The Gay Kids and the Johns Committee
by Merril Mushroom
In 1956, when I was in my third year of high school, the terrors of McCarthyism came home to the lesbians and gay men of South Florida where I lived.
South Florida was a gay paradise in the ’50s. I say “gay,” not “gay and lesbian,” because “gay” was how we all referred to ourselves. In those days, “lesbian” was a word spoken only in whispers, like “vagina.” We all were “gay,” and there were many of us—gay guys, gay girls, gay life, gay parties, gay restaurants, gay bars, gay beach. Homosexuality was a subject that was discussed openly. Even when I was in grade school, I’d often overhear adults talking about the “homos,” and by the time I entered high school my friends and I were well aware that there were lots of homos living in Dade County, which included Miami Beach and the city of Miami. So I was not at all surprised to learn that several of my friends had been hanging out at the gay beach, and that some of them were even coming out; and, soon enough, so did I.
However, “gay” did not mean “okay,” and despite the extent of our gay subculture and our numbers in the gay community, being gay was not acceptable, nor safe, nor legal. Straight people considered homosexuality to be an aberration, an inversion, a crime against nature, and the laws upheld this attitude. Lesbians and gay men could be and often were harassed, beaten up, arrested, and incarcerated in prisons or mental hospitals, simply for the crime of being who we were. And the reality of this danger was always with us. It lurked as a constant fear in our lives.
In 1954 several momentous events took place. The year before, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, alleged Communist spies, had been executed here in the United States and Americans were being brainwashed with fear about the communist threat to our way of life. In 1954, hearings led by Senator Joe McCarthy began as part of federal investigations into “un-American activities.” The McCarthy hearings were designed to ferret out supposed communists among us using evidence obtained through blackmail, intimidation tactics, and other illegal means, and innocent American citizens were victimized in the process.
Coincidentally,, in 1954 a gay man named Bill Simpson was murdered in Miami by a teenaged hustler. The case became sensationalized by the media, and the fact that Dade County had a large gay subculture was exposed. The outraged straight public demanded that something be done to purge the county of this pestilence—not the murder, but the gay subculture. And anti-crime commission was set up to investigate gambling which was big business at the times, as well as “perversion,” i.e., homosexuality. Police began to raid gay bars and beaches and arrest citizens for questioning.
Perhaps the most important event of 1954 was that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown vs. Board of Education case that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Over the next two years, as the McCarthy hearings continued to ruin people’s lives, and gays in Dade county were forced to retreat deeper into their closets, confrontations around civil rights and integration of the nation’s schools were erupting with increasing frequency throughout the South.
In 1956, the Florida legislature, hoping to prevent violence around race relations in segregationist Florida, appointed a committee chaired by State Representative Henry Hand to monitor civil rights organizations. Unfortunately, the committee soon fell to the control of State Senator Charlie Johns, a staunch segregationist who was outspokenly homophobic. An admirer of Joe McCarthy and his techniques, Johns redefined the committee to fit the McCarthy template, focusing on exposing the communists he thought were instigating civil rights activities. He called for investigations of civil rights organizations, socialists, anti-nuclear, and peace activists, and, especially, members of the NAACP, which Johns considered to be the main communist front organization. The Florida Legislative Investigative Committee—now known as “the Johns Committee”—began to hold hearings during which members questioned blacks about their association with the NAACP and other “intergrationist” groups. But the NAACP, led by the Reverend Theodore Gibson of Miami, successfully challenged the constitutionality of the committee’s demands in court. Johns, frustrated in his attempts to intimidated Miami blacks, turned his sights on a new and completely vulnerable target—the “homosexual menace.”
Then, with the state encouraging city and county law enforcement, raids on the gay bars and beach increased dramatically, and many more citizens were arrested. Local newspapers fell on this information like hyenas, publishing lists with names, addresses, telephone numbers, and places of employment of the “perverts” and front-page articles denouncing the freaks of nature who were taking over Miami Beach.
