IN DEEP SOUTH
Civil rights activists were gay-baited, red-baited
Lavender & red, part 55
Published Mar 3, 2006 11:04 PM
As the civil rights movement heated up at the
height of the Cold War, state repression often came in the form of
investigations into the sexuality of those who were fighting for freedom.
White supremacist propaganda—which included virulent racism, crude
anti-Semi tism and brutal sexism—condemned civil rights activists for
being homosexuals and/or in inter-racial relationships, allegedly having
adulterous sex or living together out of wedlock. The movement was portrayed as
made up of activists who threatened to “queer” the white,
heterosexual, father-dominated family structure.
Jim Crow miscegenation
laws enforced apartheid in marriage. Klan ideology, which propagated the vicious
myth of African men as a “sexual threat” to white Southern
womanhood, formed the foundation of lynch law. That racist lie was meant to
cover up the real truth—the widespread rape of Black women by white men
that began during slavery.
It was these Southern patriarchs of property
who gave the go-ahead for their police forces, their mobs armed with bricks and
bats, and their McCarthyite committees of inquisition to attack civil rights
activists. Gay-baiting was often the specific point of attack.
As was the
case with civil rights activists who faced ferocious red-baiting, some were not
gay and/or communist. But many were.
Gay men and lesbians, Black and
white, and presumably bisexual and transgender people as well, played dynamic
roles in the movement to end Jim Crow apartheid. But the active police
repression of same-sex love and the Cold War demonization of lesbians and gays
made civil rights activists who were gay much more vulnerable to state
Since same-sex love was against the law, police and
legislative inquiries into the sexuality of activists conveyed the threat of
police and prison torture, including rape. The threat was meant to terrorize
freedom fighters in the struggle for Black liberation in the Deep South.
Gainesville witch hunt
In 1956, for example, a conservative
state senator from northern Florida, Charley Johns, launched a legislative inqui
sition known as the “Johns Com mittee” that was to last eight years.
Started just two years after the growing civil rights struggle had compelled the
Supreme Court to declare school segregation unconstitutional, it was bent on
pushing back the struggle against institutionalized segregation.
acting governor Johns directed police to carry out an investigation into the
“homosexual menace” at Florida State University in Gainesville.
Johns chaired the committee, which relied on surveillance and police entrapment,
informers and extortion. The committee interrogated hundreds of witnesses and
publicly leaked bald-faced lies and sensationalized half-truths about their
The committee reported to the legislature that university
officials were “soft” on communism, homosexual activities, atheism
and obscenity. On March 17, 1964, the committee printed up now-infamous
purple-covered pamphlets “to prepare ... children to meet the temptations
of homosexuality lurking today in the vicinity of nearly every institution of
learning.” The portrayal of gay men as looking for young children to prey
on was the heart of the argument. The committee distributed this gay-bashing
publication to the media, legislators and state officials.
Direc tor John Evans told a Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs in
Jacksonville that he knew of 123 homosexuals who were responsible for a
“flourishing” of same-sex activity in Florida educational
institutions. As with Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious list of communists
in the State Department, later media reports exposed that no such list
As a result of the witch hunt, 16 FSU faculty and staff were
fired and many more, including students, were driven in fear from the state
campus—and other Florida campuses—by the political purge. How many
faculty and students then at FSU might identify—in today’s
terms—as gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, transsexual or
intersexual? No one will ever know.
But what is known is that all of
those who were fired were activists in the Florida civil rights movement.
Some of those targeted called on the Florida Civil Liberties Union for
help. Historian John D’Emilio notes that the FCLU “surmised that
motives other than a concern for sexual morality were at work. Civil rights
forces were beginning to resume the offensive in the South. The first Black
student had recently enrolled in the university’s law school and the FCLU
recognized that the Johns Committee’s ‘intimidation of the faculty
and student body would serve as a deterrent against racial integration on the
campus or [the establishment of] a university chapter of the FCLU.’”
(“Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities”)
But the policies of
the American Civil Liberties Union made it hard for the local FCLU to
competently and aggressively defend civil rights activists of all sexualities
who had been caught up in an anti-gay dragnet. The national American Civil Lib
erties Union had stated on the public record in January 1957 that
“homosexuality is a valid consideration in evaluating the security risk
factor in sensitive positions” and added, “It is not within the
province of the Union to evaluate the social validity of the laws aimed at the
suppression or elimination of homosexuals.”
Lesbians were not the
focus of the Johns Committee investigation. But bashing gay males impacts on
women who love women, as well. Though women were not the public political focus
of the inquiry, that doesn’t mean that lesbians—Black and
white—were not being oppressed.
Well-known white Southern lesbian
Merril Mushroom, a student at FSU during the Johns Committee witch hunt,
explained, “Women were simply not reported on. ... But we were harassed,
we were arrested, and we were subjected to the same bullshit as the
men—but not in the same numbers. ... Sometimes lesbians—drag queens,
too—were beaten up or raped by the cops.” (“Lonely
Next: North Carolina: Black and white gays led civil
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