December 22, 2020 9:11 AM EST

Six years into his career as a linguist at the National Security Agency in 1980, Jamie Shoemaker was called into the office of the Agency’s security apparatus.

“They read me my rights,” he recalls, “and they said ‘we understand you’re leading a gay lifestyle.’ And I remember saying, ‘well, I didn’t think I was leading it, but yes, I’m gay.’” It was made clear to Shoemaker that he couldn’t keep his top secret security clearance, and he was taken to a nearby facility where he was separated from his fellow employees. For the next four months, Shoemaker didn’t work while his bosses came to a decision. Eventually, personnel officers told him that he was going to be fired.

What happened to Shoemaker in 1980 was the continuation of a policy launched nearly 30 years earlier, in 1953. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450, the investigation, interrogation and systematic removal of gay men and lesbians from the federal government became policy. Known as the “Lavender Scare,” the policy was based on the unfounded fear that gay men and lesbians “posed a threat to national security because they were vulnerable to blackmail and were considered to have weak moral characters,” says historian David K. Johnson. According to him, this aspect of American history has largely been overlooked.

Similar to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s fear-mongering “Red Scare” campaign in the early 1950s, which targeted alleged subversive communists working in the federal government, thousands of government employees were forced out of their jobs as a result of the anti-gay policy. And while American students might learn more about the Red Scare or study McCarthyism in school, Johnson says that without learning about the Lavender Scare, they’re only hearing part of the story.

“It’s important to remember that the Cold War was perceived as a kind of moral crusade,” says Johnson, whose 2004 book The Lavender Scare popularized the phrase and is widely regarded as the first major historical examination of the policy and its impact. The political and moral fears about alleged subversives became intertwined with a backlash against homosexuality, as gay and lesbian culture had grown in visibility in the post-war years. The Lavender Scare tied these notions together, conflating gay people with communists and alleging they could not be trusted with government secrets and labelling them as security risks, even though there was no evidence to prove this. “It’s a classic case of scapegoating,” says Johnson.

Every government employee was subject to a security investigation, and sometimes the impact could be devastating. Employees were questioned without an attorney, in what many described as an invasive experience where they were asked intimate questions about their private sexual lives.

During research for his book, Johnson found many examples of employees who “voluntarily resigned” after they had been interrogated, and others who took their own lives. Johnson estimates that somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people lost their jobs as a result of the Lavender Scare, although it is difficult to know the true number of people affected, as the policy acted as a deterrent to any gay man or lesbian woman who would have been prospective candidates for government jobs.

According to a 1983 oral history interview with drag king Rusty Brown, who served in the Navy, the fear went even beyond Washington, permeating the entertainment industry in Hollywood and the bars and nightclubs in New York City, as people were afraid they would be fired if their employers found out they were gay.

“The question of how many people were fired doesn’t really even capture the extent to which this affected people’s lives,” says Josh Howard, the filmmaker of the 2017 documentary The Lavender Scare, which was based on Johnson’s book.

One man, Frank Kameny, was fired from his role in the Army Map Service in 1957 because of his sexuality. He decided to fight the decision, framing the discrimination against him as a civil rights issue rather than an alleged national security issue. By 1965, Kameny and other gay men and lesbians were picketing outside the White House and helping other fired employees with their court cases. And although in 1975 the Civil Service Commission announced new rules that meant gay people could no longer be barred or fired from federal employment because of their sexuality, discrimination continued in other agencies where employees had security clearance, like the NSA, where Shoemaker worked.

It was Kameny who Shoemaker turned to for advice when he was told he was at risk of losing his job. With the civil rights activist’s help, Shoemaker became the first gay employee at the NSA to keep their job and their security clearance after such an investigation, under the condition that he told his family he was gay. It was only in 1995 that President Bill Clinton signed an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the granting of security clearances, and in 1998 that such discrimination was banned in government employment.

And although Pete Buttigieg was recently announced as president-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Transportation Secretary, which would make him the first openly gay Cabinet member, discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community is still present in current U.S. government policy. In 2017, the Trump administration announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military, denying transgender people the ability to enlist in the Armed Services and subjecting any transgender person who is currently serving to discharge for being transgender. For Alonna Lovanh, an active duty U.S. sailor from Des Moines, Iowa, the current ban threw her and other service members into disarray and uncertainty.

“I hope that people recognize that being transgender does not make us any different, it just makes us who we are,” she says. “We are who we are, and it will not change what we do or how we act.”

For Jennifer L. Levi, the director of Transgender Rights Project at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders who is representing a number of individuals challenging the ban, there are several similarities between the Lavender Scare and the current military policy.

“The goal in both of those was to demonize a community. It was to send a message that it’s not OK to be who you are. And it was effective,” she says, adding that the consequences of the current policy have been devastating and harmful for service members. Like most Americans, Levi didn’t learn about the Lavender Scare as a student. But today, she derives inspiration from looking at how civil rights activists organized in response to it, and sees the importance of the history that preceded her.

“It really makes me see what’s possible,” she says. “That they could live through what they lived through and come out as the brave and strong activists as they were, gives me courage to do the work that I do.”

Write to Arpita Aneja at arpita.aneja@time.com.

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