How 1970s Christian crusader Anita Bryant helped spawn Florida’s LGBTQ culture war

At a public hearing in Dade County, Florida, the parents were furious. The nation, they said, was in peril and the children were in danger. A recent ordinance had granted gay people housing and employment protections, which meant teachers could not be fired because of their sexuality. Florida classrooms quickly became a battleground, and opponents of the ordinance said state support for gay civil rights violated their rights as parents.

Action had to be taken, and a campaign to limit the legal rights of LGBTQ people – all in the name of protecting children – was launched. A woman who spoke at that hearing said she had the right to control “the moral atmosphere in which my children are growing up”. That woman was Anita Bryant, formerly Miss Oklahoma and a white, telegenic Top 40 singer who was well known for her Florida orange juice commercials (“A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine!” she said). Bryant led an anti-LGBTQ campaign of such impact that its echoes can be heard in rhetoric today. The year was 1977.

Last month, nearly half a century after Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Bill, dubbed the “Don’t say gay” by his opponents. The measure, which takes effect July 1, prohibits classroom teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity from “kindergarten through 3rd grade or in a manner that is not appropriate for the age or development of students in accordance with state standards”. Similar bills are being considered in 19 other states, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank that has tracked the bills.

Governor ron desantis shows an image of the children's book
Governor Ron DeSantis shows an image of the children’s book “Call Me Max” by transgender author Kyle Lukoff before signing the Parental Rights in Education bill into law in Shady Hills, Florida on March 28, 2022.Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP File

Supporters of the Florida bill say its purpose is to allow parents to decide how and when LGBTQ topics are presented to their children. Opponents say it hurts the very children the advocates are trying to protect. Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, a gay youth advocacy group, said in a statement that the bill will “wipe out young LGBTQ students from all over Florida, forcing many to return to the closet by controlling their identities and silencing important discussions about the issues they face.

Historians say they have seen this before.

“It’s a contemporary take on those older attempts to nullify homosexuality,” said Lillian Faderman, author of “The Gay Revolution,” among other queer history titles.

“In the current environment, you can no longer prosecute gay teachers,” Faderman said. “We have too many allies. And so Florida has found another way to do that with this “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which doesn’t specifically go after gay teachers. But the idea is the same. That is, homosexuality is pariah status and should not be discussed in public schools.

Anita bryant
Singer turned political activist Anita Bryant speaks during a press conference in Miami Beach, Florida on June 7, 1977.Bettmann via Getty Images file

When Bryant started her campaign in 1977, she had four children and often said she spoke as a mother and a Christian. And while the meanness of LGBTQ people was nothing new, Bryant took the idea of ​​protecting children and mainstreamed it. His campaign and subsequent ‘Save Our Children’ political coalition used the argument that ‘gay people can’t reproduce, so they have to recruit. And to refresh their ranks, they must recruit American youth.

Bryant’s emphasis on the idea that LGBTQ people threatened children created a talking point that social conservatives were able to rally and promote to their friends and neighbors. Bryant associated this with his Christian faith, telling Playboy magazine in 1978 that his stance “was not taken out of homophobia, but out of love” for gay people. When a gay activist threw a pie in her face during a press conference, she immediately prayed for the man to be “delivered from his deviant way of life”.

The “deviance” was part of Bryant’s central argument that homosexuality was wrong and that LGBTQ people did not deserve rights. To grant them protection against discrimination is to offer them a kind of special privilege. If we label homosexuality as a civil rights issue, what would stop “the murderer from shouting ‘murderer’s rights'”? Bryant wrote in her 1977 book, “The Anita Bryant Story: The Survival of Our Nation’s Families and the Threat of Militant Homosexuality.”

Bryant’s work resulted in the repeal of Dade County’s non-discrimination ordinance, by a margin of more than 2 to 1, in an election referendum. Its repeal caused a backlash in other states that had passed similar ordinances, and Bryant’s fame grew. She carried her message across the country and, for the next three years, was named “America’s Most Admired Woman” in Good Housekeeping’s annual poll.

While Bryant fueled the idea that gay people were harmful to children, the model for this kind of rhetoric had been laid almost 20 years earlier, also in the state of Florida.

