The war in Ukraine has put nuclear deterrence and nuclear armaments at the forefront of news and policy circles. But unfortunately, these renewed discussions reflect outdated or pop-cultural understandings of risk, escalation, and our history.
The national security state and the nuclear complex are intertwined in their origins and assumptions of Cold War heterosexuality and white supremacy. These assumptions deeply shaped ideas of patriotism and public service. One of the most pernicious ones was the organized bureaucratic violence against LGBTQIA+ Americans who wanted to serve their country, starting with the “Lavender Scare.”
As part of the Second Red Scare and McCarthyism, it was made permanent by President Dwight Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450, which cost 5,000 federal employees their jobs in the 1950s. It also barred LGBTQIA+ Americans from accessing classified information, a policy that remained in place until 1995. The terminations under the executive order had lifelong consequences regarding employment, housing, and marriage. The Lavender Scare’s wrongdoing can — and should — be undone now, but the pace is painstakingly slow. Why?
TAKING RESPONSIBILITY AT A SNAIL’S PACE
Recent decades have seen different arms of the federal government take responsibility for past wrongs against Americans, including the use of Agent Orange, burn pits, and discrimination against Black farmers. Although Secretary of State John Kerry apologized to the victims of the Lavender Scare in 2017, the following steps of compensation, transparency, and reform have yet to become law.
The Departments of State and Defense only changed policies under sufficient public scrutiny and pressure. For example, in 1994, the State Department responded to internal pressure from GLIFAA, formed in 1992 to represent LGBTQIA+ employees working in foreign affairs, to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the department. Those efforts led to Executive Order 13087 in 1998, which finally barred discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Passing the LOVE Act is a necessary step to building a better and more robust federal government that fully reflects all Americans.
The Department of Defense was pressured by generations of activists, including World War II veteran Frank Kameny, Vietnam veterans Leonard Matlovich and Grethe Cammermeyer, and Iraq War veteran Eric Alva. Kameny, Matlovich, and Cammermeyer had been subject to Section 8, the military regulation that treated being LGBTQIA+ as a mental illness and security risk. At the same time, Alva served under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the compromise policy that demanded that LGBTQIA+ servicemembers hide their sexual orientation. A group of DOD civilians, High Tech Gays, sued the Department of Defense in 1984 to overturn the policies that were the legacy of the Lavender Scare. They ultimately lost at a Court of Appeals, which gave deference to the executive branch regarding access to classified information and treated sexual orientation as a chosen behavior rather than an immutable characteristic.
Currently, different congressional committees are pursuing a range of oversight and remedies. For example, Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) seek a resolution that “acknowledges and apologizes for the mistreatment of and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LBGT) individuals who have served our nation as civil servants or members of the Armed Forces and Foreign Service.” In addition, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) continue to work to pass the Lavender Offense Victim Exoneration Act, or the LOVE Act, which would review all employee terminations in the State Department since Jan. 1, 1950. The law will also establish a board of senior-level officials to address issues that LGBTQIA+ Foreign Service employees and their families face.
LGBTQIA+ veterans expelled under previous policies can also have their records corrected to receive benefits, but to do so, each individual has to apply separately to request the change. In addition, the Secretary of Defense has the power to grant discharge upgrades, which means that the secretary can make corrections on the discharge record that would allow LGBTQIA+ veterans to get the justice they deserve while also being eligible for benefits they had previously been denied.
Compared to State and DOD, the Department of Energy has been the slowest when it comes to its LGBTQIA+ members that the Lavender Scare impacted. None of the secretaries or deputy secretaries of the department have ever spoken publicly about that era, and no records are widely available. Without a party with demonstrable injury, it is difficult to demand action from the Department of Energy, push for congressional investigations, or legislation.
WHAT THE DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY NEEDS TO DO
First, to investigate the past, the Department of Energy’s Inspector General has to review internal documents from the Lavender Scare era with the help of the department’s historian. Nonproliferation advocacy organizations should also fund post-doctoral research that focuses on uncovering the extent of discrimination against queer members of the department. Second, all findings should be shared with Congress and the secretary of the department to establish clear reasons why it and its predecessors need their version of the LOVE Act. Third, the department needs to create an independent review board to understand better the needs and safety of its future LGBTQIA+ employees and their families. Unfortunately, none of these are simple steps, but they are doable.
