Explained: What was the 'Lavender Scare', how is it linked to NASA's James Webb? – The Indian Express

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which will show the clearest-ever images of the universe, is set to bring about a change in the way we perceive space. However, the telescope’s name has come under intense criticism from the LGBTQ community.
The telescope has been named after James Webb, who ran the US space agency from 1961 to 1968, and allegedly had a role to play in the “Lavender Scare” at NASA.
What was the Lavender Scare?
The Lavender Scare was the marginalisation of LGBTQ employees working in the US government’s offices during the 1950s and 1960s. It is often described as a “witch-hunt”, where those suspected of being from the LGBTQ community were fired from their jobs.
One such case was of NASA’s Clifford Norton, reported the Guardian. Norton was fired in 1963 for “immoral, indecent, and disgraceful conduct” after being interrogated for allegedly being a homosexual man.
The common perception at the time of those in the US administration, and in society at large, was that homosexuality and queerness were linked to a lack of morals or perversion.
Who was James Webb and what was his role?
James Webb, as the head of NASA during that period, is alleged to have played a role in the dismissal of LGBTQ employees for their identity. In 2021, four astronomers in the US wrote about the demand for renaming the telescope in ‘Scientific American’.
They cited historian David K Johnson’s 2004 book The Lavender Scare, which “discusses archival evidence indicating that Webb, along with others in State Department leadership, was involved in Senate discussions that ultimately kicked off a devastating series of federal policies”.
There is also an argument that Webb did not personally seek to remove the employees, but was merely following a government directive at the time. However, others say that whatever his role may have been, the sackings undoubtedly happened under his watch.
The Guardian report quoted American astronomer Phil Plait, who spoke about the difficulties faced by LGBTQ employees working at NASA, as saying: “A lot of astronomers are very unhappy the observatory is named after him…It’s difficult to want to use an instrument when you know you’ll have to write about it using the name of someone who worked to negate your very existence.”
What are the arguments being put forth to seek a name change?
Astronomers are demanding a change of name, arguing that the legacy of Webb should reflect what he oversaw as the head of NASA.
Speaking of Webb’s role in the subsequent Apollo missions that helped land American astronauts on the moon, the four astronomers wrote: “Webb might have played a positive role at NASA, but his greater legacy beyond the agency is also relevant. Now that we know of Webb’s silence…and his actions at NASA, we think it is time to rename JWST.” They added: “The name of such an important mission, which promises to live in the popular and scientific psyche for decades, should be a reflection of our highest values.”
NASA, on its part, has not indicated a change in the name is on the cards. NASA’s current administrator Bill Nelson had said in September: “We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.”
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