It was in January 1964 when the Florida legislature published what was then the most homoerotic piece of homophobic propaganda. Titled Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida, the publication was given away free by the legislature to “every individual concerned with the moral climate of the state.”
Nicknamed the Purple Pamphet for its lavender cover featuring two men kissing in a tight embrace, the publication was the result of a witch hunt that began in the mid-50s and continued for decades. It was part of the findings of the Johns Committee, so named for Charley Eugene Johns, the governor of Florida from 1953-1955. A Baptist, Johns formed the Florida Legislative Investigative Committee which started looking for homosexuals in the state’s schools and universities after his son said that he witnessed effeminate teachers at his college.
The committee’s original mandate was to “investigate all organizations whose principles or activities include a course of conduct on the part of any person or group which could constitute violence, or a violation of the laws of the state, or would be inimical to the well-being and orderly pursuit of their personal and business activities by the majority of the citizens of this state.” Loose translations: go furret out gays.
Over the course of the years that followed, as many as 200 gays from state-funded universities and colleges were summarily fired without due process of law. Their dismissals were based on hours-long interviews that mixed innuendo and bigotry in equal amounts. At the same time, the Committee forced scared gays to give up the names of their friends and colleagues, making the McCarthy Era look tame by comparison.
Thursday evening on WJCT at 10 pm, the Emmy award winning documentary “The Committee,” based on the booklet and the witchhunt will air in a specially edited version.
“Even though I’m from Florida, I didn’t know that this had happened until a colleague in our history department told me about it,” says co-director Dr. Lisa Mills, a University of Central Florida associate film professor. The final product was assembled by students in the Burnett Honors College at the UCF.
“All they wanted to know were the names of people,” says the Rev. Ruth Jensen-Forbell, who was, at the time, a 19-year-old Florida State University student. She was forced to endure 17 hours of interrogation by the committee.
Interviewed by Florida Politics, Jensen-Forbell said, ““They kept asking me, ‘Did you have relationships with other women? Did you see anybody doing this or that?’ And they were pretty graphic in what they said. It was almost like there was a deliberate attempt to keep me longer and longer, so I’d be more tired. And I just kept saying ‘no’ because I hadn’t done anything. But I was afraid of everything. Who I talked to, what would happen next. I ended up not going to classes, dropping out, getting an incomplete, and I was put on academic probation. Because they said you can’t be a lesbian and attend a state college.”
The film features interviews with another victim of the committee, Chuck Woods, and an interrogator, John Tileston Sr., a retired member of the University of Florida Police Department.
Today Jensen-Forbell is senior pastor of a mostly LGBT congregation at First Coast Metropolitan Community Church in St. Augustine. Near the film’s end, she is depicted conducting a same-sex wedding in Jacksonville in the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
Even though decades have past since the Johns Committee was officially put out of business, it still remains legal for any member of the LGBT community to be fired from their work or denied housing because of their sexual identity.
Photo Credit: today.ufc.edu