Film illuminates dark chapter in Florida gay history

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – Soon after the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub, another dark chapter in Florida gay history is getting a national showcase.

“The Committee,” a documentary about politics and homosexuality, will air on more than 70 public TV stations across the country, including WGCU.

The movie was made at the University of Central Florida by Lisa Mills, a film professor; fellow director Robert Cassanello, a history professor; and 15 of their students.

“It is for us and for the students a way to share nationally what we feel is an extremely important story of discrimination by our state lawmakers,” Mills said.

The film explains how the Florida Legislative Investigative Committee in the late 1950s and early 1960s conducted a witch hunt against college students and faculty members at the state’s public universities. Hundreds were interrogated about their sexual orientation. More than 200 lost their jobs or were expelled, but Mills adds that it isn’t clear exactly how many people dropped out or quit because of the intimidation.

“One clear message as a historian speaks to me,” Cassanello said. “You have to contemplate the decisions you make today because future generations will judge you.”

The panel was known as the Johns Committee because Florida Sen. Charley Johns, a former governor, was the chairman. It wanted to root out communism and initially tried to discredit the NAACP, which was well organized. Then the panel’s focus shifted to the gay community.

“The (gay) population back then could not be out in the open and demand the constitutional rights that protected them,” Cassanello said. “There was the sense that people who were hiding secrets were susceptible to communists.”

Johns, a Democrat from Starke, thought what he did was morally just, Cassanello said, but today’s generations just don’t understand.

“It’s really fascinating to get kids thinking about this: What standard will you be held to?” Cassanello said.

“It’s time to look back and see what we did to these citizens,” Mills said. “If we don’t watch out, history can repeat itself. People in other states need to see what Florida did to these citizens.”

The film features interviews with two survivors, Chuck Woods and Ruth Jensen-Forbell, and an interrogator, John Tileston Sr., a retired member of the University of Florida Police Department. Another speaker is former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who was a University of Florida student when the committee was acting.

Cassanello credited students with landing an interview with Graham, a former Florida governor. “He said he wanted to talk about it. He said it bothered him when he was a student,” Cassanello added.

Aaron Hose, who produced and edited the film, suggested a reunion between Woods and Tileston. “Both were agreeable. Aaron thought it showed how things had changed,” Mills said.

Work on “The Committee” started in 2011. “This was not a class of film students,” Mills said. “They didn’t know that much about shooting. We needed technical help, and Aaron was there to provide it.”

“The Committee” premiered in 2012. It has played film festivals, won awards and undergone three revisions. One came after Tileston died in 2014.

“John was thrilled to talk about what he did. It had always been bothering him,” Mills said. Another revision came after court rulings on same-sex marriage.

The Johns Committee lost power when the University of South Florida forced the panel to hold its hearings in the open. The Purple Pamphlet, a report by the panel, turned off people who found the material obscene.

“We wanted to get the story out nationally. It’s time the state owned up to its discriminatory history,” Mills said.

But Cassanello doubts that will ever happen. “I don’t think anyone apologized for McCarthyism,” he said. “The point that makes me despair: What’s going on with transgender people and bathrooms. This is evidence of the forces that were the Johns Committee are at work today.”

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