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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Gays, Guns, and Ghosts

I’ve mentioned before that I have an 86-year-old friend in Gainesville whose personal experience in Florida history runs deep. He’s Jack Price, formerly of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and I know that some of you know him, too. He doesn’t travel anymore, but he was on the phone soon after the Orlando massacre.

Jack wanted to talk about 1973 and a Miami family that fully qualified as WASP. That acronym, for younger folks who may not remember, stood for white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant – to the exclusion of Catholics and Jews, not to mention anyone else who might not be eligible for country club membership. Yes, children, in your grandparents’ day, people who did not profess Protestantism – or at least pretend to – were routinely rejected by such groups, as well as by deed-restricted communities. With religious bias that well enshrined, bias against those with different sexual preferences was so great that this prominent Miami family was glad to send off their gay son to New Orleans.

He died there in a fire at a nightclub that catered to people we called homosexuals back then – if we spoke of them at all, even in whispers. It wasn’t until I took Abnormal Psychology in college that I had any firm idea what this meant – and yes, both the textbook and the professor classified homosexuality as abnormal, along with other forms of psychosis and neurosis. And yet, in reflection, I’m pretty sure that Dr. Charlie Jones, who taught this class, was herself a lesbian or at least a latent lesbian. She was near retirement then, and it’s sad to think that she spent her whole life conforming to what her culture said was normal.

Anyway, this fire in New Orleans. It was in the Upstairs Lounge in June 1973, and 32 people were killed. The truly ironic thing is that they were not the kind of people usually associated with nightclubs. Instead, they were members of the Metropolitan Community Church, which had begun in Los Angeles in 1968 for people who considered themselves to be both gay and Christian. They met upstairs for dinner while a bar operated downstairs, and at the time the fire began, had finished eating and were planning a benefit for crippled children.

It was clearly arson. The staircase had been doused with cigarette lighter fluid and was engulfed with a holocaust of fire, making escape impossible. Some managed to jump to roofs of nearby buildings, but other jumpers hit the ground aflame. Rescue personnel did a reasonably good job, but most media and government officials said nothing. No one ever was tried for the crime, and the most likely suspect – who had been in and out of mental hospitals -- killed himself a little more than a year later.

Many of the bodies never were claimed, as families were too ashamed to retrieve their “loved ones.” The Miami family was ambivalent: they were sure that their business and civic reputations would suffer if they held a funeral for their son, but they didn’t want to leave him unclaimed, either. They decided to send their daughter to New Orleans, and she took her brother’s body to rural Tennessee, where ancestors were buried.

She was already something of an embarrassment to the family, as she had protested against the Vietnam War and taught at a racially integrated Quaker school. Yet none of the ridicule she endured for those causes compared with what she experienced burying her brother. From coroners to funeral homes to cemetery officials, she said, everyone found her grief to be somehow amusing. “Jokes” about gay people were so common that even these trained professionals could not restrain themselves. And when she objected, they turned hostile, mean, and uncooperative. In a lifetime of political activism, she said, nothing compared with the hatred she encountered because she loved her brother.

Another Case

Jack also wanted to tell me about a something that occurred when he was working in Washington for Miami congressman Claude Pepper, who then was a US senator. I trust you know that Pepper was the giant behind Social Security and other New Deal programs from which you benefit – and that Florida’s right-wing businessmen spread lies that later caused his fall from the Senate to the House. The office next door to Senator Pepper belonged to Senator Lester Hunt of Wyoming, a Democrat elected in 1948 – the year that President Harry Truman surprised pundits by winning. Jack remembers Hunt as a kindly Methodist who had been the very popular governor of Wyoming. He won election by a large majority, even though he was liberal enough that he supported national health care, including even dental care.

Other congressmen were less liberal, though, and Senator Joe McCarthy, Republican of Wisconsin, soon dominated both houses via the creation of an unprecedented House Un-American Activities committee. This committee subpoenaed many people -- especially writers, filmmakers, and other intellectuals -- to testify on their alleged association with “communism.” Reputations were lost and lives ruined, as publishers and Hollywood businessmen refused to hire those tainted with the committee’s brush.

