A Look Back: Florida’s Johns Committee

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Imagine you are a college student sitting in  class  at one of Florida’s Universities.

All of a sudden two uniformed police walk into the classroom. They speak quietly to the professor who then points you out. The police approach you, ask you your name and then ask you to come with them.  They escort you out of the classroom and into a waiting car and then drive to a nondescript motel on the edge of town. You enter one of the rooms. Inside are three men sitting behind a table.  You are asked to take a chair in front the table. They ask you your name.

Then they ask,  “Have you ever engaged in homosexual activity?”

They explain: you have been identified as a homosexual by another person who testified.  Homosexual activity is a crime in Florida. You can be expelled from the university.  However if you cooperate and give them the names of all of the homosexuals you know, both students and faculty, they will go easy on you.

Unreal? No, this is Florida circa 1960.

The three men behind the table were investigators from The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee.  Created by the Florida state senate in 1956, it was popularly known as the Johns Committee after its first chairman, north Florida state senator Charley Eugene Johns. Although modeled after U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy’s infamous red witch hunt investigations, the Committee’s real target was the emerging civil rights movement in Florida.  Johns, along with many of Florida state legislators at the time, was an ardent segregationist who viewed the demands for civil rights with alarm. He saw the Committee as way to harass and stop the civil rights activists. However his efforts were frustrated when the activists got a Supreme Court ruling denying the Committee access to the rights organization’s  membership lists.

Seeking to continue the Committee’s existence and funding, Johns switched targets.  At his urging, the State Legislature directed the Committee to investigate the presence and activities of homosexuals in the state funded universities.  Throughout late 1950s and early 1960s the Committee hired both student informants and undercover police to hang out in the rest rooms and quickly nab both students and faculty acting suspiciously. The suspects were brought before the Committee’s investigators and told to name names. They were not allowed any legal assistance or allowed to confront their accuser. Although the major focus was male students and professors, a number of women were brought before the committee and accused of lesbian activity. Anything considered “gay” such as two men eating lunch together or wearing Bermuda shorts were grounds for suspicion.

Although Florida had a sizeable gay community, particularly in South Florida, it was very closeted and homosexuality was highly stigmatized. As a result, the Committee was able to work for over five years with little publicity and with the full cooperation of the universities’ administrators. Professors and university personnel who were accused were fired or quietly resigned.  Students were offered the option of either seeking psychiatric treatment at the student health center or being expelled. Many withdrew from school.  In all over 30 professors and Deans were fired or resigned. One department chair attempted suicide and then allowed to resign. It was unknown how many students left. The Committee extended its investigations into the high schools and over 70 teachers were fired.

In 1964, hoping to justify increased funding and permanent status, the Committee published a report of its activities. Entitled Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida and printed with a bright purple cover, the report raised dire warnings about the  threat that homosexuals posed.

“The best and current estimate of active homosexuals in Florida is 60,000 individuals. The plain fact of the matter is that a great many homosexuals have an insatiable appetite for sexual activities and find special gratification in the recruitment to their ranks of youth. The homosexual's goal is to "bring over" the young person, to hook him for homosexuality…We hope that many citizen organizations in Florida will use this report… to prepare their children to meet the temptations of homosexuality lurking today in the vicinity of nearly every institution of learning.”

As a primer on the homosexual threat, the report contained detailed descriptions of the activities of homosexuals seeking out young boys. At the back was a glossary of “homosexual terms” such as “dog’s lunch” (“Either a normal or gay person whose looks  and actions are unattractive to the point of non-association”) and “sea food”(“Homosexuals in the navy”).

To further alarm the Florida’s citizens, the report contained explicit photos of homosexual activity, one showing a “glory hole,” another of a young boy tied up in bondage and a page of photos of half-clad prepubescent boys.

But the shocker was the picture on the report’s title page:  underneath the words “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida” was the image of two naked men kissing.

Printing over 2,000 copies, the Committee was hoping to start a panic that would explode in cries of support for the Committee.

Were they ever wrong.

The report was immediately labeled  “obscene.” The Dade County state’s attorney said possession of the report  would be a crime. Legislators previously friendly to the Committee now denounced it as using taxpayer’s money to publish “pornography.” Ironically the publicity immediately made the report a best-seller and hundreds of orders came to the state printing office before it was pulled from distribution. Copies of the report were later sold in New York as pornography.

Embarrassed by the whole episode the state legislature withdrew the Committee’s funding and disbanded it.

Just as the McCarthy committee became synonym for a witch-hunt, the Johns Committee, along with the 1977 Anita Bryant campaign, became bywords for rampant homophobia.

In later years a number of those involved in the investigations apologized for their involvement, seeing it now as the hateful, homophobic behavior that it was.  Not Charley Johns. Before he died in 1972 a reporter asked him about the Committee. He responded, I don't get no love out of hurting people. But..if we saved one boy from being made homosexual, it was justified.”

Also the law making homosexuality a crime is still on the books.

University of Florida archives site for the report: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00004805/00001/1jFred Fejes


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