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The Sin Warriors
by Julian E. Farris
by Janet Mason
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Note: Listen for this commentary on the International Gay and Lesbian radio syndicate, This Way Out.
by Julian E. Farris (Lethe Press, 2012).
My thinking about the connections between Civil Rights and LGBT rights was further deepened when I read the recently published novel The Sin Warriors by Julian E. Farris (Lethe Press, 2012). The novel is based on the actual events, in 1956, in the state of Florida when, as the autor writes in the afterword of the novel,
"The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, commonly known at The Johns Committee and chaired by Senator Charley Johns, was formed to investigate the NAACP as a communist front, following the United States Supreme Court Ruling overturning segregation in public schools. Unsuccessful in its attack on the NAACP, the committee shifted to homosexuals in the states' universities."
In 1956, in the state of Florida, homosexuality was a criminal offense. The result is that many gay men, who were targeted, were fired, fled on their own, or quietly disappeared through suicide. Three hundred gay professors and students vanished. The investigation targeted teachers, students and gay individuals in all state agencies."
The Sin Warriors is a work of fiction inspired by this historical event. Farris presents us with fully three dimensional characters who come to play major roles in this case -- both as the prosecutor and those who are prosecuted. It is a novel with a strong sense of place -- the backwoods of Northern Florida -- where the politics and the politicians are suspect. This is a novel that traces the characters involved in the case – on both sides – from their childhoods. It may be fiction, but it is easy to imagine an actual politician like the fictional Billy Sloat. He eventually becomes the senator who leads the witch hunt against gay professors and students in the state university. But he begins life as a boy in Florida whose father died when he was young, leaving him with an African-American half brother who is the son of Billy's mother's maid. Billy does not know that his childhood friend is his half brother but becomes increasingly hostile and racist in his treatment of him. This coincides with his self-discovery that he is attracted to another boy in his crowd. Instead of coming to terms with this, he grows to hate himself and becomes politically ambitious.
David Ashton, a gay student, who is prosecuted in Sloat's witch hunt, is equally convincing. David was raised in Florida by a single mother also. She has banished his father, who she discovers is gay, from having any contact with his son but David finds his father later on in the book. In struggling for self-acceptance and coming to embrace his gay identity - even on the heels of the McCarthy hearings - David becomes a heroic figure but he does not do this in isolation. He and his lover and his gay friends find a gay professor/mentor at the state university, a man who is also targeted by the investigation.
The Sin Warriors is not an easy read. Farris has created complex characters and tackles important issues. I found myself dismayed by thinking that since it was a work of fiction, these characters didn't actually exist. But the hallmark of good fiction is not whether the story is true -- it is whether it is believable. The Sin Warriors takes an unfortunate event in history and brings it to life.
It is an important reminder that we are shaped by history. We cannot escape it, but we can learn from it.
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