White House backs formal ‘lavender scare’ apology

Secretary of State John Kerry (Photo courtesy of the State Department)
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the State Department apology for the “lavender scare” firings is a “pretty strong message.” (Blade file photo by Michael Key)
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the State Department apology for the “lavender scare” firings is a “pretty strong message.” (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday formally apologized to State Department personnel who were fired during the so-called “lavender scare.”

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“As far back as the 1940s, but continuing for decades — the Department of State was among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, forcing some employees to resign or refusing to hire certain applicants in the first place,” he said in a statement. “These actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today.”

“On behalf of the department, I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community,” added Kerry.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) noted in a letter he sent to Kerry on Nov. 29 that “at least 1,000 people were dismissed from” the State Department “for alleged homosexuality” during the 1950s and 1960s. The Maryland Democrat cited the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security that says employees “were forced out . . . on the ostensible grounds that their sexual orientation rendered them vulnerable to blackmail, prone to getting caught in ‘honey traps’ and made them security risks.”

Cardin wrote the State Department also had a screening process to “prevent those who ‘seemed like they might be gay or lesbian’ from being hired.”

Secretary of State John Kerry (Photo courtesy of the State Department)
Secretary of State John Kerry (Photo courtesy of the State Department)

Kerry issued the apology less than two weeks before President-elect Trump’s inauguration. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing on former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s nomination as secretary of state.

“Although it is not possible to undo the damage that was done decades ago, Secretary Kerry’s apology sets the right tone for the State Department as it enters a new and uncertain time in our country under a new administration,” said David Stacy, director of government affairs for the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement.

GLIFAA, which represents LGBT Foreign Service members, also welcomed Kerry’s apology.

“Secretary Kerry’s acknowledgment of historic discrimination against LGBT employees at the State Department comes as GLIFAA celebrates its 25th anniversary,” said GLIFAA in a statement to the Washington Blade. “We wish more of our LGBT colleagues targeted by discrimination were alive to see the progress our country has made, and we celebrate their legacy by continuing to work for full equality for LGBT employees of Foreign Service agencies.”

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins last month urged the incoming administration to remove State Department officials who support the promotion of LGBT and reproductive rights abroad.

A spokesperson for the Trump transition team said in response to Perkins’ request that it is “simply absurd” to “think that discrimination of any kind will be condoned or tolerated in a Trump administration.” State Department spokesperson John Kirby described the statement to the Blade as “pretty succinct, pretty clear, pretty concise about where they stand on discrimination.”

White House backs Kerry apology for 1950s-era gay firings

BY CHRIS JOHNSON   |  White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry’s apology to the LGBT community for the “lavender scare” firings of the 1950s sends “a pretty strong message,” but no plans are in motion for President Obama to issue an apology himself for the discrimination.

Earnest made the remarks just moments after the State Department issued a formal apology for the 1950s-era purging of gay employees under which at least 1,000 people were removed from the federal government.

In response to a question from Yahoo News, Earnest said he’s “not aware” of any other U.S. agencies planning to issue apologies for the 1950s-era firings, but wouldn’t rule it out and said the State Department’s action is consistent with Obama’s views.

Asked whether the State Department issued the statement at Obama’s direction, Earnest said the decision belonged to Kerry, comparing the move to President Obama’s action to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“Obviously, that decision was made by Secretary Kerry today and his statement today is entirely consistent with the president’s view of these issues, and certainly is entirely consistent with some of the work that the president and his administration have done in the United States military and the Department of Defense with regard to Americans that have previously been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation,” Earnest said. “So this is obviously consistent with the kinds of values the president has given voice to, but this is a decision that belonged to the secretary of state.”

The apology comes weeks after the anti-LGBT Family Research Council said in a blog post President-elect Donald Trump should remove “activists” from the State Department, an apparent reference to the work on international LGBT human rights conducted by the Obama administration. In response, a Trump spokesperson said the president-elect would seek to govern the country with unity and “to think that discrimination of any kind will be condoned or tolerated in a Trump administration is simply absurd.”

But according to the New York Times, the Trump transition team asked employees at the State Department to submit details of programs aimed at promoting gender equality, which rattled some State Department employees as an indication Trump was seeking to target LGBT initiatives.

Earnest deferred to the State Department when Fox News Radio asked why the State Department apology over the “lavender scare” firings was handed down with less than two weeks remaining before Obama leaves office.

“For the timing of this statement, I’d refer you to the secretary of state’s office,” Earnest said. “I read the statement, but I’m not aware of all of the machinations that went on in the background to make it a reality. Obviously, it does send, I think, a pretty strong message to all Americans that people should be judged not based on who they love or who they are, but based on their capacity to serve this country.”

As Fox News Radio noted, the State Department isn’t the only U.S. agency that sought to remove gay people from the federal government. President Dwight Eisenhower issued a executive order that declared homosexuality a “sexual perversion” and former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered agents to identify gay people working for the federal government.

Earnest said no plans are in motion when asked if Obama himself owes LGBT people an apology for this government-wide history of discrimination, but wouldn’t rule out such action. The question, Earnest said, was the first time he heard about those 1950s efforts targeting gay employees.

“I think President Obama has throughout his tenure as president worked hard to stand up for the rights of LGBT Americans, and he’s proud of his record,” Earnest added. “Some of that is certainly a consequence of the profound changes in our society that have taken place under a rather short period of time in a way that has made America a more perfect union. The president has certainly welcomed those developments, the president has certainly encouraged those developments.”

—  This article was provided to The Pride LA by the National Gay Media Association and Washington Blade.

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