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How 1970s Christian Crusader Anita Bryant Helped Birth of the LGBTQ Culture War in Florida

At a public hearing in Dade County, Florida, the parents were furious. They say the country is in danger and the children are in danger. An ordinance recently enacted housing and employment protections for gay people, and that means teachers can’t be fired because of their sexuality. Florida classrooms quickly became a battleground, and opponents of the ordinance argued that the state’s support for gay citizenship was infringing on their rights as parents.

Action was needed and a campaign to limit the legal rights of LGBTQ people – all in the name of protecting children – was enacted. One woman speaking at the hearing said it was her right to control “the moral atmosphere in which my children grow up.” That woman is Anita Bryant, formerly Miss Oklahoma and a white Top 40 singer, looks who is famous for her Florida orange juice commercials (“A day without orange juice is like a day without sun!” she meant). Bryant led an anti-LGBTQ campaign so impactful that its echoes can be heard in today’s rhetoric. It was 1977.

Last month, nearly half a century after Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Parents’ Rights in Education bill, dubbed the “Don’t Don’t” bill by opponents. say gay”. The bill, effective July 1, prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity in “kindergarten through 3rd grade or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” students according to state standards.” Similar bills are under consideration in 19 other states, according to the Movement Progress Project, an LGBTQ think tank that has tracked the bills.

Governor Ron DeSantis shows an image from a children's book
Governor Ron DeSantis shows an image from transgender author Kyle Lukoff’s children’s book “Call Me Max” before signing the Parental Rights in Education bill in Shady Hills, Fla., on March 28, 2022. .Douglas R. Clifford / Tampa Bay Times via AP file

Supporters of Florida’s bill say its purpose is to allow parents to decide how and when to introduce LGBTQ topics to their children. Opponents say it hurts the very advocates the children are trying to protect. Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at Project Trevor, an oddball youth advocacy group, said in a statement that the bill would “wipe out young LGBTQ students across Florida, force many back into the closet by checking their identities and silencing important discussions about the issues they face.” .”

Historians say they have seen this before.

“It’s a modern version of these older efforts to eradicate homosexuality,” says Lillian Fadermanauthor of “Gay Revolution,” among other quirky history titles.

“In the current environment, you can’t go after gay teachers anymore,” Faderman said. “We have too many allies. And so Florida found another way to do it with its ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, which doesn’t exactly go after homosexual teachers. But the idea is the same. That is, homosexuality is a pariah condition, and it should not be discussed in public schools. ”

Anita Bryant
Singer turned political activist Anita Bryant speaks during a press event in Miami Beach, Fla. On June 7, 1977.Bettmann via Getty Images

When Bryant started campaigning in 1977, she had four children and often said she was speaking as a mother and as a Christian. And while LGBTQ villainy isn’t new, Bryant took the idea of ​​child protection and made it mainstream. Her campaign and the political coalition “Save Our Children” later used the argument that “homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must be recruited. And to renew their ranks, they must recruit America’s young people. ”

Bryant’s focus on the idea that LGBTQ people are threatening children created a talking point that social conservatives could rally around and promote to their friends and neighbors. Bryant combined this with her Christian faith, saying Playboy in 1978 that her views were “not out of homophobia, but out of love” for homosexuals. When a gay activist threw a cake in her face during a press conference, she immediately prayed for the man to “get rid of his deviant lifestyle.”

“Deviant” is part of Bryant’s core argument that homosexuality is evil and that LGBTQ people don’t deserve rights. To give them non-discriminatory protection is to give them a kind of privilege. If we treat homosexuality as a civil rights issue, why should it stop?”killers from shouting ‘murderer’s rights’”? Bryant wrote in her 1977 book, “The Anita Bryant Story: The Survival of Our National Families and the Threat of Homosexuality.”

