Ending the Lavender Scare

U.S. Department of StateOn May 1, Senator Menendez introduced legislation to mitigate the consequences of the “Lavender Scare” – the1950’s-era witch hunt that resulted in the dismissal of hundreds of State Department employees owing to their perceived sexual orientation.

Menendez’s bill (the Lavender Offense Victim Exoneration Act, or “LOVE Act”) accepts overdue Senate responsibility for its role in spurring on that witch hunt.  It directs that a “reconciliation board” be established to clear the names of those who were wrongly dismissed.  And it asks the Department to commemorate the period with a suitable display in State’s Museum of American Diplomacy.

Menendez was joined by 19 co-sponsors.  Why isn’t there a single Republican Senator on the list?

The Lavender Scare ruined careers – and arguably lives – of State Department men and women who wanted nothing more than to serve their country.  It deprived our country of foreign policy expertise and talent.  And it helped ensconce a Foreign Service that, for many decades, remained a bastion of conservative, straight white men – an image of America that was hardly representative of the country as a whole.

The Department’s imperfect record of dealing with LGBT diversity has improved.  By now there have been several out-gay ambassadors, and regulations that enshrined discriminatory treatment for the families of gay and lesbian Foreign Service personnel while posted abroad have been changed.

But Menendez’s bill tackles a lagging problem that still deeply impacts gay Foreign Service personnel:  the denial, by homophobic countries, of family visas to spouses of our gay and lesbian diplomatic personnel.  By bowing to this disrespect toward our country’s judicial institutions, we’ve essentially allowed other countries to dictate this aspect of federal personnel policies.

Since the LOVE Act’s original introduction in 2017, neither Secretary Pompeo nor his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, has shown any attention to this family visa reciprocity problem.  Their inaction is limiting the career options available to LGBT personnel – and limiting, too, the workforce flexibility our Foreign Service needs.

The bill requires the Secretary of State to report to Congress on countries refusing these visas, and to recommend responses that might include reciprocal denial of those countries’ requests for diplomatic family visas.  It thereby puts the issue squarely on the bilateral agenda – a first step toward resolution.

If Republicans won’t support Menendez’s bill, perhaps the Democratic-controlled House should take the matter up, to show that at least half of our country’s political elite care about fairness and equality for its LGBT public servants.

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