Meanwhile, I had graduated from high school and was attending the University of Florida in Gainesville. I had several gay friends at school, and I frequented the gay clubs and beach when I was home. Sometimes, I’d be in one of my favorite nightclubs, dancing, conversing, or just sitting on my bar stool, when the music suddenly would stop and the lights would go on, signifying a police raid. We’d immediately cease all same-sex contact of any kind and grab someone of the opposite sex to pretend we were with. The fear and tension was palpable, because one never really knew what the police might do. Usually, the owners of the club would step aside with them, money would exchange hands, and the boys in blue would leave. But sometimes they would come among us, check our identification, make lewd comments over the contents of our wallets, and take great pleasure in insulting us. Leering at attractive femmes, they would engage in inappropriate touching, while spewing lesbian-bashing diatribes. They always harassed the butches and queens most of all, arresting and taking them to the police station where they were physically inspected to determine if they were wearing three articles of sex-appropriate clothing as required by law. If they were not—or, sometimes, even if they were—they were thrown in a jail cell to await charges, which might or might not be brought.
The gay beach was similarly raided, but there was no one on the beach to provide a payoff. That beach was a wonderful gathering place—a block-long stretch of sand and surf teeming with gay girls and gay guys, bounded by a small hotel on one side and a long pavilion with a snack bar on the other. There was a juke box on the pavilion, and we’d dance to its music down the length of the concrete jetty, out over the Atlantic, to six plays for a quarter: lindy, bop, foxtrot, samba, hully-gully, and cha-cha-cha. We’d dance mixed-sex, gay girls with gay guys, so we wouldn’t be arrested and charged with “crimes against nature” by the many undercover police who haunted the beach like vultures.
But sometimes, we would suddenly, unexpectedly, be approached by officers, grabbed, and pushed roughly toward the sidewalk. Sometimes, as we lay on our towels and blankets, sat on our chairs and chaise lounges, floated in the ocean on our rafts and inner tubes, we’d be assaulted by an onslaught of uniformed police and plainclothes agents, ordered to our feet, and marched from the beach. We’d be loaded into waiting paddy wagons, gay girls and gay guys together, and taken to the local police station. There we were booked and fingerprinted and locked in cells, sometimes beaten, humiliated, sexually assaulted, other times not. You just never knew what was in store. How dare we filth have the nerve to swim, sun, eat, and enjoy ourselves on a public beach?
With what am I being charged, officer?
Vagrancy? But I have a job, a home, a family, a reputation in the community. I have money and identification in my wallet. I was only sunbathing on a public beach on a weekend. I am not a vagrant.
We have twenty-seven different counts of vagrancy we can charge you with. We can book you and put you in a jail cell and hold you for twenty-four hours on suspicion. We can do with you as we please, you filthy queer!
As the raids on the bars, the beach and even private parties became routine, the Johns Committee investigators concentrated their attention on schools in the state, especially the universities, which they considered to be hotbeds of radicalism, “intergrationism,” and homosexuality. At the private University of Miami, the administration refused to allow investigators on campus; but the administrators of the public universities—the University of Florida in Gainesville, and Florida State University in Tallahassee—chose to welcome and assist the investigators.
Paid informants infiltrated sorority and fraternity houses, intent on finding and exposing the queers. Rooms in the local motels were bugged with recording devices. Plainclothes police lurked in the the public bathrooms that were reputed to be homosexual meeting places, encouraging overtures from gay men, then arresting them and forcing them to name others. Private detectives followed suspected homosexuals, noting where they went and with whom they associated. The investigators maintained lengthy files on the personal lives of their victims. They harassed, threatened, intimidated, and blackmailed gay men and lesbians into turning in their friends. Eventually, the scope of the investigations broadened to include teachers in Florida public schools.
In 1959, information that had been amassed during the investigations was organized to be presented during secret hearings under the control of Investigator R.J. Strickland. These hearings were scheduled to begin at the state universities after classes resumed in the fall, and this fact was circulated through our grapevine amid terrifying rumors and speculation.
