Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education Bill” has made the sunshine state ground zero in America’s culture wars. Republican Governor. Ron DeSantis, the bill prohibits discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s public schools in kindergarten through the third grade. It also allows parents to sue school districts that expose their children to material that is “not age appropriate.” An earlier version of the bill required teachers to disclose the students’ sexual orientation to their parents after learning that they were not straight. Critics of what they call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill fear that it will end the teaching of LGBTQ history in Florida’s public schools and expose the schools to a flood of lawsuits. The bill is also seen by critics as an effort to use parental rights to marginalize LGBTQ persons, which was echoed by the White House.
Since becoming law, the controversy over Florida’s parental rights bill has metastasized by pitting DeSantis against the Walt Disney Corporation, one of Florida’s largest private employers. Disney officials have publicly opposed the new law, arguing that “it could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, non-binary and transgender kinds and families,” and called for the courts to invalidate it. In retaliation, Florida’s legislature, acting on orders from DeSantis, revoked a law that for decades had allowed Disney to operate its businesses in Florida with minimal intervention from local authorities. Similar bills are being considered in Arizona, Indiana and Kansas as well as North Carolina, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
In trying to understand why a purple state like Florida finds itself in the current predicament, very little has been said about the state’s long history as America’s breeding ground for toxic anti-gay politics and how this history may have informed the parental rights bill. DeSantis’s ambitions as a president, a culture-warrior at heart, have received much attention. “The state has become an unlikely laboratory for right-wing policy, pushed by a governor with presidential ambitions, noted the New York Times. The lack of any meaningful discussion of Florida’s dark and painful LGBTQ history is not surprising, however. This history has not been the subject of any official reckoning. In the absence of such a reckoning, history continues to repeat itself in Florida with grave consequences for the state’s reputation, the welfare of its LGBTQ citizens, and even for the American nation as a whole.
Florida’s renown for homophobic attacks goes back to the now-forgotten Florida Legislative Investigations Committee, also known as the Johns Committee, a witch hunt rooted in racism, homophobia, and anti-communism. Named after influential state senator and former Florida governor Charley Johns, this ignoble body spent the years of 1957 through 1963 outing, persecuting, and intimidating people suspected of being gay at Florida’s state universities. This was part the Southern resistance to desegregation of schools that started with the 1954 Supreme Court ruling. Brown v. Board of Education. The hope was to find communists lurking behind desegregation and use that information to provide cover for Florida’s resistance. However, the mission was abandoned and gays became the main target. This effort culminated with the release in 1964 of the report “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida,” also known as “The Purple Pamphlet” because of its lurid content. It noted “the extent of infiltration into agencies supported by state funds by practicing homosexuals.” Before the Johns Committee was disbanded, in 1965, hundreds of Floridians were prosecuted and charged on the basis of their sexuality. These interrogations took places in privacy and were not conducted by legal counsel.
The Johns Committee was overthrown in 1977 by Save Our Children. This anti-gay rights campaign, which Anita Bryant led, was a singer from country and the runner-up to Miss America. The Johns Committee is widely recognized for being the first organization to oppose gay rights in the United States. This famous conspiracy of lies, insults and conspiracy theories about homosexuals cast gay men in a negative light. They overturned an ordinance passed by Dade County that prohibited discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodation based on sexual orientation. Throughout the repeal campaign Bryant routinely referred to homosexuals as “human garbage,” while criticizing the ordinance “as an attempt to legitimize homosexuals and their recruitment of our children.” In ads running in Dade County newspapers Bryant contended that “the recruitment of our children is absolutely necessary for the survival and growth of homosexuality—for since homosexuals cannot reproduce, they must recruit, must freshen their ranks.” When put to Dade County voters, the ordinance was rejected by a 2-1 margin.
