Why it matters that John Kerry spoke up about the 'lavender scare' of the 1950s.
In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which began a witch hunt for gay and lesbian employees in the federal government; it became known as the "lavender scare."
The order called for an investigation into federal employees and delineated specific qualities to look for that could possibly threaten national security — including drug addiction, criminal behavior, and "sexual perversion."
As a result, thousands of gay and lesbian employees were forced out of their jobs and, often, into the public spotlight at a time when being outed could seriously endanger their lives.
Remarkably, the order stayed in effect until 1975 — when it was ended by the U.S. Civil Service Commission.
Further steps have been taken to end discrimination against LGBTQ people at the federal level, including the highly controversial and deeply problematic "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, which ended an outright ban on LGBTQ people serving in the military — provided they kept their sexual orientation and gender identity a secret. That policy was repealed by President Obama in 2010.
When Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, she helped move the needle even further, issuing protections and equal rights measures for the transgender community. In just over 60 years, we've gone from actively persecuting LGBTQ government employees to passing marriage equality on a federal level.
But the memory of those discriminatory practices remains — not just on paper, but in the hearts and minds of people who were directly affected by them.
In November 2016, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, asking him to apologize for the lavender scare on behalf of the U.S. government.
"As you approach your final months of service as our nation's chief diplomat," Cardin wrote in the letter, "I ask that you take steps to remedy a deep stain on our national history and that of the State Department itself: The legacy of the so-called 'lavender scare' in which hundreds of State Department employees were dismissed from service because of their perceived sexual orientation."
Kerry has long championed LGBTQ rights and even created the State Department's first ever "Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons" position.
He responded by doing exactly what Cardin's letter called on him to do.
On Jan. 9, 2017, John Kerry apologized on behalf of the State Department for decades of discrimination against LGBTQ employees.
"These actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today," said Kerry in a statement. "On behalf of the Department, I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past."
The timing of the apology is not without significance. As Cardin pointed out in his letter, Kerry has mere months (now days) left in his post as Secretary of State, at which point ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson is expected to take over the role in PEOTUS Donald Trump's administration.
It remains to be seen what Trump and Tillerson will bring to federal policies, but LGBTQ advocates are understandably worried about a resurgence of lavender scare-era policies.
Tillerson took over as CEO of ExxonMobile the year that it received a 0% from the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, based largely on its treatment of LGBTQ employees.
Since then, ExxonMobile has slowly made improvements — but most of them occurred after changes in federal policy mandated them. For instance, the company reintroduced health coverage for same-sex spouses of employees, but only after the U.S. Treasury Department ruled that same-sex couples should be considered legally married.
Kerry's apology doesn't make it impossible for the new State Department to regress back into discriminatory policies, but it would make it that much harder.
A formal public apology from the United States government is significant because it's a highly visible declaration of values. Any policy introduced to the contrary would have to, at the very least, go up against a firm on-record statement that the United States government stands against LGBTQ discrimination.