by Diane Roberts | April 29, 2024

Florida’s Closeted History: Triumphs and Tribulations of the LGBTQ+ Community

Despite Florida’s dark history of attacking LGBTQ+ communities, its queer authors shine a light on their experiences and refuse to let their voices be silenced.


Being gay in Florida has never been easy. Even defiantly tolerant Key West, where artists and writers like Elizabeth Bishop, Truman Capote and Edmund White could escape America’s debilitating homophobia, had its bad moments. In 1979, a bunch of teenage boys terrorized playwright Tennessee Williams by throwing beer cans and firecrackers at his Key West house on Duncan Street while hollering slurs. However, the rest of the state has generally been far worse. Before the U.S. Supreme Court decriminalized sex between people of the same gender in 2003, what were called unnatural and lascivious acts could get you fired, expelled or sent to jail. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, Florida’s government dedicated a department to terrorizing LGBTQ+ people. You may have never heard of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee. In fact, I took several Florida history classes in which it was not even mentioned. The FLIC was a state-funded group of powerful conservative Dixiecrats spreading fear, hate and paranoia. Organized in 1956, the FLIC made it its mission to root out social, political and racial deviants. First, they tried to prove that the NAACP was a communist front. When they failed to unmask any Marxists among Florida’s civil rights leaders, committee chairman and Sen. Charley Johns decided to expand his inquisition to the state education system. He reckoned he could uncover radical integrationists who were also gay. In 1958, Johns’s son Jerome, then a student at the University of Florida, told his daddy that “effeminate instructors had perverted the curriculum.” Sen. Johns and his henchmen were convinced a cabal of queer academics were luring innocent undergraduates into “man love.” Their evidence included observing male professors having lunch together or wearing Bermuda shorts on campus. I haven’t looked up how many female professors taught at UF in the 1950s and 1960s, but I’ll bet you it was hard to find a female academic to hang out with. 

We’re here, we’re queer and we’re not leaving.
—Kristen Arnett

The committee wielded law enforcement like a cudgel. Uniformed cops invaded campuses across the state, hauling students and professors out of their classrooms mid-lecture and taking them away for interrogation. More than 100 faculty and public school teachers were fired or forced to resign; at least one attempted suicide. More than 400 students were forced to drop out of college on suspicion of gayness or support for racial justice, including UF’s Rita Mae Brown, who would go on to write the groundbreaking novel “Rubyfruit Jungle.”

The FLIC came to a screeching halt in 1964 when it published a report called “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida.” This taxpayer-funded screed, better known as the “Purple Pamphlet” for its lurid violet cover of two shirtless men kissing, was supposed to alert Floridians that gays wanted to “subvert the American way of life by controlling academic institutions and by corrupting the nation’s moral fiber.” It backfired. Citizens recoiled; the state attorney general warned the legislature to stop distributing their “obscene and pornographic” pamphlet. The FLIC was forced to disband. 

Classroom Closets

It’s true things are better today in many ways. Same-sex couples can marry and adopt children. LGBTQ+ people can join the military. They can become teachers. It’s against the law to discriminate against them in medical care or public accommodations. There are gay members of Florida’s legislature, including Sen. Shevrin D. Jones of Miami-Dade County and St. Petersburg’s Rep. Michele Rayner. While cities across Florida, from Pensacola to Miami, hold Pride parades, that doesn’t mean it’s easy being gay—or queer or transgender. Florida now has statutes forbidding discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools. So-called warriors against woke have transformed New College of Florida, the once highly regarded honors school which traditionally welcomed gay and trans students, into a place actively hostile to anyone who doesn’t fit their new conservative model. Half the faculty have left, academic standards have been lowered and a weirdly large number of scholarship athletes admitted. 

It’s almost as if Florida’s government is trying to erase gayness from the public sphere. 

The “Parental Rights in Education” legislation, better known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, forbids teachers to say anything about gender and sexuality in their kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms unless it’s part of a health class. A kid who is proud to talk about their two dads? A kid struggling with their sexuality? A kid whose birth certificate says “Edward” but whose parents call her “Anna” and know she identifies as a girl? Verboten. 

Uniformed cops invaded campuses across the state, hauling students out of their classrooms.

And it’s not just the LGBTQ+ community being forced back into the closet. The state of Florida now has a law forbidding instruction which might cause “guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress.” This law forbids teachers from discussing the ethnic cleansing of Florida’s native peoples, for example, or teaching students how Florida’s government fought tooth and nail to preserve white supremacy. I recall that my ninth grade history teacher assigned newspaper accounts from 1964 when civil rights activists came to St. Augustine. We read about riots started by the KKK and an incident where a white motel owner dumped acid into a motel swimming pool to force out protesters attempting to desegregate the pool. These days, a Florida teacher could get fired for assigning this type of material in their classroom. If they support a child scared to come out to their family or if they mention being gay themselves, they could be accused of promoting the homosexual lifestyle. A sixth grade teacher in Orlando faced parental complaints after he married a man. A fourth grade teacher in Miami-Dade County was driven out of her job by hostile colleagues who felt that same-sex relationships were “not right in God’s eyes.”  

Just as that St. Augustine motel owner feared Black skin could contaminate his pool in 1964, some parents, aided and abetted by the state of Florida, think a gay teacher can turn their kids gay—or worse. Responding to criticism of the ban on teachers discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom, Gov. DeSantis’s spokeswoman once said anyone who objected to the bill was “probably a groomer.” 

Above from left: “All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running” by Elias Rodriques, “Mostly Dead Things” by Kristen Arnett and “Rubyfruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown, three queer authors with novels based in the Sunshine State.

Turning the Page

Literature is subversive; it helps us question authority. It’s no wonder Florida leads the nation in banned books. But you can’t keep a good writer down, even (maybe especially) in Florida. Kristen Arnett’s 2019 bestseller “Mostly Dead Things” is a wry, poignant, funny novel about a lesbian taxidermist in Central Florida. Other Florida-inflected writers include Elias Rodriques, whose 2021 novel “All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running” captures a group of Florida teenagers confronting sexuality, race and death, and poet Richard Blanco, whose work explores his tangled identity as a Cuban exile and a gay man. Anne Hull’s beautiful 2023 memoir “Through the Groves” recounts her coming of age and coming out in the hot green kingdom of orange and grapefruit trees, dusty little roads and families connected to the land for generations. Hull, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who worked at the Tampa Bay Times and The Washington Post, is gay, and the Florida of her youth wasn’t entirely welcoming. But her book is about more than her insisting that the world make room for her. It’s also a kind of elegy for the lost wild Florida that has been bulldozed and drained to build strip malls and beige retirement communities. For a deeper look into Hull’s story, read an excerpt of her recent memoir here.

I wish I could say that incidents like a preacher praying for Hull to be delivered from her gayness no longer happen, but they do. Still, books like “Through the Groves,” teachers like those just trying to be who they are and young people who don’t understand why they cannot love who they love, insist that we hear their voices no matter how much the state tries to stifle them. In an essay about preparations for her wedding to fellow writer Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Arnett says, “The Florida in me wants you to know that I’m not giving up.” She adds, “We’re here, we’re queer and we’re not leaving.”