Compared to the Departments of State and Defense, the Department of Energy has been the slowest when it comes to its LGBTQIA+ members that the Lavender Scare impacted.
There are ways to bridge the gap internally and externally to establish good governance reforms and transparency. Internally, the Office of the Historian and the Inspector General of the department can review documents and personnel records inaccessible to the broader public and turn those documents into a public report on discrimination and bureaucratic violence. These actions would prove that the department understands its past wrongdoing. Whether or not such a detailed public accounting would create the basis to prevent this type of violence from being used again is unclear. Still, an open source record is important for future generations. On the outside, LGBTQIA+ and nuclear nonproliferation groups should collaborate to fund research to find surviving victims across the country, collect oral histories, and publish them. Collectively, this rich documentation would create pressure to pass the LOVE Act for the Department of Energy.
Second, if the next Secretary of Energy advocated for a DOE LOVE Act and it passed, it would pave the way for 1) a compensation plan for the careers and subsequent lives that were destroyed due to the Lavender Scare, 2) a formal apology by Congress and the Secretary of Energy by which the department has officially recognized it’s past wrongs, and 3) an internal review board ensuring that discrimination against LGBTQIA+ federal employees does not occur again.
The three consequences listed above are already in play. For example, in line with Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, in which the Supreme Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act extended to LGBTQIA+ Americans, the LOVE Act department would establish the wrongness of workplace discrimination against LGBTQIA+ Americans. The compensation plan could serve as a framework and example for other agencies to build on as part of a broader commitment to good governance and transparency. However, the challenge with the compensation plan will be the reluctance of the victims to come forward and trust the government, as was the case with Canada’s LGBT Purge Fund. The multi-million dollar fund results from a 2016 class-action suit by three survivors of Canada’s Lavender Scare and is meant to reconcile, commemorate, and compensate the survivors.
Finally, an independent review board for LGBTQIA+ employees and their families’ policies is vital to the department’s long-term success. In the broadest sense, it’s putting people first and treating people well, as diverse teams make the best teams. But in the current climate of moral panic and homophobic violence, it’s profoundly urgent. Here’s why: Sam Brinton was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy in February 2022. They’re gender-fluid and highly qualified in their field. Still, their existence became a point of attack from reactionaries, creating a social media firestorm that the department was unprepared to meet.
Given that attacks like that will become more frequent, investing in employee well-being and crisis response are obvious program expenditures. The other concern is access to essential benefits and safety. The Department of Energy has labs and facilities across the country. That includes many states that have made gender-affirming care a felony, barred access to reproductive care, and brutal “don’t say gay” bills — and that is likely to go further in the future. The department needs the Independent Review Board to make plans to allow employees to leave unsafe places for them and their families without career ramifications.
The current moment is an opportunity to review our nuclear legacy and demand accountability. It offers the chance to work against a rising tide of authoritarian legislation targeting the lives of LGBTQIA+ Americans if the federal government takes that chance to demonstrate commitment to those same lives. Drawing a sharp line under these past crimes, saying “gay,” and compensating the victims is an urgent counterweight to domestic Orbánism. Moreover, it helps ensure that the Department of Energy can credibly recruit, retain, and promote LBGTQIA+ Americans, who comprise more than 20% of the population.
Passing the LOVE Act would not only be an act of good governance, but a means to hold accountable past wrongdoers, make material amends to those who were harmed, and improve public education and culture. It’s also a necessary step to building a better and more robust federal government that fully reflects all Americans. But, more importantly, when the United States is engaged in resurgent great power competition with homophobic authoritarian regimes like Russia and China, it could lean into its power as an open society and a liberal democracy.
Luke Schleusener (he/him) is a Co-Founder and the President of Out in National Security and a Term Member of the Council of Foreign Relations. He served on the speechwriting staff of Secretaries of Defense Panetta, Hagel, and Carter.