Florida has always been a dangerous state for it’s LGBT citizens. 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.
April 3, 1959, was a significant day in the history of the University of Florida, as it marked a tragic incident that highlighted the rampant homophobia and discrimination prevalent in American society during that time. On that day, the University of Florida fired fourteen employees on the grounds of their sexual orientation and would expel 50 students marking a dark moment in the school’s history.
State Sen. Charley E. Johns, who led the Florida Legislative Investigations Committee, popularly known simply as the Johns Committee was launched 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 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.
The incident began when the university’s administration received an anonymous letter accusing several employees of being gay. The letter stated that these employees were involved in homosexual activities and were a danger to the school’s reputation.
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 witch hunt.
“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 newly enacted 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 incident sparked widespread outrage and condemnation, both locally and nationally. The university faced significant backlash from civil rights groups, human rights organizations, and the general public. Many argued that the university had violated the employees’ constitutional rights to privacy and due process and that their actions were discriminatory and unjust.
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.
The events of April 3, 1959, at the University of Florida serve as a reminder of the struggles and injustices faced by the LGBT community throughout history. The actions taken by the university were discriminatory and unjust, and it is important today. Because it soon may happen again if we aren’t diligent.
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If you’re interested in reading more about this, you might look at James T. Sears “Lonely Hunters: An Oral History Of Lesbian And Gay Southern Life, 1948-1968” published by Westview Press in 1997 and still available on Amazon. My late husband Jim Patterson was a student at the UF in those years and contributed to Jim Sears’ research, including connecting Sears with one of his professors who was fired, called in the book Arlen Davies.