Podcast

Episode 78: Villains of the LGBTQ, Anita Bryant

Today we’re back with another episode in our series, “Villians of the LGBTQ”. And we’re discussing the woman who launched the modern day anti-queer movement, Anita Bryant. So much of the anti-lgbtq rhetoric we hear in today’s society is based on Bryant’s attack of the queer community. And her advocacy against us homos has been running for nearly as long as the queer revolution. But where did this woman come from? Who is she and why the hell does she have such a problem with our community? We’ll do our best to answer those questions and more. So let’s dive into the story of a beauty queen and pop singer turned Christian fanatic and queer basher.

Born in Barnsdall, Oklahoma on March 25, 1940, Anita grew up in a broken home. Her parents split shortly after she was born, and parts of her childhood included long stays with her grandparents while her mother looked for work to support the family. Anita was certainly a gifted child and it became apparent that she was meant to be an entertainer. Her first song she ever remembers learning was “Jesus Loves Me”. And apparently she never heard the other popular children’s song “Jesus loves the little children – all the children of the world.” No Anita seems self obsessed from a very early age. 

When she was six years old she held her first performance at the local fairgrounds near Barnsdall. Her singing caught the attention of a radio manager and Anita was often brought on air to entertain listeners all across Oklahoma. And perhaps this local notoriety gave her the boost she needed to win Miss Oklahoma in 1958 at age 18. She then went on to compete for Miss America and came in second place in 1959. The next four years were the heyday of Anita’s entertainment career. She released one pop album every year between 1959 and 1964 and had four songs hit the Billboard top 20. And of course, we remember this is in the days when the charts were solely dominated by white people and therefore offered little true competition.

Still, life was a fairytale for the rising star. She married a DJ named Bob Greene in 1960 and the two had four kids together. The entertainer kept busy appearing on various television shows, working ad campaigns, and moving on to record religious albums. Her most iconic work though would be landing the job as spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission. Anywhere a person looked there was a billboard of Anita. Or a commercial with her sipping a glass of OJ and saying “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.” And this is all well and good. We have no qualms with Anita’s early life. She was a hard-working mother and business- woman which we can admire. But things changed in 1969. And if that year sounds familiar to you then we’ve been doing our job here at Your Queer Story.

1969 was the official birth of the queer revolution. Yes there had been stirrings for decades, but the riots at Stonewall on June 28th sparked a national public outcry. All across the nation newspapers told stories of the 2 day long riot, followed by marches and demonstrations in cities all over America. The country as a whole was in a sexual upheaval as people from all walks of life bucked the social roles enforced on them. Just two years earlier the landmark case of Loving vs Virginia allowed for interracial couples to marry. Which also struck down a long list of local laws which prohibbitted interracial couples from living together or even having sex together. Couples could now legally live openly with their relationship, though they werent safe from discrimination and violence.

Another social change came in the form of music. Rock-n-roll had erupted with the entrance of the Beatles at the beginning of the decade, and by the end famous bands such as Led Zeppelin were making their debut. And the theme of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll began to emerge in the American narrative. Which greatly unsettled white, suburban, christian households. And when The Doors Jim Morrison was accused of exposing himself at a concert, the right wing conservatives went wild. To this day no one really knows whether Morrison actually exposed himself. At the time he was arrested and convicted, but managed to walk free on appeal. He never made it back to the courtroom as he died of drug related heart failure in 1971. Regardless, the seemingly unrelated incident of Morrison’s arrest would spark a series of events which lead to the first national backlash against gay rights. An outrage that has shaped 50 years of anti-queer resistance.

When news of Morrison’s perceived exposure hit the new stands the Right went into an uproar. Within 3 weeks of the alleged incident over 30,000 people protested at the March 23rd Rally for Decency. Held at the Miami Orange Bowl, and organized by a local teen no less, the event was strictly a religious affair. Pastors, Celebrities, and christians of all walks of life filled the arena. Security banned “long haired and weird dressers” from attending. Speakers spoke adamantly about the God and perseverance of sexuality. The organizers then introduced the Five Virtues. Which were as follows: 1.Belief in God and that He loves us. 2. Love of our planet and country. 3. Love of our family. 4.Reverence of one’s sexuality. And 5. Equality of all men. A list filled with irony to be sure considering the next 50 years of activism by the Right. 

But most importantly about the event was the attendance of Anita Bryant. The fading pop star found a new purpose at the rally. She was dismayed by the changes in America and the rejection of strict, fundamentalist values. For the next several years Anita worked silently as the religious right built the structure of the so-called Moral Majority. Then in 1977 it became Anita’s time to shine. And this happened with the January 18th passage of Dade County’s anti-discrimination act. This local ordinance would prohibit businesses and landlords from denying work or housing to queer people. An initiative that had been lobbied for by the Dade County Coalition for Humanistic Rights of Gays. And heady by three particular gay activists; Jack Campbell, Bob Kaskner, and Bob Kunst.

