"The repeated Johns Committee assaults on my integrity and my worthiness as a human being left permanent emotional scars. To this day, my emotions are undergirded by dark feelings of unworthiness; of being "less than" when compared with others. While one learns to cope with these feelings, they never truly go away. For me, that is the true legacy of this dark period in the social history of our country. Hopefully, enlightenment and eternal vigilance will preclude its return."--Art Copleston, one of the victims of the Johns Committee.
During this month of LGBTQI Pride activities around the country, it is fairly customary to pause and reflect on the road that we have traveled to get to the places we are now. Such was the case last night at the Mickee Faust Club, where we screened a 30-minute documentary called, "Behind Closed Doors: The Dark Legacy of the Johns Committee." The film, done as a thesis project by a University of Florida journalism student in 2000, tells the story of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee headed by State Senator Charley Johns of Starke. Johns had recently been defeated for Governor (he was serving in place of Governor Dan McCarty who had died in office), and had returned to the Florida Senate where he decided to make his legacy starting this committee of legislators, lawyers, and law enforcement officers to root out Florida's criminal element. "Criminal element" is a euphemism for "civil rights leaders, communists and homosexuals."
The group first went after the membership records of the NAACP. The NAACP mounted a formidable resistance, fighting the committee in court, all the way to U.S. Supreme Court which said the organization did not have to turn over its membership list. Having been stymied in this effort, they went to the group that had no defenders: the lesbian and gay community of Florida. And for the period from about 1958-1965, the Johns Committee made the lives of gays and lesbians in public schools, universities and state government a living hell. At Florida State, investigators would throw parties hoping to entrap gay male students. They also patrolled the Greyhound bus station. Students were either expelled or they were enlisted to become informants for the committee. Professors were hauled out of classes by investigators and interrogated for hours in motel rooms. It was state-sanctioned terror.
Part of what brought the committee's work to end was the publication of its infamous "Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida" booklet, which was designed to shock the sensibilities of Floridians. Instead, "The purple pamphlet" (so nicknamed because the cover was a swirl of purple) offended lawmakers who couldn't believe that Johns used taxpayer dollars to make a soft porn publication, complete with a glossary of terms and suggestive photos of anonymous gay sex and bondage.
There was another factor that helped end the activities of the Johns Committee. The population of Florida was shifting more to the south which meant there was a growing number of urban, and more urbane, up and coming lawmakers coming to the state Capitol. And when the Johns Committee decided to go after gays and lesbians at the newly-created University of South Florida campus, legislators from the Tampa area, including former Congressman Sam Gibbons, were furious. The committee's work came to a close in 1965, and Senator Johns moved to have the records sealed until December 31, 2028. However, voters in 1992, passed a state constitutional amendment affirming our desire for open records which forced the release of the Johns Committee's work product, all 30,000+ pages of it. Today, those records are maintained at the Florida State archives in the R.A. Gray building.
As I thought about this record of past sins, I kept reflecting on the message I received above from Art Copleston, one of the students at the University of Florida who ended up on the wrong side of the Johns Committee. He shared with me that he's soon going to be turning 82, and has lived a full and rewarding life as a gay man. And yet, he expresses the fact that he's learned to cope with the feelings of inadequacy from that period where he was interrogated and made to feel as if he was a "pervert" in need of "help." Those feelings are still there for him. And it made me realize that there are many of us, perhaps even a whole generation, who, despite the confidence we have and our sense that we are good and right, we are somehow a "less than." Even as our society evolves in its thinking on LGBTQI rights, the Governor of Texas and his state Republican Party are saying that we're like alcoholics, diseased and in need of a cure. Our own Attorney General in Florida says to grant us the civil rights of marriage would do irreparable harm to the state. And let's not even talk about what various faith communities, and bishops, might say about our righteous selves. Sadly, these sins are still with us today.
When I wrote back to Art, I told him the truth as I know it: he never was a "less than," and he still isn't today. It doesn't matter what the committee's investigators told him. I can only hope that when his days on earth come to an end, he will find himself standing with the other saints, Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, Stormé DeLarverie,and the many others and be finally freed from any lingering doubts that he is loved exactly as he is without an asterisk.