Watch: The Lingering Effects of Florida’s Vicious Anti-Gay Harassment Campaigns

Former University of Florida student Art Copleston explains how he was ensnared by the “Johns Committee” over 50 years ago during an interview with Vox. / Image via Vox Media (screen grab).

In 1950s America, anti-Communist sentiments were widespread, leading to the infamous “McCarthy hearings.” Led by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), they turned into a sprawling inquest, searching for Communist “infiltrators” in the military, politics and American society.

Senator McCarthy, seen here in 1954. / Image via U.S. National Archives (public domain).

Many of the accusations were later debunked, and the hysteria surrounding the hearings destroyed McCarthy’s support base and reputation. But McCarthy’s influence would outlive him.

Those Senate hearings were only one part of the the moral and political policing by American authorities during the 1950s and 1960s. Thousands of Americans were caught in the fallout, and other state and federal entities perpetuated McCarthy’s legacy, using the government’s power to pursue and brutalize “disfavored” groups and ideologies. 

Other such commissions existed, some more pernicious than others. As Vox explains through a gripping new short-form documentary released this week, Florida’s “Johns Committee” is one long-ignored case in point – a “terrorizing” force targeting LGBTQ students and professors in the state.

Ranjani Chakraborty writes in Vox that the Johns Committee, named “after the influential state Sen. Charley Johns who spearheaded it,” moved from target to target over its lifespan. The Committee first pursued Civil Rights Movement leaders and activists in the state, “arguing they were backed by communists” despite lacking any such evidence. Failing to make progress there, the Committee then began what became known as the “Lavender Scare” – vicious, reputation-destroying attacks on LGBTQ Floridians in the state school systems, including the flagship University of Florida.

In combing through Johns Committee records at the Florida State Archives and having surviving targets of the Committee tell their stories, Chakraborty sheds new light on this horrifying campaign.

Entrapment, police stings and similar tactics existed in communities around the country during the mid-twentieth century. But the scope and ongoing effects of Florida’s Johns Committee really cannot be overstated; Chakraborty’s video underscores, agonizingly, just how these decades-old experiences continue to haunt LGBTQ Floridians even today.

(The State of Florida has yet to issue a public apology for these actions. It also is among those states without LGBTQ+ non-discrimination protections codified under state laws.)

Check out Chakraborty’s moving, maddening video and read more about these cases over at Vox (linked again below).

Another short-form documentary, as Chakraborty’s reporting mentions, is “The Committee.” Released a few years back by PBS, you can check out the earlier short film here.

 (Sources: Vox, PBS)

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