All of us gay college kids knew people who had been arrested, but we did not know if they’d broken down and named others. No one knew who exactly might have been implicated, but we all were vulnerable. We all were afraid that any of us might have been on the list of those accused, and our anxiety escalated as fall approached. Our greatest fears were that we’d be exposed, kicked out of school, labeled forever as a pervert, and, for some of us, that our parents would find out. Always, there was the threat of incarceration in jail or the mental hospital. We’d wonder in conversation among ourselves: Well, Artie was busted. Did that mean he’d named Elliot? He said he hadn’t, but what if he really had. If Elliot was called in, would he name Sandra and Kerry? Kerry had a big mouth. Would he expose the rest of us to save his own skin?
We soon would find out.
Armed with tape recordings, photographs, letters and other documents, and the testimonies of paid informers and surveillance witnesses, the committee convened and began pulling in the victims. One by one, gays who had been entrapped were called before the panel of judges and interrogated as to their private lives and personal friends. They were intimidated, verbally abused, emotionally bludgeoned and threatened in the panel’s attempts to pressure them to name other gays. And when they did, immediately upon exposure, lesbian and gay university professors, administrators, and public school teachers were dismissed from their jobs and publically humiliated. Many others, both gay and straight, resigned out of fear or in protest.
Then the investigators went after the college students. Sometimes gay students, too young to be experienced in handling such harassment, were given a choice—they could be expelled from school and exposed as a homosexual, or they could go into Psychiatric treatment to be “cured.” One by one, my friends began to fall.
In 1959, Penny was kicked out of school. Despite having a statement signed by all the girls in her dormitory that she had never tried to touch them, the dean of woman said she posed too much of a danger to remain. Harry refused to see a psychiatrist, had the audacity to insist that he was not sick, and was expelled. Leo’s parents had him committed to the state mental hospital when they learned that he was gay. Jennifer was permitted to remain in schools as long as she kept her weekly appointments with the psychologist, but she was not allowed to live in the dormitory and had to commute from a room off-campus.
My own turn came toward the end of the semester. I was called in for questioning in the basement of my dormitory by a detective. I didn’t think that I had been named before the committee, but evidently I had been seen with gays on the social scene, not on campus in Gainesville, but in Tamps, where, thinking I would be safe, I went to the gay bars—and it was about my Tampa friends that I was questioned. Despite my terror, I contrived a story to try to convince the detective that I was straight—that my BOYfriend and I associated with these particular gays because they knew how much we loved each other, so they let us meet at their house, because there was nowhere else we could go to be together. In my fear, I began to weep, and through my sobs, I begged the detective not to get my friends of my BOYfriend into trouble, because my gay friends were only trying to help me and my BOYfriend. The detective watched me for a moment. Then he leaned close to me. “Well,” he said, his voice smooth, “what about here on campus.”
“If you’re friendly with, um, homos, then you must know who they are here on campus, right?”
My head began to spin. I was out of the frying pan and into the conflagration. “No!” I lied desperately. “I don’t know any homos here. My friends in Tampa just happen to be . . .that way. They were so nice to let me and my BOYfriend stay at their house. Please don’t get my friends or my BOYfriend into trouble. My BOYfriend and I are so in love, and we’re planning to get married.”
“Hum, well,” he bent down and pus his arm around my shoulders, spoke in soft, conspiratorial tones, “if you get along with, um, gays . . . well, you could find out who they are here on campus, right? They would trust you, right?”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” I sobbed, trying not to cringe away from his touch. Unfortunately, I understood what he meant all too well.
“My dear little lady,” he said, “you may not understand, but these are very sick people. Even your friends, although you may not realize it, need our help. Homosexuality is a disease.” He shook his head, a grimace of pity mixed with disgust on his face.
“Help them?” Behind the total nastiness of what this man was suggesting that I do, I felt a strange, cold joy rising through me, as I realized, My God! He believes me! He has swallowed my boyfriend story! Oh, thank goodness! He doesn’t think I’m a queer!
