The Lavender Scare: McCarthyism, and Florida’s Attack on Gay People

An order  form for The Florida Legislative Investigation Comittees report, Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida.

An order form for The Florida Legislative Investigation Comittee’s report, “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida”.

Seth Diaz, Editor in Chief

In the wake of the Cold War, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy had a plan to unite the nation by exploiting the average citizen’s fear of a communist takeover. McCarthy would go on to make a series of speeches, claiming to have lists of people in US Government positions who were supposedly communists. McCarthyism would be the foundation for which the Second Red Scare was built upon, and would last through the 1950s. 

McCarthyism would lead to the organization of several committees meant to investigate to communist ties in several aspects of the country. But one of the more overlooked aspects of this period, especially in modern US secondary education, is a Florida Comittee who made it their goal to persecute and destroy the lives of gay people in the United States.

Established in 1956, the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (or the Johns Committee) worked to find communist ties to civil rights groups, most prominently, the NAACP. But the NAACP was practically untouchable, with Thurgood Marshall being the primary lawyer for the organization (before he was appointed to the supreme court). Failing to find any commust ties, the committee shifted their attention to a target that was also highly demonized in America: homosexuals.

The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee began to investigate homosexuals in the early 1960s, starting with several Florida Universities, and would later expand to Government positions in the state. The Committee was able to justify their actions by stating that homosexuals could be blackmailed by communists who threatened to out them to their friends and family.  Because homosexuality was deemed as sodomy under the Florida law, and students / staff found to be gay could be expelled and charged. By 1963, the committee had gotten hundreds of students expelled from colleges, deans and professors fired, and revoked the teaching certificates of ~71 teachers in public schools.

When it came to their tactics, the committee would find ways to entrap gay people. Sometimes they would hire people close to them to entice them with sexual activity in order to confirm their status as a homosexual, which would then be used against them. The committee would go on to attack the academic aspects of universities. Their attacks included those against speeches by supposed communists / communist sympathizers, books that contain obscenity (Brave New World, The Catcher in the Rye, etc). 

What led to the downfall of the committee was the publication of their report: “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida”, or “the Purple Pamphlet”. The report included images of homosexual men partaking in sexual activity, and was used in an attempts to create further hysteria and hostility against homosexuals. However, this ultimately backfired, as the inclusion of sexual content and sexualized images of children (an attempt to link homosexuality to pedophilia) outraged taxpayers and lawmakers in the state. The media considered this publication as “state-sponsored pornography”, and in 1965, the committee disbanded. 

Following its disbandment, thousands of the committee’s documents were supposed to be kept sealed for 72 years, but pressure from historians led to them being released in 1993. These documents, however, have the names of victims redacted. It took until 2019 for an apology to be proposed by Representative Evan Jenne and senator Lauren Book, but the resolution has still not passed. 

It is unknown how many people were affected by the committee’s actions, and with the redacted names, those victims will never be identified. The Lavender Scare as a whole has, for the most part, gone overlooked. But the continuous efforts of young people to disclose America’s past actions allow for a better understanding of who were targets during this period in the nation’s history. Hopefully, the Lavender Scare will be included in future history textbooks so that the effects of McCarthyism are fully understood by future generations.