04/27/2013 09:00 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

60 Years After a Brutal Witch Hunt, New Hope for ENDA

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This week the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which has languished in Congress for years, was reintroduced in the Senate and the House of Representatives. There is guarded optimism that it is finally going to move forward. If ENDA is passed and signed into law, it will protect LGBT Americans from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The brightening outlook for ENDA comes at a time when we are marking the 60th anniversary of another historic moment for LGBT people. This one, however, was devastating.

Sixty years ago today, on the morning of April 27, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared war on gay and lesbian Americans. In one of his first official acts after taking office, Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, which banned gays and lesbians from working for the government. Hundreds of agents were assigned to investigate the private lives of federal employees. Anyone found to be gay or lesbian was offered a choice: resign or be fired. In the vicious witch hunt pursued by Eisenhower, thousands and thousands of people lost their jobs. More than a few, with their careers in ruins and relationships with friends and family torn apart, committed suicide. It was a terrible time for LGBT people.


But Eisenhower's actions had an unintended positive effect: They stirred a new sense of anger, outrage and militancy in the gay and lesbian community. In 1965, years before Stonewall, a handful of brave men and women who were fed up with the government's anti-gay polices formed a picket line in front of the White House. It was the nation's first gay rights protest, and it helped launch a movement for justice and equality that would go on to make life better for the generations of LGBT people that followed.

If only old Ike could see the tremendous accomplishments of the movement he unintentionally set in motion exactly 60 years ago! He'd be stunned! He might also be surprised that so few people -- even in the LGBT community -- know anything about the witch hunts that began in the 1950s and continued through the '60s, '70s and beyond. But how could they? It's a subject that has been completely overlooked in the history books. It's a classic example of how the story of LGBT Americans is so often marginalized and not included in the telling of mainstream American history.

The extent to which gay men and lesbians were victimized by the U.S. government was first brought to light in an award-winning book called The Lavender Scare, by historian David K. Johnson. I found the first-person stories of the people who lived through this period fascinating and heartbreaking. I am now working on a film documentary that will capture and preserve those stories before they are lost forever. The Lavender Scare will shed light on an important chapter of LGBT history that has never received the attention that it deserves. But it will do more than that: It will focus attention on the lingering effects of the anti-LGBT witch hunts that are, I'm sad to say, still with us.

A recent study by UCLA's Williams Institute found that 27 percent of LGBT people said that they had been harassed at work or lost a job over the course of the past five years because of their sexual orientation. In 29 states LGBT Americans still have no legal protection against employment discrimination. But ENDA would change that. It would finally enshrine into federal law the concept that every American is entitled to pursue the job and career of his or her choice, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. And it would finally make clear that the history of our government's officially sanctioned homophobia will forever be just that: history.

For more information about the film, click here. And check out our trailer: