Don’t Say Gay Was Never About Children — But We Already Knew That

feature image photo by Anadolu / Contributor via Getty Images

Last week, Florida House of Representatives Republican Ryan Chamberlin introduced House Bill 599, a modern-day attempt to stymie LGBTQ presence in government work. The bill would make it official state policy “that a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.” It specifically targets local and state government employees, contractors, and nonprofits that receive funding from the state. Essentially extending Ron DeSantis’ now much-derided “Don’t Say Gay” bill banning discussion of gender identity and sexuality in public school settings, the bill forbids tax-exempt nonprofits or employers that receive state funds from requiring any sensitivity training or presentations on gender identity and expression and sexuality. It also would forbid trans employees from sharing their pronouns and prohibits other employees from having to use anyone’s pronouns if those pronouns “do not correspond to his or her sex” as outlined by the bill. Employers would also be forbidden from asking employees their pronouns.

“Don’t Say Gay,” according to its supporters, was allegedly about “protecting children.” But anyone paying attention knows that isn’t the case. Children are just easy targets. Children are just an easy way to test fascistic policies. We see this with transphobic sports bans for school-aged children that have now ripple effected into the broader sports world and society at large. We even see this in the way Israeli soldiers target Palestinian children as a means of reinforcing occupation and control. When spun insidiously as the “Parental Rights in Education bill” and by preying on parents’ fears, it was actually quite easy for DeSantis to push through his agenda to eliminate conversations about sexuality and gender identity in schools, confusing teachers along the way and eventually pushing out many LGBTQ+ instructors. That’s the real goal: a purge of LGBTQ people — and trans folks in particular — from public society. Schools were the first target, and the policy then paved the way for Chamberlin to introduce “Don’t Say Gay”: Workplace Redux.

In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law Executive Order 10450, which formalized a policy already informally well underway in the federal government. Known as the Lavender Scare, a moral panic about lesbians and gay men working as federal government employees took over the nation in the 1950s, and Executive Order 10450 made it so people working for the government who were gay or suspected of being gay could be interrogated, removed from their positions, and banned from applying to other government jobs. This was all under the shoddy logic that gay people were particularly vulnerable to blackmail and therefore could pose a potential security risk. They were also seen as a cultural risk in that queerness was seen as an entry point to more radical politics and more radical constructions of society.

Shortly after, in 1956, the Florida Legislature established the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (known more commonly as the Johns Committee after its chairman, state Senator Charley Johns), which sought to “investigate” civil rights movement groups for suspected communist connections. The Johns Committee essentially harnessed the combined powers of racism, anti-leftism, and homophobia to dismantle civil liberties in the public sphere in Florida. Initially, the committee set its sights on the NAACP, trying to paint the organization as communist and therefore anti-American. Then, the committee found a new target: gays.

Stacy Braukman, who wrote Communists and Perverts Under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965, said in an interview with Spectrum South that this shift from targeting political and racial groups to homosexuals remains a little ambiguous, but “it was just an easy thing to do, since gays and lesbians were so vulnerable.” The federal government was already expelling people accused of sexual “perversion” (read: being gay) under the guise of “security” and, also, “protecting children.” The Johns Committee made exposing and expelling queer people from the public sphere its new mission, focusing in particular on public education institutions. Collaborating with cops, the committee surveilled and interrogated activists and university students, professors, faculty, and administrators. Students and faculty alike were targets, often pushed out of institutions like the University of Florida. This was already common practice in 1958, but in 1961, the committee was officially charged with the task of determining “the extent of infiltration into agencies supported by state funds by practicing homosexuals.”

In 1964, the Johns Committee published a homophobic pamphlet called “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida” that eventually became known as “the purple pamphlet.” It asserted: “The homosexuals are organized…The homosexuals will win every battle that is fought unless we band together…If we don’t act soon, we will wake up some morning and find they are too big to fight. They may be already.” The pamphlet, however, had the opposite of its intended effect, spurring backlash that eventually led to the committee’s defending and disbandment.

It’s not a perfect comparison, but the Florida legislature, under DeSantis’ gubernatorial leadership, is basically introducing a new Lavender Scare to the public sphere. Essentially outlawing LGBTQ nonprofits in the state caters to the fears outlined in that 1964 pamphlet: that we are organized and ready to fight.

