Rob Hardy: And they were wonderful teachers

February 16, 2010 1:13:00 PM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


When we think of the American witch hunts of the 1950s, we are right to remember Joe McCarthy and the un-American pursuit of citizens who didn''t have the right political ideas. There were other sides to the persecutions, however, less famous but still historically significant. In "And They Were Wonderful Teachers: Florida''s Purge of Gay and Lesbian Teachers" (University of Illinois Press), Karen L. Graves, who teaches about education, gives a history of the now nearly-forgotten "Johns Committee" which between 1956 and 1965 took on a series of patriotic purges, finally focusing on homosexual teachers because unlike its previous targets, civil rights activists and communists, the teachers had little social support and before Stonewall had little cohesion among themselves to fight the unfairness. Graves has given a detailed history of the efforts of the committee, putting it into the context of the times and helpfully placing the episode within the history of decreasing prejudicial actions against homosexuals. 


The Johns Committee, officially known as the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, got its name from being headed by Florida Sen. Charley Johns, but most of the grilling of witnesses reported here comes from Remus J. Strickland, the committee''s chief investigator. The committee was formed by the state legislature originally with the intent that it would impede desegregation efforts after the 1956 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. The legislature didn''t like, for instance, that members of the NAACP and other civil rights activists were pressing to be admitted to the University of Florida Law School. The committee took the familiar, and erroneous, stance that oppressed blacks were now demanding special privileges, and it tried to seize financial and membership records of the NAACP. It accused the organization of inciting gratuitous lawsuits and it tried to paint the organization as a communist front, always a useful slur at the time. The NAACP was well organized, however. It refused to give up its membership records, and when the committee interrogated NAACP members, they insisted on their constitutional rights in a way that made the committee livid. Eventually the Supreme Court decided that the committee was wrong and the NAACP right. The committee''s anticommunist and anti-civil rights efforts were to come to nothing. 


In homosexual teachers, however, the committee had an easier target, and it sprang to this fight in 1959 as a new rationale for the continuation of its own existence. There were 40,000 schoolteachers in Florida, and everyone knew that some had to be homosexuals, but the Johns Committee was furious that school administrators were not motivated to "cope actively, aggressively and effectively with the problem." Thwarted by its failure in the battle with the NAACP, in 1957 the committee sent Strickland to investigate homosexuals at the University of Florida, resulting in dismissal of more than 20 faculty and staff and expulsion of more than 50 students. The committee had hit its stride; it issued its report on "Homosexual Conduct on the Part of State Employees, Particularly in the Field of Education" in 1959. The report got the committee funds to continue its work.  


The committee moved to investigating public schools and did most of its investigations as interviews behind closed doors. The committee did not want the exposure of public hearings, nor for the accused to be accorded the rights such hearings would make mandatory. Given the fears of the times, the committee could get extra information from witnesses by threatening to make the hearings public. Teachers were pulled out of classrooms and interrogated. Local law enforcement and school officials were often present, but legal counsel was not. The witnesses were not told why they were being investigated, what evidence was held against them, or who had accused them. The committee would say that it was just an investigating committee, with no intent to prosecute, but would remind the teachers that it had information on them that it could turn over to prosecutors. Strickland seems to have taken a particular liking to getting details of witnesses'' sex lives ("In other words, you played the fem. Have you ever played the butch part?") and their particular use of anatomical parts. Witnesses were pressured to identify their friends, some from long ago. It is important to remember that these teachers were not accused of involving students in sexual activities. The committee asserted that people were not homosexual by nature but that "Homosexuals are made by training," and that teachers were in a position to train students into homosexuality, although no charges of such training were made. Observations like "he always had flowers on his desk" were grounds for the committee to interrogate a teacher.  


There were examples of some of the teachers standing up to the questioning. The intimidation, however, was generally effective, with teachers on the stand moving "from denial, to debating definitions, to defending their behavior, to making attempts to help their case, but in the end the result was the same." When teachers were selected for questioning, they then resigned or were fired, and their teaching certificates were withdrawn. Graves writes, "The laws allowed teachers to be fired for conduct not related to their job, even if the arrests were illegal and even if they were found not guilty." There were those who opposed the committee and its tactics, and by 1964 some changes were coming. Johns resigned from the committee that year (he lost reelection two years later), and also the committee took a wrong step in issuing Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida (more commonly known as "The Purple Pamphlet"). The report had "crude photographs, a glossary of sexual terms defined in raw language, and an unsophisticated analysis of ''the homosexual problem," all of which offended taxpayers and caused the state attorney to threaten legal action against such "obscene and pornographic" material. 


Graves says that the Johns Committee is unique in educational history for its single-mindedness, intensity of purpose, and the number of teachers it investigated and ruined. That it came to an embarrassing and effete end does not mean that its ideas ceased being powerful. In Florida in 1977, a law to include sexual orientation under antidiscrimination ordinances drew the ire of the Christian right, especially orange juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant. The committee would have approved of her idea that "homosexual teachers could encourage more homosexuality by inducing pupils into looking upon it as an acceptable lifestyle." (There was a similar argument made against Proposition 8 in California last November.) Although Bryant successfully tapped into anti-gay feeling at the time, the antidiscrimination statute was reauthorized in 1998. Still, even after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated laws banning "unnatural or lascivious acts" in 2003, public schools in Florida can still use vague rules about immorality to put at risk the careers for anyone of the wrong sexuality. Graves''s penetrating book demonstrates the worst aspects of a government bent on using secrecy and intimidation to solidify its authority, and although the worst unfairness may be over, fairness has yet to become the universal rule. 


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]