How 1970s christian crusader anita bryant helped spawn florida's lgbtq culture war

The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (commonly known as the Johns Committee, after Charley Johns, its first chairman) was established in 1956 and grew out of opposition to school desegregation and the prosecution of “communists”. The committee initially targeted the NAACP but was stopped by the Supreme Court. The committee then turned to investigating suspected communists in Florida schools, but was stopped by the American Association of College Teachers. They needed a new target, and in the fall of 1958, the committee began investigating — and eliminating — LGBTQ people from Florida schools. There was no court or association to protect them. The committee was well funded by taxpayers’ money. School principals and university presidents cooperated.

“Charley Johns’ argument was that these homosexuals are perverting our youth because they teach our young people in middle school, high school, and elementary school, and we need to get rid of them so they don’t turn the young people into homosexuals,” Faderman said. From 1958 to 1965, hundreds, if not thousands, of students and teachers were targeted, and many of them lost their livelihoods.

Although the committee was dissuaded from its investigation of the NAACP, its roots in opposition to desegregation and its evolution from racist opposition to homophobic oppression are clear, historians say.

“The Christian right is really coming together to enforce segregation in the 1960s. It’s about anti-black racism; this is largely where it begins. And they understood that they were protecting children and education,” said Hugh Ryan, historian and author of “When Brooklyn Was Queer.” “They realize that this is working, that this is the issue that will create a ‘political moral majority’.”

By the time we get to Anita Bryant in 1977, Ryan said, “They’ve already realized they can tap into that political conservatism and tie it to religion by talking about family.”

Bryant ‘won the battle’ but lost ‘the war’

Although the Dade County ordinance was repealed, opposition to the bill led to a kind of LGBTQ activism that had never been seen before in South Florida.

“The thing to remember is that Anita Bryant first won that battle, but she didn’t win that war,” said Florida-native historian Julio Capó Jr., who wrote “Welcome to Fairyland : Queer Miami Before 1940”.

He said Bryant inadvertently sparked a mobilization and movement.

“It was transformative,” Capó said. “It made people think of themselves as an electoral bloc. It made them see that their very existence and their rights were very much under attack in a different way than we had seen in the previous decade.

How 1970s christian crusader anita bryant helped spawn florida's lgbtq culture war

Activism spread from Dade County and across the country, pushing against Bryant’s own “Christian crusade,” as she called it. In 1977, the co-executive directors of the National Gay Task Force wrote a thank you note in the New York Times to Bryant and his Save Our Children organization, saying they were “giving back to America’s 20 million lesbians and gay men an enormous favor: They focus for the public on the nature of prejudice and discrimination that we face.

Although Bryant enjoyed a few more years of fame, his anti-gay rhetoric ultimately dented his career prospects. Her booking agent dumped her, the Florida Citrus Commission stopped running its orange juice ads, and she filed for bankruptcy — twice. The anti-discrimination ordinance she helped repeal in 1977 was reinstated in 1998.

And today, even as state lawmakers continue to roll back LGBTQ rights, same-sex marriage is legal nationwide and federal law prohibits anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace.

Image: people celebrate outside the supreme court after the ruling in favor of same-sex marriage on june 26, 2015.
People celebrate outside the Supreme Court after the ruling in favor of same-sex marriage on June 26, 2015.File Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Although times have changed dramatically since Bryant’s heyday in the late ’70s, it seems his perspective hasn’t changed. In 2021, Bryant’s granddaughter Sarah Green told Slate that she dated her grandmother on her 21st birthday. Bryant reportedly responded by saying that homosexuality isn’t real.

“It’s very hard to argue with someone who thinks that an integral part of your identity is just an evil delusion,” Green said. Green, who clarified to them us that she’s bisexual, told Slate about his upcoming wedding to his female fiancée, and said she wasn’t sure her grandmother would be in attendance.

“I just feel a little bad for her,” Green added. “And I think as much as she’s hoping that I’m going to figure things out and come back to God, I kind of hope she’s going to figure things out.”

Bryant, now 82, no longer lives in Florida. She has returned to her home state of Oklahoma and leads Anita Bryant Ministries International. Neither Bryant nor Green responded to NBC News’ request for comment.

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