A period of U.S. history in the 1950’s known as the “Lavender Scare,” when thousands of queer people in government positions were fired without due process, leading to the painful public outings of gay people and the suicides of former government workers, is comparable to being conservative in today’s America.
This is according to Kevin D. Williamson, roving correspondent for the National Review and conservative author and commentator.
Williamson spoke Monday evening as part of a series of virtual speakers on “cancel culture” for the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder’s Bruce D. Benson Center for Western Civilization, which is a privately funded conservative institute on campus.
Williamson argued that modern “cancel culture” (or as he calls it, “disciplinary corporation”) of conservatives isn’t so much state-sanctioned terror, but rather a threat of revoked employment.
“We often hear conservatives now talking about McCarthyism and the Red Scare and the idea that the moment we currently are in as a sort of second coming of the Red Scare,” Williamson said during his virtual speech. “But, I think it actually brings to mind something else that you may not know as much about: an episode that’s sometimes known as the ‘Lavender Scare.'”
Before there were the Stonewall riots or the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement, there was the infamous “Red Scare,” the anti-communist government crusade led by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. The lesser-known, but equally tragic, “Lavender Scare,” occurred in the interest of “national security” during the same time—legally.
“I don’t know that today’s cancel culture warriors are really self-consciously modelling their efforts on the tactics that were used in the Lavender Scare era on Hollywood non-conformists and sexual outlaws in the state department,” Williamson said, “but I do know this: if they were modelling their crusade on that earlier moral panic, they wouldn’t be doing anything differently from what they are doing right now.”
Williamson didn’t address where conservatives face illegal interrogation and intimidation like gay men and women in the 1950s; the fact that gay men and women were not (and still are not) in a position of power within society; and the fact that conservatism is a choice—and is certainly not a silenced minority, considering the U.S. president only three months ago was a far-right conservative.
“The paranoid attitude and the parallels between the persecution of gay people in Hollywood in 1950s and 1960s, and conservatives in the current environment may seem to you belabored, but I think it’s worth noting that conservative groups, particularly in Hollywood, have subconsciously mimicked the strategies and personal security practices of gay people in 1950s-1960s Hollywood,” Williamson said. “I’m thinking …groups like Friends of Abe, which is a kind of anonymous support group for people who are in film and television and other creative businesses who are conservatives, who are Republicans, who are terrified of being ‘out,’ so to speak, about that. And I think that is, again, something we see spreading through other aspects of government and culture.”
Williamson is a controversial conservative figure. He was fired from The Atlantic shortly after being hired for past comments on abortions and the women who have them.
In both a tweet and a podcast, he said that women who get abortions should be hanged as capital punishment. His explanation of this comment was that, while he’s against capital punishment, he believes abortion should be treated as homicide.
Athough Williamson claims he actually made money from being fired by The Atlantic, not everyone is in as privileged of a situation as him, he says. The regular Joe can’t come back with a New York Times op-ed if they’re fired for offensive views, unlike Williamson.
“In some ways we see a similar pattern in our own time, when only the really independently wealthy and the anonymous, along with a few professional controversialists such as myself, really have a very free range of expression that is effective rather than hypothetical,” said Williamson.
Despite Williamson’s alleged parallels between today’s treatment conservatives and the Lavender Scare, he did also compare modern left-wingers to McCarthy and former President Richard Nixon, claiming both groups are ultimately on the “right side of history.”
“It’s my view that the case of the people who today are protesting excessive police violence, racism, and other aspects of bigotry are basically on the right side, even if I disagree with some of their political preferences and conclusions. But it also surely must be the case that Senator McCarthy and Richard Nixon and the rest of the anti-communists associated with the Red Scare were on the right side too,” he said. “The worldwide communist enterprise killed something on the order of 100 million people in the 20th century. To oppose it and to oppose it vigorously was the right thing to do. But people who were on the so-called ‘right side of history’ as we now say, are capable of doing great evil. And they’re also capable of doing petty evil. And petty evil tends to be much more common, I think, than great evil.”
Transgender Experience a “Delusion”
Williamson’s writing contains other offensive remarks. In an op-ed about transgender actress Laverne Cox, he abandoned journalistic standards to refer to her as a male throughout the article, calling the transgender experience a “delusion.”
In another essay about poverty in Illinois, he compares a young Black boy’s physical stance to that of a primate.
The Benson Center, which has the support of top Colorado conservatives, including the state’s sole statewide-elected Republican, Heid Ganahl, has been the subject of controversy recently.
John Eastman, an already controversial visiting scholar at the Benson Center, lost public speaking and teaching privileges at CU after he not only spoke at the Trump rally the day of the Jan. 6 insurrection, encouraging election fraud conspiracies, but also was reported by the New York Times as having attempted to persuade then-Vice President Mike Pence to block the Electoral College results.