Save Our Children’s legacy is dark and far-reaching. The crusade prompted Florida’s legislature to enact the nation’s first ban on gay adoptions, even though at the time no gay adoption had taken place anywhere in Florida. It also contributed to Florida becoming one of the last states to legalize homosexual sex; it only did so in 2003 when the Supreme Court overturned the state’s banning sodomy, alongside the sodomy laws of 13 other states, in the Lawrence v. Texas decision. Bryant’s tactics were also emulated across the United States, occasioning a wave of gay-rights defeats in other states, including restoring Arkansas’ anti-sodomy law and banning gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools in Oklahoma. Bryant’s anti-gay crusade also help give rise to the Christian Right by ushering in the Moral Majority, whose founder, televangelist Jerry Falwell, famously issued a “declaration of war on homosexuality” in 1979. Bryant’s tactics also inspired dozens of state referenda banning same-sex marriage between 1998 and 2012. Even the fight over the parental rights bill bears the imprint of Save Our Children, as can be seen in the DeSantis administration’s labeling of those opposed to the bill as “groomers.”
Florida’s reputation as a state of homophobic violence has been established by the Pulse massacre in Orlando. 39 people were mostly Hispanic young men enjoying Latin night. 53 others were also wounded. It was one of the most severe attacks on American gay communities and the largest mass shootings in American History. As reported in The Washington Post, Orlando area teachers “worry they might not be able to discuss the Pulse nightclub shooting in the classroom if the measure passes. Others wonder how they would respond when a student wants to talk about their sexual orientation.” Florida teachers also worry that the bill will undo all the work that has been done across the state to create safe spaces for LGBTQ students after Florida’s public schools became some of the safest and friendliest for LGBTQ students in the country.
In failing to reckon with its dark history of LGBTQ discrimination, repression, and violence, Florida’s experience mirrors that of the U.S. as a whole. LGBTQ Americans are still waiting for an acknowledgement from the Lavender Scare, a mid-century witch hunt of federal workers suspected of being homosexual triggered by President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 Executive Order 10450 banning “perverts” from working in the federal employment. It resulted in thousands of homosexuals or suspected homosexuals losing their careers in the federal government, with some confined to mental institutions, especially Washington DC’s St. Elizabeths Hospital, to undergo traumatic treatments such as lobotomies to eradicate same-sex attraction. There also has been no acknowledgement for “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the Clinton-era policy that allowed gay men and women to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexual orientation a secret. In 2011, DADT was lifted by President Obama. It had led to the disqualification of approximately 10,000 military personnel, many of whom were in crucial positions such as pilots and doctors.
The new gay movement has been able to create a front for anti-gay violence, which is a way of ending the ignorance surrounding the topic. It also offers hope that we can restore the historic memory of Florida’s attempt to systemically oppress LGBTQ persons. Abroad, Germany has paid reparations to the victims of the “Gay Holocaust,” the thousands of gay men who perished in Nazi-era concentration camps. The United Kingdom has issued a posthumous pardon to anyone convicted of “gross indecency,” a charge that for centuries allowed for the prosecution of homosexuals. Spain has expunged any previous homosexual offenses convictions. In 2018, the New York Police Department apologized for the Stonewall Riots’ catalyst, the raiding of Stonewall Inn. In 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom introduced the policy under which those convicted of homosexual acts could be granted a pardon to restore their reputation. Newsom’s first pardon went, posthumously, to Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader and confidant of Martin Luther King Jr. In 1953, Rustin was convicted of “sex perversion” after he was caught having sex with two men in a parked car in Pasadena. Before returning to New York, he spent 60 days at Los Angeles County Jail.
Inspired by the British model, a U.S. Senate resolution was presented in June to allow for an apology for anti-LGBTQ discrimination. An apology cannot undo the damage done by homophobic laws. It is also not irrelevant. Apologies or other forms of reparative action can help victims to accept past wrongdoings and return dignity. They can also break the cycle that keeps the past from shaping the future. If Florida had taken the necessary steps to address its shameful LGBTQ history, it is unlikely that today’s bitter debate about teaching sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida would have been happening.
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