Based on the award-winning book by historian David K. Johnson, the film examines the tactics used by the government to identify and fire homosexuals. It takes audiences inside interrogation rooms where men and women were subjected to grueling questioning about their personal lives, and it presents first-hand accounts from both the victims of the purges and the officials who directed them.
The film makes extensive use of thousands of pages of previously classified documents - employment records, transcripts of interrogations, and surveillance reports - obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. Archival material shows how the fear and suspicion gripping the country during the Cold War encouraged the anti-gay hysteria that swept the nation in an era in which The New York Times used the words "homosexual" and "pervert" interchangeably, and public officials warned that homosexuality was a dangerous, contagious disease.
Although the McCarthy Era is primarily remembered as the time of the Red Scare, the supposed threat of Communist infiltration of American society, it was actually the Lavender Scare that lasted longer and ruined more lives.
In addition to the civil service employees who lost their jobs, workers in private sector were also fired since the Eisenhower order applied to companies holding government contracts. And when the U.S. urged allies to conduct similar purges in their countries, homosexuals were fired by foreign governments as well.
While the story is at times infuriating and heartbreaking, its underlying message is uplifting and inspiring. Instead of destroying gay men and lesbians, these actions had the opposite effect: they stirred a sense of outrage and activism that helped ignite the gay rights movement.
In 1957, at the height of the purges, a Harvard-trained astronomer named Frank Kameny became the first person to fight his dismissal. His attempts to regain his job evolved into a lifelong fight for the rights of homosexuals.