And it was a much needed ordinance. While Miami was already world renown for its gaynight life, local authorities had worked hard to remove queer people from public sight. In 1956 proud Baptist and former Florida Governor Charley Johns founded the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee. Known most commonly as the Johns Committee and was nothing more than a local group of McCarthy wannabes. For the next decade the Johns committee wreaked havoc on every form of civil rights group from the NAACP to the Dade County gay rights movement. They weeded out and fired every queer government employee they could find. The committee also printed and sold the notorious “purple pamphlet” which was meant to educate the public on the dangers of homosexuality. Yet instead it incited a public outcry because the pamphlet was filled with erotic pictures of male on male sex. While the group had intended to turn the booklet into a bestseller, instead they were sued. The only people really buying the pamplets were the gay community,who had found a very cheap form of porn. 

Still, despite their hilarious blunders, the group was still dangerous. They turned their attention to the state universities, especially Florida State. Local law enforcement was recruited to apprehend suspected homosexuals on campus and bring them into interrogation.There the Johns Committee would play both judge and jury in deciding the fate of the individual. Which is even more terrifying when we remember that sodomy was still illegal in Florida – and would remain illegal until the Supreme Court ruling in 2003. The committees blatant disregard for the law along with their excessive cruelty left a lasting stain on Dade County. Though there was no remorse from Johns who told reporters years later “If we saved one boy from being made homosexual, then it was justified.” Yet 50 years later the city did not share their former governors sentiments. The Sun-Sentinel wrote of Charley John and his cronies abuse of power: [They] persecuted civil rights leaders, university professors, college students, public school teachers and state employees for imagined offenses against redneck sensibilities… Niceties like due process or the right to counsel or civil liberties were ignored… They employed entrapment and blackmail.”

But while progress has definitely been made, in 1977 the ideas of many Floridians mirrored that of Charley Johns. And the belief that any means necessary to deny gay rights was justified certainly mirrored that of fellow Baptist Anita Bryant. When Dade County passed the ordinance protecting queer people from discrimination – just 10 years after the Johns Committee reign of terror had ended – another wave of hate arose on the horizon. And we don’t mean Anita’s hair, though could see where there could be confusion.

When news that the ordinance was on the books for approval first broke it caused little concern. But some clergy were worried and begat to speak out against the anti-discrimination law. So one Sunday in December Anita’s pastor at Northwest Baptist Church plead with his congregation to fight this insidious sin. He told the church goers that if the law was passed he would be forced to hire a sodomite to teach at their christian school. And to drive the point further the pastor brought in a local police officer to speak to the congregation. The officer showed the attendees graphic images of male on male sex as well as child pornography. He assured the group that this is what would be taught in their schools if a queer was allowed equal access to job employment.  All four of Anita’s children attended the church’s christian school and she was terrified by this prospect. 

When the law came up for a vote in early January of 1977, the courtroom was packed. Churches all across the state had sent busloads of people to protest the ordinance. Anita herself spoke at the hearing and told commissioners  “The ordinance condones immorality and discriminates against my children’s rights to grow up in a healthy, decent community” Yet despite the strong opposition, the law passed 5-3. It was a fleeting victory for gay rights activists. A counter protest was brewing and a new leader was emerging. Anita Bryant lead the charge against gay equality. She formed one of the most central organizations to anti-lgbtq activism to this day. In fact, it is not a stretch to say that Anita Bryant is the mother of the anti-queer movement. 

Within days of the new law being enacted, Bryant along with her husband and over 30 other conservative leaders formed “Save Our Children, Inc”. The first goal of the movement was to collect 10,000 signatures to repeal the anti-discrimination vote. The strategy behind the campaign was necessary to overturn the vote. In reality, strategist Mike Thompson had found that more than 60% of Dade County women were in favor of the anti-discrimination law. They saw the gay community as fun, harmless, and far less of a threat to them than many straight me. In order to make these women fear the queer community Anita’s campaign had to play to their fears. And so they made the protest about the “rights of the child”. By spreading deliberate lies to paint the queer community as child molesters the Right could pull all sense of reason and sanity away from any mother. 

