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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 repression.

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.

Former 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 testimony.

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.

Johns Committee 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 existed.

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 Hunters”)

Next: North Carolina: Black and white gays led civil rights struggles.