Bryant’s work resulted in the repealing of Dade County’s nondiscrimination ordinance, by a margin of more than 2 to 1, in a referendum. Its repeal caused a backlash in other states that had passed similar ordinances, and Bryant’s reputation 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 promoted the idea that homosexuals were bad for children, the blueprint for this kind of rhetoric was laid out nearly 20 years ago, also in the state of Florida.

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The Florida Legislative Investigative Committee (commonly referred to as the Johns Commission, after Charley Johns, its first president) was established in 1956, and was created out of opposition to segregation and crackdowns. communists”. The committee initially targeted the NAACP but was blocked by the Supreme Court. The commission then moved on to investigate alleged communists in Florida schools, but was stopped by the American Association of University Professors. They needed a new target, and in the fall of 1958, the commission began investigating — and removing — LGBTQ people from Florida schools. There are no courts and associations to protect them. The commission was well funded by taxpayer dollars. Principals of schools and Principals of universities have cooperated.

“Charley Johns’ argument is that these homosexuals are corrupting our youth because they are teaching our youth in college, high school and elementary school, and we have to get rid of them. so that they don’t turn young people into gays. ,” Faderman said. Between 1958 and 1965, hundreds – if not thousands – of students and teachers were targeted, with many losing their livelihoods.

Although the commission was thwarted in its investigation of the NAACP, its origins in anti-racism and its evolution from anti-racism to homophobic oppression are clear, historians say.

“Christian rights really came together in discriminatory enforcement in the 1960s. It was about fighting black racism; That’s largely where it started. And they hit on this idea that they’re protecting children and educating,” said Hugh Ryan, a historian and author of “When Brooklyn Was Queer.” “They realized that this worked, that this was the problem that would create a ‘political moral majority.'”

When we met Anita Bryant in 1977, Ryan said, “they realized they could exploit this 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 type of LGBTQ activism that had never been seen before in South Florida.

“The thing to remember is that Anita Bryant won that fight initially, but she didn’t win that fight,” wrote historian Julio Capó Jr., a native Floridian, “Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami Before 1940.”

He said Bryant was inadvertently promoting a campaign and a movement.

“It is transformative,” says Capó. “It makes people see themselves as a voting block. It makes them see that their very existence and rights are being attacked in a different way than we have seen in the last decade. ”

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The activism movement spread from Dade County and across the country, promoting Bryant’s own “Christian crusade,” as she called it. In 1977, the co-directors of the National Gay Task Force wrote a note of thanks in the New York Times for Bryant and her organization Save Our Children, saying that they have “provided the 20 million lesbian and gay people in America a huge favor: They’re focusing on publicizing the essence of identity prejudice and discrimination we face.”

Though Bryant had a few more years of fame, her anti-gay statements ultimately caused her career prospects to plummet. Her booking agent dumped her, the Florida Citrus Commission stopped running her orange juice ads, and she filed for bankruptcy – twice. The anti-discrimination ordinance she helped repeal in 1977 restored in 1998.

And today, although state legislators continue to eliminate LGBTQ rights, same-sex marriage is legal nationwide and federal law prohibits combating LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace.

Photo: People celebrate in front of the Supreme Court after the ruling in favor of same-sex marriage on June 26, 2015.
People celebrate in front of the Supreme Court after the ruling in favor of same-sex marriage on June 26, 2015.Mark Wilson/Getty Image File

Although times have changed dramatically since Bryant’s heyday in the late ’70s, it doesn’t appear to be her view. In 2021, Bryant’s niece is Sarah Green tell Slate that she went to meet her grandmother on her 21st birthday. Bryant is said to have responded by saying that homosexuality is not real.

“It is very difficult to argue with someone who thinks that an integral part of your identity is just an evil illusion,” Green said. Green, who clarified with surname.us that she is bisexual, told Slate about her upcoming wedding to her fiancée, a woman, and said she was unsure if her grandmother would attend.

“I really feel bad for her,” Green added. “And I think as much as she hoped that I would figure things out and come back to God, I hope that she would figure things out.”

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

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