April 3, 1959: University of Florida Witch-hunt Fires 14 Employees, Kicks Out 50 Students for Being Gay
Forgotten by many, the University of Florida had its own home-grown version of the McCarthy/Cohn Lavender Scares that lasted from 1956 to 1964.
State Sen. Charley E. Johns, who led the Florida Legislative Investigations Committee, popularly known simply as the Johns Committee. Johns launched his committee in 1956 with a mandate to investigate alleged communist links to the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The NAACP successfully tied the committee’s up in several court challenges, so Johns decided to go after a much less organized target: gays and lesbians in the state’s schools, colleges and universities.
In early January, the Miami Herald reported that the committee was “quietly probing reports of homosexuality at the University of Florida”. Nearly three months later, Dr. Wayne Reitz, president of the University of Florida in Gainesville, announced that 14 academic and non-academic employees of the university had been dismissed as a result of the Johns Committee investigation.
“Action has also been taken with respect to the few students involved,” Reitz said in a statement. He declined to disclose the names of those dismissed, and added, “I want to emphasize that there is no reason to believe that the extent of homosexual conduct at the University of Florida is unique and that other public institutions have any lesser problem. This conclusion is expressed in the legislative investigation committee confidential report. Certainly this statement neither condones such activities nor alters our firm position in taking action whenever we develop adequate evidence.”
Little was known about the Johns Committee’s activities until records became available under Florida’s new open records law in 1993. Those records revealed that Johns had sent two investigators to the University of Florida during the summer of 1958. By October, the investigator found very little evidence of anything going on, but boasted in a report that he found “a considerable homosexual operation” on campus that deserved further investigation. Having gotten the go-ahead, the investigators began hiring student informants and used highway patrolmen to remove professors and individual students from classrooms for interrogation. Most of what they got was rumor and innuendo. One student identified professors “by observing them in class… the way they act… nothing specific. Another student named a professor because he wore Bermuda shorts on campus.
Students were also caught up in the witch hunt. Some students accused of homosexuality were allowed to remain on campus, but only if they visited the infirmary and submitted themselves to psychiatric treatment through the duration of their time on campus. In violation of privacy laws, clinic personnel were required to turn over information from patients records. Nearly fifty students wound up being dismissed.
One professor, Sigismond Diettrich, chair of the geography department of the University of Florida, attempted suicide after being investigated by the committee.
In February 1959, Reitz received a 1900-page confidential report titled, “Crimes against Nature at the University of Florida.” That report led to the firing of fourteen employees. At the end of April, the committee summarized the report during a closed-door session of the state Senate. In response, the legislature extended the committee’s mandate for two more years so it could “investigate any agitator who may appear in Florida.”
The state legislature ended funding for the committee in 1964 after it released a report called Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida, which infamously became known as the “Purple Pamphlet” (see below). Its many photographs depicting homosexual acts outraged legislators and reportedly copies of the report were being sold as pornography in New York City.
Associated Press. “14 Are Dismissed in UF Morals Probe.” The News Tribune (Four Pierce, Florida, April 3, 1959): 1. Via Newspapers.com.
James A. Schnur. “Closest Crusaders: The Johns Committee and Homophobia, 1956-1965.” Chapter 8 in John Howard (ed.) Carryin’ On in the Lesbian and Gay South (New York: New York University Press, 1997): 132-138.]