When we think about discrimination against LGBT people in Florida the first thing that comes to mind is the "Save Our Children" campaign spearheaded by Anita Bryant in the late ‘70s.
But Florida showed its homophobia much earlier than that.
The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (commonly known as the Johns Committee) was established by the Florida Legislature in 1956, during the era of the Second Red Scare and The Lavender Scare. Commonly referred to as the Johns Committee after its first chairman, state senator and former acting governor Charley Eugene Johns, the origins of the committee are tied to the panic caused by Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's unanimous 1954 decision that racial segregation in schools, housing, and other public facilities was unconstitutional.
The committee undertook a wide-ranging investigation of allegedly subversive activities by academics, Civil Rights Movement groups, especially the NAACP, and suspected communist organizations, but failing to find communist ties to Florida civil rights organizations, to gain continued funding it began to focus on a more vulnerable target: homosexuals, who at the time were widely believed to be a threat to national security, as well as a threat to youth.
The focus shifted to colleges and universities. Admission of homosexuality constituted moral turpitude and was grounds for firing or expulsion from college.
The Johns Committee interrogated suspected homosexuals among students, hired student informants with FLIC funds, used highway patrolmen to remove professors from the classroom, and telephoned some instructors late at night, demanding that they provide testimony while the accused were never allowed to confront their accusers, they were seldom informed of their legal or constitutional rights, and were rarely offered sufficient time to secure an attorney or prepare a defense.
Students, too, faced the committee's wrath. While faculty and staff suffered immediate dismissal if suspected of homosexuality, gay students could remain on campus only if they visited the infirmary and submitted to psychiatric treatments throughout their academic career.
The investigations ruined many lives and careers.
By 1963, the Johns Committee could boast of having caused the firing of 39 professors and deans, as well as the revoking of teaching certificates for 71 public school teachers, all suspected or admitted homosexuals. Scores of students were interrogated and subsequently expelled from public colleges across the state, as well.
The Sun-Sentinel reported in 2019 that the Committee "persecuted civil rights leaders, university professors, college students, public school teachers and state employees for imagined offenses against redneck sensibilities… due process or the right to counsel or civil liberties were ignored… They employed entrapment and blackmail."
The Committee finally came to an end in 1965 after the legislature withdrew its funding.
And now a new cleansing chapter has started: in 2019 State Representative Evan Jenne and State Senator Lauren Book introduced a resolution with "a formal and heartfelt apology.” The resolution has not yet passed, and they do not expect immediate approval.