The "Private Little Hell" of Florida's 1950s Anti-Gay Faculty InvestigationsBreaking News
tags: Florida, academic freedom, LGBTQ history
Art Copleston didn’t notice the man’s stares at first.
It was a summer night in Gainesville, Fla., in 1958. Copleston, then in his mid-20s, was hanging out with some friends at a burger joint near his dormitory at the University of Florida. The evening was pleasant enough — spent drinking beers with jukebox music in the background — until a friend directed Copleston’s attention to the man seated at the bar who was looking in their direction.
His eyes were dark. His face was expressionless. Copleston’s friend whispered a word of caution: There were rumors of an investigation into gay people on campus. The man seemed official, and he’d been looking at Copleston for some time. “Watch out for him,” the friend said.
Copleston would soon learn how prescient that warning was. The man was a university police officer assisting in a sprawling inquest that would devastate countless lives and scare Copleston for the next two and a half years.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a group of Florida lawmakers commonly known as the Johns Committee scoured public universities for any evidence of homosexuality. Students were plied for information on their peers and instructors. Professors were pressured into spilling intimate details of their sex lives under oath.
Some were shown the door. By the committee’s account, at least 39 faculty members and deans were forced from Florida institutions due to alleged homosexual activity. That number doesn’t include those who fled their campuses during the committee’s reign, who decided that Florida was no place to make a life. It doesn’t account for the terror of being hunted by your own government, for the time spent wondering who knew your secret and who might tell. For living with the possibility of destabilizing your family, of becoming a social pariah.
The constant thrum of fear is something Copleston, now 90, remembers vividly. That, and the silence around the investigation. It was unsettling, and it worked to the committee’s advantage. Copleston’s social life in Gainesville “basically ended,” he said.
“It was just way too dangerous.”
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