, both women of color who were present for the riots and active, prominent figures of the Stonewall riots in the months and years that followed.

Should I be surprised? The author who wrote the book the documentary is based on is a white man. All of the voice talent billed for this documentary: Glenn Close, Zachary Quinto, T.R. Knight, Cynthia Nixon, is white, too.

It is, in the end, very much a documentary centered around white struggles for queer liberation that omits more than half of our community. While there is a segment of footage with former President Barack Obama honoring activist and documentary subject Frank Kameny from the White House for his diligent work on behalf of the queer community, he’s notably the only person of color who is quoted or referenced on the subject.

This documentary is performative erasure of queer history in America that outright excludes black and Latinx, even trans and nonbinary voices, all to its detriment.

The fight for liberation in government work apparently ended (as does the documentary) when President Clinton rescinded an executive order implemented by Eisenhower, despite the reality that Clinton simply traded that policy for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ a policy that was almost as damaging and intimidating for service members. The documentary doesn’t even pay lip service to the efforts of President Obama to rectify that policy, or the other important strides his administration made on behalf of the queer community to correct so many wrongs.

In the years and months since the election of our current president, queer communities—particularly communities of color and transgender people—are under daily attack by extremist opponents that want nothing more than to whitewash our daily lives. The queer community does not need even more lip service that continues that legacy.

I didn’t want my review of this documentary to turn out this way, either. Armed with a working knowledge of the intimidation tactics that accompanied Senator McCarthy’s strategy of targeting homosexuals, I went in with open eyes and wanted to love what I was about to see. I will say, however, that this documentary accomplishes one feat in particular: how not to talk about queer history.

As a white, trans woman and a writer myself, I can’t tell you how sorry I am that this is part of our continuing cultural legacy. I can encourage you to watch The Lavender Scare, which premiered  Tuesday, June 18 on PBS at 7 p.m. MST, even if only to understand how very far we still have to go.

Photo courtesy of The Lavender Scare