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Florida Committee That Investigated LGBTQ People Is Back In The Spotlight

Kim Mas
Art Copleston was one of the hundreds of college students interogated by the Johns Committee over his sexuality.

More than 60 years ago, a committee was formed in the Florida legislature with the purpose of identifying and removing LGBTQ students and professors on Florida college campuses.

Over the course of a decade, investigators with the Johns Committee - so named because former Florida state lawmaker and governor Charley Johns led it- stalked and interrogated hundreds of suspected gay individuals, leading to the firing or expulsion of at least 200 people from their schools.  

The state of Florida still hasn’t formally recognized the actions of the committee and the harm caused on many lives. There are proposals in the state legislature now from Democratic Representative Evan Jenne and State Senator Lauren Book to have the legislature formally apologize for them. Yet the generation of victims to the committee’s actions is aging out and many have left the state.      

The Vox mini-series Missing Chapterexamined the history of the Johns Committee and spoke with one of the remaining individuals who was interrogated by the group. Ranjani Chakraborty, who produced this mini-doumentary, spoke with Luis Hernandez on Sundial about how the committee's actions continues to impact those who lived through it.

WLRN: How did you first hear about the John’s Committee?

CHAKRABORTY: Myself and my associate producer, Melissa Hirsch, we are scouring the news and all of these different history websites, historians, and we put out a big call out to our viewers a few months ago asking what stories they wanted to know more about and what they wanted us to produce. And one of the things that we came across was the lavender scare, which was this era in the 1950s when federal employees were being pushed out of government jobs because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. 

And I think approximately (5,000-10,000) workers were removed from their positions. And so we were researching the lavender scare. It wasn't underreported because there was a lot of information out there about it, there is a PBS documentary about it. But through this event, we were looking at what sort of parallel things happened, maybe more locally. And we came across the story of the Johns committee happening in Florida.

I was shocked because I had never heard about an official committee being formed with that explicit goal of removing LGBTQ students and professors. So we found it pretty shocking. And then as we looked into it more, we found that there was this treasure trove of documents that existed of all of the interrogations, all of their meeting notes. And so we kind of went forward from there. 

So the Johns committee was formed at the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare nationwide. But how did lawmakers equate homosexuality with the spread of communism?

Yeah, it took some rationalizing, interesting rationalizing on their part. But the thinking was that if you were part of the LGBTQ community, communists could blackmail you and people could use your perceived sexual orientation or your gender identity. They could use those things against you. Communists could use you to infiltrate the U.S. government by holding your secrets against you. 

Credit Art Copleston
Art Copleston at an abandoned barn at the University of Florida, while he was a student there.

This committee used all sorts of tactics, as you pointed out, to get people to reveal their sexuality. Tell me about one or two of the more egregious ones that you that you found. 

Yeah, the most shocking to me were when we spoke to Art Copleston, one of the people who was targeted by the Johns Committee. They would stalk students. And again, these are kids in college. They're 18 or in their early 20s and they would stalk and intimidate them. And what happened to Art was they also had informants on campus. They would hire other students to act as informants and tell on their peers. And if they noticed anything out of the ordinary, or what they called sexual deviation or moral deviation, they would say something. But what happened with Art is they actually hired someone to be his roommate and to act as his roommate while watching him, trying to check if if anything was out of the ordinary with him. 

What surprised you most in the course of your reporting? 

I'm not necessarily sure that it’s surprising that the [John’s Committee] existed. But I will say it was surprising to have this level of understanding of its lasting effects. After we spoke to Art towards the end of the video, he mentions that he is still afraid to be part of the gay community where he lives and he's still afraid to talk to gay people. And it was just a reminder of how even these things that happened so many decades ago can have lasting effects for generations.

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.