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Kerry apologizes for State Department 'lavender scare'

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a conference on climate change and innovation in clean energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., Monday, Jan. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a conference on climate change and innovation in clean energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., Monday, Jan. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) (Michael Dwyer / AP)

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry apologized on Monday to hundreds of federal employees who were fired decades ago for their perceived sexual orientation in what came to be known as the lavender scare.

"In the past -- as far back as the 1940s, but continuing for decades -- the Department of State was among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, forcing some employees to resign or refusing to hire certain applicants in the first place," Kerry said in a statement.

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"On behalf of the department, I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the department's steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community," he said.

The apology came a little more than a month after Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, requested it. It also comes days before Kerry's expected successor, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, will appear before that committee for his confirmation hearing.

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A 2004 study found that at least 1,000 employees at the State Department were fired in the 1950s and 1960s for alleged homosexuality. The effort coincided with Sen. Joe McCarthy's anti-Communist campaign at a time when gays and lesbians were alleged to be security risks.

Cardin has acknowledged Congress was largely to blame for the episode: State Department officials were required to report to lawmakers, as part of the annual appropriations process, how many gays and lesbians had been fired. Cardin said he plans to introduce legislation to extend an apology on behalf of Congress.

"The apology made by Secretary Kerry today represents a welcome first step to acknowledge this dark stain on our nation's history, and I thank him for his principled leadership," Cardin said in a statement.

"I intend to move forward with legislation that adds the Senate's voice to this important issue, and to address my on-going commitment to building an inclusive foreign policy and development workforce that represents all Americans."

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