Revisiting Florida’s Homophobic History and Present
By: Sofia Zarran
“Be gay. Do crime.”
It’s a modern saying, but until the 1980s, being gay in Florida was the crime. Who would have thought that Miss Oklahoma and Florida’s Governor could be used in the same sentence to describe very similar anti-gay movements spanning over 50 years?
The Lavender Scare took the country by storm in the 1940s. Florida’s history with homosexuality is the best example of how fear and misinformation were used to attack the lives of average citizens who happened to be homosexual in the U.S of A.
Happy Pride month boys, girls and everyone in between. However you associate yourself with the LGBTQIA+ community, I think now is as good a time as any to learn more about Florida’s history with the gay community and why even today we are “ground zero in America’s culture wars” (Time Magazine).
Crimes Against Nature (1868)
In 1868, when Florida first compiled its state legislation, the “Crimes Against Nature” law alluded to any inappropriate sexual acts with animals or mankind. Punishment is no more than twenty years in prison. It did not specifically reference homosexuality, but this was the first law used to arrest those who performed “unnatural” acts with those of the same gender in the state of Florida.
It was in the 1920s that consensual oral sex between adults became punishable by up to 20 years in prison. How exactly would one know that these unnatural acts were taking place? Cops would barge through doors and catch individuals in the act “with reasonable suspicion” or wait for witnesses to come forward with a so-called testimony. This made it difficult to know who to trust.
Many are unaware that these laws actually still exist in Florida today. However, they are unenforceable since the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that it is unconstitutional to ban consensual sex between adults as a violation of the 14th Amendment.
This means that it wasn’t until 2003 that it was legal to be gay, or mainly, have gay sex in Florida, right? Well, it’s complicated.
In 1974, the ‘Crimes Against Nature” law was repealed in Florida, five years after the Stonewall Riots occurred in New York. From the time the law was first put into place, the LGBTQIA+ communities all around Florida, especially in Miami, were being arrested for living “against nature.”
The Lavender Scare (1950)
These laws didn’t come out of nowhere but were the manifestation of a vocal minority in the U.S. These individuals were reportedly “frightened to death” of the ‘Lavender Scare’. Beginning in the 1940s, after the Red Scare of communism, came the fear of homosexuals and other ‘sex perverts’ across America. This era is what first caused gay people to find each other and form communities. In Florida, the lavender scare manifested into the 1964 “Purple Pamphlet.” It was an anti-homosexual propaganda pamphlet distributed by the Florida Legislative Committee warning citizens of the danger homosexuality poses to our communities and children. This pamphlet associates homosexuality with pedophilia, sexual abuse and harassment.
The “Save Our Children” Campaign (1969)
Although the repealing of the “Crimes Against Nature” law seemed like the beginning of a brighter future in Florida, Miss Oklahoma had other plans.
In 1977, Miami-Dade County passed an ordinance granting gay people housing and employment protections. Anita Bryant, former Miss Oklahoma, a well-known singer, popular for her Florida orange juice commercials, birthed the “Save Our Children” campaign. The basis of her complaint in launching this campaign was that she had the right to control “the moral atmosphere” her children were raised in.
Her campaign was successful and the ordinance was repealed with a more than 2-to-1 margin. However, the queer community in Miami was not discouraged. A 1977 New York Times article, written immediately after the ruling, describes the gay community in Miami in the moments following. Queer activist John W. Campbell said “for decades homosexuality was ‘the love that dare not speak its name.’ Now the whole world is talking about our cause. We are everywhere. We are not going to go away. And we are going to win. We didn't get the votes we expected. But we got one heck of a lot.” The article goes on to say how this defeat of human rights empowered the gay community in South Florida to be more vocal than it has ever been before. The anti-gay propaganda allowed them to find their voice.
It wasn’t until 1998 that the ordinance was re-enacted — more than 20 years later.
The “Don’t Say Gay” Bill (2022)
Desantis’s ‘Parental Rights in Education Bill’ was passed in March of 2022. This bill is supported by many parents who claim they, like Anita Bryant, have a right to decide what their children are exposed to in the classroom. This bill was first proposed in March of 2022, and “prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in K-3 classrooms, and after 3rd grade, need to be age appropriate” (Gov. Ron Desantis). HB 1557 also ensures that parents will be notified at the beginning of the year about potential health services and be allowed to decline, as well as receive copies of any health screening given before they are administered to provide approval. It has therefore been dubbed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law. Although this law specifically targets “sexual orientation”, this has not stopped teachers from discussing their heterosexual relationships or showing Disney movies with heterosexual couples. A lawsuit has been filed against Desantis by several LGBTQ rights advocates stating “This effort to control young minds through state censorship — and to demean LGBTQ lives by denying their reality — is a grave abuse of power“(NPR).
In a poll taken in 2022, 51 percent of Americans support the banning of teaching sexual orientation from K-3 while only 35 percent are opposed (POLITICO). I think that people are confusing the “discussion of sexual orientation” with teaching sex education to students below 3rd grade. Most students don’t take a sexual education class until 5th grade or above, but this bill is targeting the acknowledgment of the existence of sexual orientation. It discourages children to talk about their families if their sexual identities are not heteronormative. No one has been reprimanded for discussing heterosexual relationships, but having to explain anything having to do with homosexuality is now legally inappropriate.
In Florida today, from the banning of books to being discouraged to discuss our history of racism and homophobia, many are concerned. Many are scared. Many more speak out.
For the first time in my life, I have open and out queer and transgender professors. I see drag queens on a daily basis. All here, in my home state of Florida.
I am learning more and more about the power and fight in this community. This power was born from black civil rights activists. Therefore, it is also important to note that June 19th, “Juneteenth," is the celebration and commemoration of the freeing of the last slaves in Galveston, Texas, two years after the emancipation proclamation, lands within Pride Month. Without so many people of color, and the spread of the “Wake Up!” or “Woke” movements, the LGBTQ community would not be where it is today. I am reminded of the first known person to identify as a drag queen, William Dorsey Swann, a man born into slavery and the first known American activist to lead a queer resistance group. Another queer activist to remember is Marsha Johnson, a drag Queen and cofounder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries after participating in the Stonewall Riots in the 1980s. These are just a few of the strong people of color who stood up for the rights of others and gave the entire queer community the voice it has today. None of us are free until we are all free.
This pride month, especially here in Florida, we must remember all those who have stood in our way, all those who fought for us, and how today we continue to make our queer rights founders proud. Through the “Crimes Against Nature,” the “Save Our Children” campaign, and the “Parental Rights to Education” bill, we see the truth. These anti-gay activists are afraid and use the privilege they have had for centuries to make us think we are weak.
I hope that during this Pride month, you hold those you love close to you no matter what their gender or sexuality is. That is the purpose of Pride: to remind individuals that they deserve to both love and be loved.
As we reflect on our history, let’s march into the future as we continue to triumph over those trying to hold us back.
Sofia ‘Z’ Zarran is a Junior journalism major at the University of Florida pursuing a minor in linguistics. Hailing from Miami, Florida, Z is a second-generation immigrant from a Catholic family. She is a proud queer Hispanic woman who likes to make coffee, cook, read, write, and watch movies with friends.