“Yes,” he was saying, “They need to see a psychiatrist, and if that doesn’t cure them, they need more aggressive treatment. If you really care about them, if these people truly are your friends, then you’ll help us to reach them so we can see that they get help.” He stood up. “Now you go think about this, think about it very seriously, and I will get back in touch with you.”
“Okay.” I nearly ran out of the basement, fled back to my room. There, I though very seriously, as he’d suggested, but not about informing on my friends, but about how I could convince my mamma—who knew nothing about any of this, not even that I was gay—to let me change schools, to leave the state university where tuition was cheap and transfer to the University of Miami where I could finish my education in safety. The semester was almost over. I could stall, promise the detective I’d work with him when the new semester began. Meanwhile, all I wanted right now was to get the hell out of Dodge.
In the end, I was one of the more fortunate survivors of the Johns Investigations. Not so, many others: In Miami, a high school teacher sealed his apartment and turned on the jets of his gas stove. A businessman whose name appeared on one of the newspaper lists of perverts took an overdose of sleeping pills. A seventeen-year-old girl hanged herself from a tree in her back yard with the sash of a terry cloth bathrobe. And a young gay man, in his terror over being exposed as a queer, jumped from the second floor of the Miami police station and fatally impaled himself on the decorative iron fence that surrounded the building like a row of spears.
I transferred to the University of Miami that fall, and the detective did not follow me. In 1962, I graduated and moved to Alabama for a year, then to New York City where I lived for the next decade. I remember my amazement when, shortly after I arrived in New York, I was caught in a raid on a gay bar. Unlike Florida raids, where we might have been arrested, the police simply sent all the patrons outside and closed the bar for the night.
Meanwhile, in the South, violence around civil rights continued, the U.S. entered into war with Vietnam, and Senator Charlie Johns added “communistic ideas” back into his purge agenda and intensified investigations of homosexuals. His heavy-handed tactics finally began to alienate people, and he resigned as chairman of the committee, but he continued to influence its functioning.
In 1964, the Johns Committee published a report: Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida. Known as “The Purple Pamphlet” because of the color of its cover, this hate-filled homophobic document contained a wealth of inflammatory misinformation, was liberally illustrated with lascivious photographs, and outlined a recommended “Homosexual Practices Control Act for Florida,” with detailed penalties for anyone who engaged in such crimes against nature. The forty-four-page booklet was printed and distributed at taxpayer expense to legislators, state officials, and the news media. The pamphlet was so over the top that it actually offended most of the people it was intended to convince, creating an uproar of disapproval over the actions of the committee. Still the investigations continued, with the State Attorney Richard Gerstein promising further crackdowns on Florida perverts.
That summer, a hero arose. Richard A. Inman, a gay taxi driver, fed up with nine years of oppression from the Johns Committee, formed a state chartered corporation, the Atheneum Society of America, whose objective, as noted in James T. Sears’s Lonely Hunters: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life, 1948-1968, was “to combat . . . gross injustices affecting homosexual citizens which are perpetuated by certain heterosexual citizens who masquerade behind the guise of ‘justice’ and ‘decency.'”
Inman and the Atheneum Society joined forces with the ACLU and other groups working for legislative and religious reform. Highly visible and outspoken, Inman threatened Dade County with a lawsuit. He threatened the city of Miami Beach with a blatantly gay parade at the height of the tourist season. He made speeches, wrote letters, lobbied legislators, and took on Charlie Johns and Richard Gerstein.
Through patience, perseverance, and the masterful use of political dialectics, Inman became increasingly influential. Finally, the Florida legislature simply discontinued funding for the Johns Committee, and that was the end of it. The climate of fear and oppression, however, continued unabated until 1969 when the demonstrations at the Stonewall bar in New York City heralded a new day. The beginning of the Gay Pride movement was born.
—“The Gay Kids and the Johns Committee,” by Merril Mushroom, is excerpted from Crooked Letter I: Coming Out in the South, published by NewSouth Books (2016). It is reprinted with permission.