The adult and the demagogue

Or how Gainesville’s Ralph Turlington stood up to a bombastic Bartow state senator who wanted to drive gays off college and university campuses.

Ralph Turlington stepped up to fight state Sen. Alan Trask’s crusade to drive gays off campus.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Alan Trask lately.

Oh, not so much Trask himself. Rather, the adults in the room who kept him from acting out his worst impulses.

I was Tallahassee Bureau Chief for the New York Times Florida Newspapers in the early ‘80s. Trask was a state senator from Polk County, so I covered him for The Ledger.

He was a personable enough guy. And with his silver hair and stylish suits he cut quite a figure on the Senate floor.

Always stylish, Trask cut, um, a devilish figure on the Senate floor.

But he was an ideologue.

Who obsessed on homosexuality.

Which drove him to introduce bills to ban gay rights groups from meeting in college and university facilities.

In his notoriety, Trask even attracted the notice of The New York Times. Not bad for an obscure pol from Bartow.

His legislation, the Times noted, was “reminiscent of when Anita Bryant, the singer, led efforts to kill a 1977 Dade County ordinance guaranteeing homosexuals equal rights…”

Trask would rail about homosexuals, and his colleagues would nod their heads in sympathy. And then they would let his bill die a quiet death.

That is, until 1981, when Trask did an end run around the committee process.

As the Times reported, “In a heated budget debate on the Senate floor in May, Mr. Trask brandished a brochure of alternative courses sponsored by students at Florida State University listing such offerings as ‘Future Sex’ and ‘Lesbian and Gay Rap Sessions.’

“Condemning such activities as ‘antifamily,’ Senator Trask dared his colleagues, as television cameras rolled, to vote against the measure, which he then proposed as an amendment to the state’s $9.3 billion budget.”

Trask’s amendment threatened to withhold funding from any college or university that harbored any group advocating sex between unmarried persons.

That amendment went far beyond targeting gay rights groups. It actually prohibited universities from tolerating any group, gay or straight, that “recommends or advocates sexual relations between persons not married to each other.” On pain of losing all state funding.

And just so there would be no misunderstanding, the amendment spelled out its intent: “Sexual relations means contact with sexual organs of one person by the body of another person for sexual gratification.”

And just like that it passed!

Hey, what happened to all the adults in the room?

“Everybody was afraid to vote against it, particularly with the Moral Majority looking at those kinds of votes,” Ken Megill, president of the United Faculty of Florida, told The Times.

Fortunately, there was still one more adult in the room. Education Commissioner Ralph Turlington.

Education Commissioner Ralph Turlington, whose hometown hosts the University of Florida, took the Legislature to court over the amendment.

The former House Speaker from Gainesville, wasn’t afraid of being branded, um, soft on sex. He sued the Legislature.

I wrote the story when the Florida Supreme Court unanimously struck down the Trask’s amendment.

The state, the court’s ruled, “may not make the privilege of attending (college) contingent upon the surrender of constitutional rights.”

Undaunted, Trask assured me he would try again next session because “the people of this state have spoken.

And, as before, the adults in the Legislature made sure Trask’s crusade got nowhere.

So why bring up Alan Trask four decades later?

Because we now know that Trask was simply ahead of his time.

Had he been serving in this legislature he would have been considered the adult in the room.

And right now, the University of Florida and its sister institutions would be bracing for a new round of Johns Committee-style homosexual purges.

Before there was Alan Trask, there was the Johns Committee.

This is a legislature hell-bent on censoring public education at all levels from even discussing matters of race and gender and such on the notion that someone, somewhere, might be made to feel uncomfortable by such talk.

Is it a stretch then to imagine that colleges might similarly be coerced into quashing any discussion about same-sex relationships on the off chance that some innocent freshman might be discomforted by the very presence of “those people?”

This is what we have come to after all these years. Our political leaders have rationalized, even normalized, discrimination – official bigotry – on the flimsy pretense that innocent eyes and ears must be shielded.

Trask would be delighted to know that the adults in the room have come over to his side.

By the way, Trask died in 2019. And in his honor, Gov. Ron DeSantis decreed that flags be flown at half mast.

It was the least DeSantis could do for a pioneer who paved the way for his kind of bigotry.

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