Buried in last week's historic U.S. Supreme Court decision, that once and for all established that employers cannot discriminate against anyone on the basis of their sexual identity or preference, there was a reference to one of the darkest chapters of Florida’s modern history.
The mention came not in the majority opinion that granted the LGBTQ community one of its biggest legal victories of the past few decades, but in the dissent.
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Justice Samuel Alito wrote that Florida had once systematically discriminated against LGBTQ teachers and students. He called it a historic “injustice.”
Alito referenced the work of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, which spanned the late 1950s and the early 1960s.
“As a result of these efforts, the state board of education apparently revoked at least 71 teachers’ certificates and removed at least 14 university professors,” Alito wrote. “Individuals who engaged in homosexual acts also faced the loss of other occupational licenses, such as those needed to work as a lawyer, doctor, mortician, or beautician.”
In reality, the committee likely impacted far more than that. When the Florida Legislature submitted files about the cases to the Florida Archives in the 1990s, it chose to redact almost all the names in the case files, with the exception of state lawmakers and legislative staff.
Democratic State Rep. Evan Jenne, of Broward County, estimates the true number is in the “hundreds, if not thousands” of impacted Florida residents. Jenne says he has read all of the documents in the Florida Archives.
In the last two legislative sessions, he has filed bills to formally recognize the teachers and students who were investigated, harassed and in many cases fired due to the work of the committee, better known as the Johns Committee, in name of its chairman State Senator Charley Johns.
“They had investigators who were out, trying to solicit men in public, just trolling who would take that bait,” said Jenne. “They would threaten them in no uncertain terms. They would interview and interrogate them in ways that would be completely unconstitutional in today’s America, and really threatened to destroy people’s lives.”
In Tallahassee, public hearings and official reports outlined the findings. Witnesses were called to point the finger at friends and colleagues. The committee relied on everyday people to become undercover investigators, who in many cases took secret recordings of unsuspecting Floridians.
Under pressure and scrutiny from the state, schools fired teachers and expelled suspected LGBTQ students.
The entire effort started off with the goal of undermining Florida’s process of integration. In the early years investigators spied on members of the NAACP, alleging they were Communists in disguise. Later, the group turned to the LGBTQ community.
“The thought process that they proclaimed was that gay men and lesbian women would be easier to convert to Communism because they had a secret, and Communist agents could somehow take advantage of that,” said Jenne. “But looking back at it, I think we can agree it had nothing to do with Communism. The first half of the Johns Committee had to do with racism, and the second half had to do with homophobia.”
Early efforts to root out homosexuality from the educational system started at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and the University of South Florida in Tampa.
In a letter sent to the University of South Florida in 1961, chairman Johns said it was not the committee’s intention to “identify or single out any homosexual,” but rather it was to see if lawmakers should take action to “discourage homosexuals from seeking employment in our various state agencies.”
So far, Jenne’s bill to memorialize the survivors and to recognize the damage done by the state government has not been heard by any legislative committee.
Part of the reason for that, Jenne suspects, might have to do with some of the names of some committee members. Several are still honored across the state.
“It just so happens that a member of the Johns Committee was Ben Hill Griffin. The name of the University of Florida’s football stadium is Ben Hill Griffin Stadium,” said Jenne.
"The Swamp," a nickname for the stadium, is known as one of the largest sports venues in the world — and it carries the name of the vice-chairman of the notorious committee.
If his bill passes, it would bring about “a long, deep look in the mirror” for the state as a whole, said Jenne.
The committee operated under Democratic leadership during a time when parts of the Democratic Party were staunchly pro-segregation and anti-LGBTQ.
In 2020, the dynamic has shifted, with the liberal wing of politics being the one most likely to support LGBTQ rights, and the more conservative wing the one more likely to be restrictive of those rights. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision barring discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace was broadly celebrated by Democrats and liberals.
At the same time, the Republican and conservative support for LGBTQ rights has been mixed. President Donald Trump called the recent US Supreme Court opinion a “very powerful decision" while conservative groups like The Heritage Foundation decried it as an “extreme policy.”
More broadly, The 2016 and 2020 platform for the Republican party described marriage between one man and one woman as "the foundation for a free society." As recently as this month, a Republican nominee for a congressional seat in rural Virginia faced blowback from within his own party after it was revealed that he once officiated a same-sex wedding. The candidate, Denver Riggleman, faced a surprise Republican primary challenger after the revelation, and was defeated this month, despite Trump declaring that Riggleman had his “total endorsement.”
But there is one thing about Justice Alito’s dissent that Jenne hopes might bring Republican leadership in the Florida legislature around to hearing, and possibly supporting his bill — the dissent was broadly celebrated by conservatives.
“I disagree with his dissent,” said Jenne. “But I do think that highlighting [the Johns Committee] as a complete injustice to the community does give me a little bit more fuel to my fire in Tallahassee. That I can go and I can say that you have the preeminent conservative judicial mind in the nation saying that this was an absolute injustice.”
“I’m hoping that does give my friends and colleagues who may have a little bit of consternation over this a little bit of cover to say that ‘Yes, this was a complete injustice,’” he said.
Jenne plans to file the bill again in the next legislative session.
The major victory in the U.S. Supreme Court only adds a sense of urgency for the state government to face up to the damage it did in the past, said Jenne.
“This needs to be more widely known and more widely understood. They went into people’s homes and tried to destroy them individually, one by one by one,” he said. “This isn't some hypothetical. This is not Margaret Atwood’s 'The Handmaids Tale.' This is something that really happened.”