The Lavender Scare

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
The Lavender Scare Movie Poster Image
Powerful docu about LGBTQ persecution by U.S. government.
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 76 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Clear messages about how hate can be used to garner power -- and how that power can turn into a harmful mob mentality, destroying lives. But by standing up, not allowing others' opinions to demean or diminish us, we can achieve equality.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Franklin Kameny depicted as genuine hero who hasn't received due credit. He appeared in front of Congress, didn't allow himself to be insulted or demeaned, and never gave up fighting, even when stakes were high and victories were few.


Story of a man who died via suicide; brief mentions of suicide. Brief images from the Stonewall riots. Depictions of hate, rage, frustration.


Brief sex-related talk, discussions of "sexual gratification," etc. Sexual orientation is central to the story.


Two uses of "son of a bitch," one "pissing me off."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Cigarette smoking in archival footage.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Lavender Scare is a documentary about how, in 1953, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower linked gays and lesbians in government jobs with the "Red Scare" (i.e., the fear of Communist infiltration). That started a policy of identifying and then firing LGBTQ people, a policy that stayed in place for decades. Expect allusions to suicide, brief images from the violent Stonewall riots, and general depictions of hate, anger, and frustration. Language includes a couple of uses of "son of a bitch" and a use of "pissing me off." There's brief sex talk, such as references to "sexual gratification"; clearly, sexual orientation is central to the movie's story. Archival footage includes cigarette smoking. This film is brief but powerful and makes a clear argument for the need to stand up and not allow others' opinions to demean you or diminish who you are.

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What's the story?

THE LAVENDER SCARE is a documentary about when, in the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the immediate firing of any and all homosexuals from the United States government. This was the early days of the Cold War, in which Americans lived in fear of Communist infiltrators, and someone "decided" that gay people could be too easily swayed to give up important information. For decades, until the order was rescinded in 1995, gays and lesbians were persecuted, hounded, questioned, arrested, and forced out of work. It wasn't until an incident at the Stonewall Inn -- and until a man named Dr. Franklin E. Kameny lost his position as an astronomer -- that real change began to take place.

Is it any good?

Josh Howard's brief, simple documentary covers some ground that will be familiar to many, but when it gets to the heart of things, its stories are undeniably enraging, moving, and inspiring. Experts interviewed in The Lavender Scare explain the challenge of looking back at this shameful part of history: The men and women accused of being homosexual frequently disappeared, choosing to avoid persecution. "They had you over a barrel," one man says sadly. So there are relatively few subjects on record.

One woman, Joan Cassidy, had her dream career in the Navy Reserve and was being considered for admiral. She would have been the first woman to achieve that rank, but she decided to turn it down for fear of being discovered. And Carl Rizzi lost his job at the U.S. Postal Service after being photographed in drag. It wasn't until the seemingly fearless Kameny -- a great interviewee who was luckily captured on film before he passed away in 2011 -- began writing letters and organizing protests that there was finally hope. The Lavender Scare can't avoid including subjects like Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts and the Stonewall riots, which have already been covered in many other films. And the voices of name actors (Glenn Close, David Hyde Pierce, etc.) don't add much. But it's shocking to learn how this sinister chapter in American history was allowed to go on for so long, so quietly. And it's essential information to have today.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about The Lavender Scare's depiction of violence. How are hate and discrimination shown? Can words be considered violent?

  • How does this film compare to other movies about the LGBTQ experience?

  • Have you ever been involved in a situation in which someone's rights were being taken away? Was it difficult to speak up? Why?

  • Are all documentaries designed to inspire change or action? Does this one?

  • How does the story show the importance of courage?

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