A University of South Florida political organization is calling for a change in the name of the CW Bill Young building on campus because of the namesake’s association with an anti-gay, state-sanctioned committee from the 1950s and 60s.
The Tampa Bay chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (TBSDS), which only has around 14 regular members, has a petition on the website Change.org asking that the building named after Rep. Bill Young which houses the ROTC program at USF be renamed. The petition currently has more than 400 signatures.
Young began his political career as a member of the Florida Senate in 1960. From 1962-1965, Young served on The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, also known as “The Johns Committee,” named so because the committee was led by Florida State Senator Charley Eugene Johns.
The Johns Committee was created to investigate all organizations that may have Communist ties, and specifically looked to prove communist links to the NAACP. The investigation into the NAACP failed and in 1961, The Johns Committee turned their attention to removing homosexuals from state colleges and universities.
“When [Bill Young] was in the State Senate, and part of the Johns Committee, he was partly responsible for interrogation of LGBTQAI+ folk and people who were supposedly accused of being Communist for it being subversive,” says TBSDS member Jack Ling. “These investigations led to some really awful things happening to the people who were investigated.”
As part of The Johns Committee’s witch hunt of the gay community they published and distributed the notorious report titled, Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida, which was widely known as the “Purple Pamphlet.”
“It described LGBTQAI+ people as being disgusting and claiming they had diseases and describing them as subversive in general,” Ling says.
The “Purple Pamphlet” is full of homophobic language and graphic photos of young men and boys in scantily-clad clothing. It was actually declared pornographic by the Miami Police Department shortly after its release. Photographic evidence of the report is still in circulation and available online.
Young, who died in 2013, was the last surviving member of the group. The USF building named for Young opened in 2007.
The members of TBSDS say that even though The Johns Committee came at the beginning of Young’s political career that it is not an excuse to explain his involvement away.
“There was a defense that both he and his wife used saying he came in at the tail end of the committee and that nothing much happened,” says TBSDS member Elizabeth Kramer. “I’m pretty certain that there was a vast increase in persecutions in both leftists and LGBTQIA+ people during his time. Whether or not it was directly because of him is irrelevant. The fact is that the committee was still going very strong during his time in it.”
Young never denied his involvement in the committee and he, nor any member of The Johns Committee, has ever apologized for the group’s purge of FSU, USF, UF and other state organizations of what they called “dangerous homosexuals.”
“It just saddens me that Bill can’t be here to defend himself, but anyone that knows Bill knows that this is not the issue to attack Bill Young on,” said Young’s widow, Beverly Young, in an interview with The Tampa Tribune. “He loved the men and women of the U.S. armed services and the many, many gay members of our military who are American heroes. He loved them all, and they have every right to be who they want and love who they want.”
While Young has a strong voting record supporting the military’s financial endeavors of his district, he has an equally strong record against LGBT issues, including those affecting LGBT service members. During his time in the House of Representatives, Young voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and voted against repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and openly opposed a federal hate crime law that would include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The fact is, Young was an active, vocal and unabashed member of the John’s Committee and their persecution of homosexuals in the 1960s,” said Jessica Ehrlich in a Watermark interview in 2012.
Ehrlich was running against Young for is House seat at the time. Young won that election securing his 22nd term as the district’s representative.
“Their investigation and purge of Florida’s state universities was a very dark time in Florida’s history. Unapologetic and abysmal on LGBT issues, Bill Young does not represent the St Petersburg values I grew up with,” Ehrlich said at the time.
The online petition is specifically addressed to USF President Dr. Judy Genshaft, but the group has yet to hear from her. They were given a meeting with USF Provost Ralph Wilcox.
“He didn’t address our demands directly,” Kramer says. “Instead he decided to lecture us about how what we were doing is wrong.”
Watermark reached out to USF for an interview with Dr. Genshaft, and we received a written statement from Adam Freeman, USF Media and Public Affairs Manager.
“As one of the most diverse and inclusive public universities in the country, the University of South Florida values respectful and equal treatment of all members of our community while encouraging the free exchange of ideas,” Freeman said in a statement. “We are committed to assuring our students, faculty and staff are provided an environment free from discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, religious beliefs or political viewpoints. As such, we recognize and are saddened by the actions taken by the Florida Legislative Investigative Committee, also known as the Johns Committee, and other individuals during a dark chapter in Florida’s history a half-century ago. These actions, while reflective of a different era, are not to be defended, excused or forgotten. In particular as an institution of higher education, it’s essential that we learn from our past in order to better the future.”
Freeman went on in the statement about Young’s contributions to the Tampa Bay area saying why the ROTC building, as well as a science building, carried the late state senator’s name.
“During the course of his 43-year tenure in the United States Congress, C.W. Bill Young made a transformative impact on USF’s development as a world-class public research university. It’s because of Young’s tireless advocacy to support veterans’ education and marine research programs at USF that two facilities – our Joint Military Leadership Center and the complex that houses our College of Marine Science – bear his name. If not for his support for these initiatives – in addition to healthcare, biological defense, cancer clinical trials and Gulf of Mexico restoration following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – the Tampa Bay region, state of Florida and our nation would not be as strong as they are today. As a testament to this, many other facilities and programs across the country are named after Young in honor of his work in Congress,” Freeman said.
At this time there are no plans to change the name of either USF facility named for Congressman Young.
The TBSDS says that they will continue to push this issue until the university renames the building. They plan on holding a rally within the next few weeks, most likely in front of the ROTC building.