Anita ran with the strategy. She campaigned all over the state pushing the lie that homosexuals were all child molesters in disguise. She went on national television and told parents and gay people were passing out pro-homosexual pamplets at schools in an attempt to “recruit our children”. A complete fabrication and a statement she later denied making, even though there was video evidence. On one outing she told the crowd “Some of the stories I could tell you of child recruitment and child abuse by homosexuals would turn your stomach.” As with most alt-right agendas she went to the far extreme and Bryant told listeners that if “Gays are granted rights we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail biters”

By June of 1977 “Save Our Children” had far surpassed their goal and collected over 66,000 signatures to repeal the anti-discrimination ordinance. The campaign then went national. “Save Our Children” created a tv commercial that pitted so-called “wholesome entertainment” with queer entertainment. They cut up images of the orange bowl parade versus images of San Franciscos Gay Pride Parade. Making sure to choose the most shocking and offensive material to depict the queer community. The organization also ran full page ads in the papers with pictures of negative, queer headlines from around the country. And at the top the Ad read “Think All Homosexuals are Nice? There is no “human right” to corrupt our children!”

For their part the queer community lashed back at Bryant. They called for a national boycott of Florida Citrus Orange juice and created pins and shirts that read “Anita Bryant Sucks Oranges” and “Squeeze a Fruit for Anita”. The boycott did prove somewhat beneficial considering the amount of orange juice served in gay bars. Any drink with OJ was taken off the menu and in its place bars served the “Anita Bryant Cocktail”. It was made up of vodka and apple juice and many bars donated all or some of the proceeds from the drink to the gay rights movement. Florida queer organizations also tried to recruit some outside help, unfortunatley disagreements in how to run the campaign caused more division than aid. Most of the outside help wanted a civil and controlled campaign while may queer Floridians were too enraged by the outlandish lies. 

In May Jerry Falwell came to Dade County to help Anita host a rally. While he had spoken out against gay rights in church, this was Falwells first national attack on the queer community. He would go on to become the founder of the political activist organization “The Moral Majority”. Which would be a formiddable force against the lgbtq community in coming years. Especially in its influence on Reagan during the Aids epidemic. But it was Anita Bryant who pulled Falwell onto the national stage. And it was Anita Bryant who told the large crowd as the “Save Our Children” rally, “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children.” Say what you will, Anita knew how to stick to a message.

And the message worked. In June of 1977 Dade County residents voted to overturn the anit-discrimination act with a 61% to 39% margin. There would be no legal protections in place for queer Miami residents until 1998, more than 20 years later. And as is often the case when open discrimination is encouraged, the queer community faced a harsh and violent backlash. Two weeks after the law was overturned a gay gardner was stabbed 15 times while attackers chanted “Faggot” and “Here’s One for Anita”. Perhaps in connection of merely out of coincidence the queer communty in Dade County and across the country saw a spike in suicides around this time. But rest assured Anita took no responsibility. Telling reporters “ I can’t be responsible for how people react to what happened in Dade County. My stand was not taken out of homophobia, but of love for them.”

For the next couple of years Anita rode the wave of her activism. Even helping to stop pro-lgbt education in some California public schools. But her final spotlight soon dimmed and in the end her activism destroyed her career. Perhaps the infamous “pie to the face”, thrown by Tom Higgins in Des Moines Iowa at the end of 1977 was an indication of what was to come. Sponsors who supported gay rights, or at least wanted to be left out of the fight, soon dropped Anita. Including her most prominent contract, The Florida Citrus Commission. A few variety talk shows she was on stopped inviting her to appear. And her pop albums were no longer relevant and rarely played on most national stations. For a while she still had her religious albums. But those took a hit as well in 1980 when Anita filed for divorce from her husband of 20 years.

Anita claimed emotional abuse and it seems that is certainly possible. Especially considering her husband Bob still did not accept the divorce 27 years later. He told reporters that only God could end their marriage and he was still insisting that Anita was still wife as late as 2007. And of course he blamed the gays for their marriage failing. Regardless, fundamentalists sided with Bob. Divorce was never the answer in the alt-right world and Anita’s gospel albums soon plummeted. Abandoned by her own community Anita lashed out in an interview with Ladies Home Journal “The church needs to wake up and find some way to cope with divorce and women’s problems.”

For the next 35 years Anita Bryant faded into obscurity, no longer wanted by her liberal celebrity friends or her conservative christian followers. She remarried in 1990 and the couple tried to revive her career by building the Anita Bryant Music Mansion in Pigeon Ford Tennessee. However, the company went bankrupt and they spent the next decade moving from one failed venture to another. She and her husband are still alive today and have a mountain debt from unpaid bills and taxes. Her latest interview was in 2012 and when asked about the queer community she stated: “I’m more inclined to say live and let live, just don’t flaunt it or try to legalize it.” Despite all her hardships Anita Bryant has never learned that hate doesnt pay.

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