Senator Hunt was one of the first to stand up to McCarthyism, but it continued throughout Truman’s term. Not until well after the 1953 inauguration of Republican Dwight Eisenhower did his fellow Republican lose power. McCarthy and his supporters included homosexuality in their broad sweep of what was un-American, but more than actually using that taboo word, they accused by innuendo. That was just as damaging and harder to refute.

It turned out that Senator Hunt’s son was one of those people living a closeted life, and he mistakenly propositioned a man in LaFayette Park, across from the White House, who turned out to be an undercover cop. (I’m sure crime in DC was so low that police had nothing better to do.) The son was tried, convicted, and fined, but that was not enough punishment for some. Republicans, including McCarthy, told Hunt that if he ran for reelection in 1954, they would tell the tale in Wyoming.

At first he resisted their threats and said he would run despite them, but the closer the election deadline came, the more depressed he was. Torn between loyalty to his son and to his lifelong governmental duty, he shot himself. He did it right there in his office, down the hall from Jack. You might consider shutting off the TV and reading Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins: The Suicide of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt (2013).

The Times, They Are A-changing

They have changed enough, at least, that another Wyoming politician, Dick Cheney, has felt no obligation to kill himself because of his gay daughter. He hasn’t exactly championed her, but he hasn’t denied her either. He is free to take this semi-supportive stance because liberals have made it possible.

And there were no unclaimed bodies at Orlando. Instead, some 50,000 people there joined a candlelight vigil for the victims of religious bias, and tens of thousands of people elsewhere did the same, including a vigil here in Ybor. These plain-folk mourners have figured out how to conduct solemn ceremonies that truly commemorate life. They have set a new standard in finding a way to offer solace to the grieving without incorporating hateful dogma. Many theologians could learn from such homemade philosophers.

Many politicians have, or at least are beginning to. I want to add something that happened recently. OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute associated with USF, is running a June class on the history of the Hillsborough League of Women Voters and its involvement in local government. The speakers are practitioners of politics, especially those who served in the past and have lessons to offer. The most salient one for this column was former City Councilman Rudy Fernandez. Full disclosure: I’ve known his parents, Jack and Sylvia Fernandez, for years via our mutual association with USF, and Jack and I now serve together on the committee for historic Riverwalk statues.

Class leader Dena Leavengood gave speakers clues on topics, and Rudy chose to talk about the hardest decision he had to make – just very shortly after he joined city council. An effort to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual preference had failed in 1989, and with opposition led by “pro-family” activist David Caton, it was a campaign issue in 1991. Rudy had a thoroughly Catholic education at Jesuit High School and Notre Dame, and he was well aware that most of his church friends opposed the ordinance – but he was stunned by how many of them ostracized him and his parents after he cast the deciding positive vote. He told the OLLI group that only recently -- more than twenty years later -- have some of these people again begun to speak to them.

He said that because the issue was so controversial, council moved its meeting from City Hall to the then-new performing arts center. I looked up the article that Times reporter Wayne Garcia wrote on that. Almost 3,000 people attended, and police ejected 26 of them from the meeting because of disruptive behavior. Guards also confiscated two bags full of knives, mace, and other hardware intended to inflict harm on ideological opponents. But with Rudy’s brave vote, the ordinance passed, and no one thinks about repeal anymore. We are overcoming.

If You Want to Learn a Little More

You should know that somewhat after McCarthyism faded in Washington, we Floridians had our own version of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Charley Johns of Starke headed this witch-hunt. He had become governor after the death of Governor Dan McCarthy in 1953, but lost his 1954 race to the more liberal LeRoy Collins. Apparently with too much time on his hands after his defeat, Johns developed, at taxpayer expense, a committee to investigate the University of Florida – from which he had dropped out after a few youthful months.

Like McCarthy, the Johns Committee targeted alleged communists, but was more open about aiming at the sexually different. It did a lot of damage to individuals and even jeopardized the infant USF, but finally lost all credibility with its 1964 report, Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida. Called the “Purple Pamphlet,” the report included photographs so blatant that it allegedly sold as porn in New York City.

Several books have been written on the Johns Committee, the most recent of which is State of Defiance: Challenging the Johns Committee Assault on Civil Liberties (2014). It is unusual in that its focuses less on sexuality, instead emphasizing the committee’s attacks on those who pioneered racial integration. On that issue, we really have overcome. Take heart.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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