Stuyvesant Town artist recreates ‘Lavender Scare’ for PBS documentary

Illustration of historic scene by John Sicoransa

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Stuyvesant Town resident John Sicoransa hadn’t heard of the Lavender Scare when film editor Bruce Shaw contacted him about creating drawings for a documentary on the topic, but he immediately knew he wanted to get involved once he learned more about the troubling period in American history.

The Lavender Scare, the subject of a new PBS documentary by the same name that premiered last Tuesday, ran concurrently with the Red Scare, a period following World War II when Senator Joseph McCarthy stoked fears about an increase in communism. The Lavender Scare began in the 1950s when President Dwight Eisenhower declared homosexuals a security risk, in part because of a perception that they could be easily blackmailed. Federal workers were fired or forced to resign and others were denied jobs in the first place when the government suspected them of being gay.

McCarthy and attorney Roy Cohn, who later died of AIDS and was accused of being a closeted gay man, were responsible for many of the firings, which were supported by J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI.

“Once I heard the story outline and saw existing footage, I was all in,” Sicoransa said of the film.

Sicoransa, a storyboard artist, got involved in the documentary when Shaw contacted him in 2016 about creating historically accurate drawings for the film where there were no existing visuals. Storyboards are often used in pre-production for film, advertising and television, Sicoransa said, and can range from rough sketches to finished-looking art, depending on the budget and kind of job.

The director for “The Lavender Scare,” Josh Howard, wanted historically accurate drawings in a film noir style for two scenes. Sicoransa said that he had created similar film noir-style visuals for another documentary, “American Reds,” the previous year, and he was hired on “The Lavender Scare” after Howard and Shaw met with him and reviewed his work on the previous film.

Howard specifically wanted illustrations on scenes that involved Madeleine Tress, who resigned from the US Department of Commerce and was investigated for being a lesbian during the Lavender Scare, as well as a scene depicting congressional testimony from Frank Kameny, one of the thousands of federal workers who lost his job during the Lavender Scare.

During the era of the Red Scare, President Dwight Eisenhower declared homosexuals a security risk.

Kameny became the first openly gay person to testify before Congress when he appeared before a congressional committee to oppose a bill that would cripple a gay rights organization that he had founded years earlier.

Shaw provided Sicoransa with a shot list and images for a hallway, the interrogation office, Tress’s face, and the room and faces for Kameny’s testimony.

“Bruce and I knocked around ideas for composition,” Sicoransa said. “Pencil sketches drawn on paper were emailed to Bruce and Josh for approval. Approved sketches were inked and painted in Photoshop in layers so that some Bruce could animate some drawings and manipulate others in (video editing software) After Effects.”

Sicoransa said that he previously worked with Shaw, the film’s editor, on multiple documentaries for “American Experience,” a series on PBS that explores important events and people throughout American history throughout dramatic re-enactments and commentary from historians and authors.

For the series, Sicoransa created sequences of drawings that mapped out a scripted scene for historical re-creations when actual visuals for the scene were not available. The director and director of photography for “American Experience” used the storyboards that Sicoransa created on location and the images were edited into the existing footage for the film for WGBH in Boston, which produces the documentary series for PBS.

“The re-creations must hew to the historical record as much as possible,” he said. “Once approved by WGBH, the production team shot the scenes based on my drawings.”

Sicoransa said he felt that the recent film on the Lavender Scare is especially important because the events aren’t very well known and he hopes that the film will raise awareness about this less publicized period in LGBTQ history.

“Apparently I’m not alone in having been completely unaware that during this painful period in American history, our government actively engaged in homophobia and the persecution of US citizens,” he said. “After seeing the film, it’s easy to understand why the LGBTQ community continues to fight so hard for equal rights, and that fostering change is difficult, but possible.”

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