I hear all the time from people — usually well meaning allies but also sometimes gay liberals — some version of at least it’s not as bad as it was back then. Yeah, sure, maybe for financially comfortable cis white gays. As for everyone else, especially trans people, these attempts at legislative overreach are just as alarming than what was happening in the 1950s, if not more so. The Johns Committee leaned on anti-communist rhetoric to push its agenda and convince the public that any deviation from heteronormativity was inherently un-American. It was never really about security. Neither was the larger Lavender Scare happening around the country. Accusations of communism made it easier for people to sell the idea of removing homosexuals from the government. But it was always just about pushing queer people to the margins. Just like “Don’t Say Gay” isn’t really about protecting children but rather pushing out queer and trans educators, public servants, and organizers and making it harder for queer and trans kids to access community and understanding about their identities.

And now, Chamberlin’s new bill attempting to codify a cis gender binary as the norm doesn’t even make any pretense at being about anything other than punishing and subjugating trans and gender-nonconforming people while also making it potentially impossible for LGBTQ+ nonprofits to operate in the state. There is no political movement queer folks are being pinned to as a way to prove the “danger” they pose. The state no longer needs to cry communism to convince people queerness and transness don’t belong in the public sphere; they can just call us wrong and call it a day. All these legislative attempts to push LGBTQ folks even further to the margins build on each other.

Don’t, especially if you live outside Florida, write this off as a lost cause. Even if there’s a strong likelihood this will pass in the current legislature, that defeatist mentality doesn’t tangibly help the Floridians who will need it most if it does. The legislative session starts on January 9, and representatives like Anna Eskamani of my district are already rallying for people to push back on proposed bills like this one. The implications for LGBTQ+ nonprofits in the state — like the beloved Zebra Youth where I live and where my fiancée and I are raising money for at our wedding in a few months — are nothing short of devastating. If you’re outside Florida and you subscribe to a narrow definition of this place, perhaps you define this state by its oppressive politicians and hate groups, but I for one cannot imagine this place without these LGBTQ organizations or without the people who support and benefit from them. We have to become as organized as that pamphlet warned we were. And just like the Johns Committee was a microcosm of a larger national movement to place queerness at odds with citizenship, this battle is not happening in a vacuum. When things happen here, they have a tendency to ripple effect outward and connect back to things happening at the national level. Florida could once again become the test site for similar legislation in other states to follow.

None of this came out of the ether. Restricting queer and trans public life has long been a method of societal control wielded by governments. It’s not enough to say history is repeating itself; we have to look back and understand exactly how and why it is. People didn’t just accept the Johns Committee; there has always been resistance in the face of oppression. Early on in the committee’s terror, librarian and activist Ruth Perry, working as the secretary for Miami’s NAACP, refused to cooperate with the committee during legal proceedings despite threats to her life. While many other organizations avoided direct confrontation with the committee, the Tampa branch of the American Association of University Women condemned and worked against the committee consistently, an important chapter of women-led activism in the South left out of history books all too frequently.

And of course, there was always student dissent to the committee, even though it can be hard to find documentation of it as dominant history has a tendency to obscure or downplay the significance of student activism. But in reading through the archives of The Tampa Tribune (a former daily newspaper in Tampa that was bought by the Tampa Bay Times in 2016), I found lots of evidence pointing toward organized efforts by University of South Florida students to fight the committee. In a 1962 letter to the Tribune, students of one of the residence halls at USF (one of the universities consistently targeted by the committee’s hearings) lament the lack of community pushback outside of campus against the committee’s investigation tactics. “We wonder if most of the people in the community realize how many students are protesting the methods used in this investigation?” the letter reads. Specific books and curriculum were being investigated by the committee (sound familiar?!), and students called to question what exactly was being challenged, writing that they do not feel persecuted of their religious or political beliefs by these teachings but rather that “required readings have challenged us to evaluate our present beliefs and ideas,” which is what education should be all about. To understand the power and influence of student dissent and campus movements, look no further than the Florida legislature’s attempts to curtail them today.

So while a new Lavender Scare is well underway and bills like this latest proposed one coming out of Florida date back to the mid 20th century, a pattern of resistance to those efforts goes way back in history, too. We must hold onto that.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 859 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. I loved taking us back to the Lavender Scare here, that historical context is so important. It’s always shocking to me (not surprising anymore, but “shocking” as in “shock to the system”) that… we’re still here. That no matter how “far” we go, we still circle back here.

    “We have to become as organized as that pamphlet warned we were.” — This. This exactly.

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