Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Collapse of Homophobia...or at least one building

I have been waiting for this day for many years, and it has arrived:
The Johns Building on Brounough Street is meeting its demise!

Yes, folks: this building, which once housed the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, is getting torn down to make way for a new Performing Arts Center. How perfectly ironic that the arts will replace a building named after one of Florida's most infamous homophobes.

State Senator, and one-time Governor, Charley Johns of Starke was a powerful man back in the 1950s legislature. Part of what was called "The Porkchop Gang", Johns chaired the Senate's Appropriations Committee vesting him with the ability to make-or break-budgets of state agencies and universities. And while that gave him great authority to reign supreme over bureaucrats, his real legacy rests with his chairmanship of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee which went on a McCarthy-esque witch hunt for communists in the NAACP, and then quickly turned its focus on a much more vulnerable population: the state's gay and lesbian employees.

From 1956-1965, the "Johns Committee", as it came to be known, would work with local law enforcement to use sting operations to entrap gay men and then grill them for hours until they gave up the names of their friends. At Florida State University, which had just gone co-ed, President Doak Campbell and the FSU police chief were silent partners in this crime. Students, who fell into traps set for those seeking anonymous sex, were threatened with expulsion and exposure to their parents if they didn't rat out their friends. Faculty members at all the state universities were also suspect, and if "found out", could choose to comply with the committee...and get fired....or get put on trial and be publicly-humiliated. And, just in case the public wasn't fully aware of the dangers of homosexuality, the Committee produced what became known as "The Purple Pamphlet", a document with pictures of half-naked men in positions that today look more like a JC Penney's underwear ad.

What eventually caused this committee to collapse was the population shift in Florida, as well as the political mindset of the state. More people living in the southern end of the peninsula meant district lines needed to be re-drawn, and more seats needed to go to the delegations from Tampa and points south. North Florida's influence, including Johns, started to lessen. Add to that the fledgling campus of the University of South Florida, where Johns' threats against this new institution were not welcome, made the Starke Senator an increasingly unpopular man with the growing South Florida delegations. And then there was the really bad misstep where Johns tried to frame a newspaper reporter who had been critical of his committee's work. It backfired, and like McCarthy at the national level, his committee's work was laid to rest. But not without having done significant psychological and social damage on a number of lives.

So, to have a wrecking ball smash away at the walls of a building bearing his name is another sign of the times changing.

And I look forward to the art that will take its place!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How lucky we are that you have so much true knowledge about the history of some of the more unpleasant people in Florida's political history. Wish more people knew it. Good job and hurrah for the Performing Arts Center coming along.