June 2024 Church & State Magazine - June 2024

Out of tune: Nearly 50 years ago, a pop singer led an anti-LGBTQ+ crusade in Florida. The strategies she used remain part of the Christian Nationalist playbook today.

  Rob Boston

An activist carries a placard which reads 'Anita: Gay Blood Is Upon You! Who's Next?' during the fifth 'Gay Freedom Day' (San Francisco Pride) during which many protesters ridiculed singer Anita Bryant and her anti gay crusade, San Francisco, California, US, 26th June 1977.

Stop Anita! Protestors speak out against Bryant in San Francisco, 1977 (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

International pop star Taylor Swift is known for her advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights.

Performing in Chicago last year during her popular Eras tour, Swift blasted bills in several states that targeted LGBTQ+ rights.

“Right now, and in recent years, there have been so many harmful pieces of legislation that have put people in the LGBTQ and queer community at risk,” Swift told the audience. “It’s painful for everyone every ally, every loved one, every person in these communities.” She assured LGBTQ+ attendees that her concert was a “safe, celebratory space” for them, and members of the crowd sang along to one of her popular numbers, “You Need to Calm Down,” which criticizes anti-LGBTQ+ forces who would “rather be in the Dark Ages.”

Swift’s high-profile advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights is welcome and she’s far from the only celebrity who takes that stance. But as the nation celebrates Pride Month, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t always this way.

In fact, one of the first and most vociferous anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns was led by a singer (albeit one who never reached Swift’s level of fame). The 1977 campaign, led by Anita Bryant, a former beauty pageant winner turned pop star, laid the groundwork for Christian Nationalist anti-LGBTQ+ efforts in the decades to come by devising a playbook still in use today.

The target of Bryant’s wrath was an ordinance passed by Dade County, Fla., officials that barred discrimination in employment, housing and public services on the basis of sexual orientation. Bryant, an Oklahoma native who had relocated to Florida with her husband, had been a fundamentalist Christian since childhood and was alarmed by the new law. Even though the Dade County law wasn’t intended to affect private schools, Bryant insisted that the measure would force Christian institutions to hire gay men and women as teachers. This enabled her to pose as a crusader protecting children. She called her campaign to repeal the law “Save Our Children.”

During the campaign, Bryant employed rhetoric and tactics that Christian Nationalists still use nearly 50 years later. She demonized LGBTQ+ people, asserting that they seek to recruit children, and she mobilized crowds in fundamentalist churches.

“Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit,” Save Our Children argued. “And to freshen their ranks, they must recruit the youth of America.”

As journalist Jillian Eugenios noted in a 2022 NBC News story, Bryant, in her 1977 book The Anita Bryant Story: The Survival of Our Nation’s Families and the Threat of Militant Homosexuality, compared LGBTQ+ rights to “murderer rights.”

This type of lurid, inflammatory language is still employed by Christian Nationalists today, and in Dade County, it worked. Backed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Bryant’s group got the ordinance on the ballot, where it was soundly overturned by a more than 2-1 margin.

“All America and all the world, will hear what the people have said, and with God’s continued help, we will prevail in our fight to repeal similar laws throughout the nation which attempt to legitimize a lifestyle that is both perverse and dangerous,” a jubilant Bryant told her supporters. Her followers, often tapping into Bryant’s star power, went on to overturn gay-rights ordinances in St. Paul, Minn.; Eugene, Ore.; and Wichita, Kan. (But they failed in Seattle.)

Inspired by Bryant, John Briggs, a California state senator, proposed Prop. 6, which would have barred gay men and women from teaching in the state’s public schools. Briggs, who had visited Miami during Bryant’s fight there, was impressed by her ability to mobilize voters. He hoped to run for governor and clearly saw gay rights as an issue that could fire up the state’s conservatives.

Bryant’s wave of victories and the fight over Prop. 6 sparked a strong backlash. LGBTQ+ rights organizations now knew they were a target and began mobilizing to fight back. In California, they found unlikely allies among some conservatives, who argued that Prop. 6 went too far. A provision barring “public homosexual conduct” was so broadly worded, they said, that it could lead to people being fired from state jobs for merely voicing support for gay rights. Former Gov. Ronald Reagan came out against Prop. 6, a move that some political analysts later argued sealed its fate. On election day 1978, the measure was defeated, with more than 58% voting no.

Back in Florida, Bryant’s star was starting to fade. She scored another victory in 1977 when state lawmakers barred gays from adopting children, but by 1980, her high-profile activism over the issue was starting to take a toll. Bryant had been serving as a pitchwoman for Florida orange juice, and when her opponents formed the Coalition for Human Rights and the Miami Victory Campaign, they announced a boycott of the beverage. The Florida Citrus Commission grew weary of the controversy and severed its ties with Bryant in 1980.

Other opponents tried more aggressive tactics. On Oct. 14, 1977, Bryant was speaking to attendees of an anti-LGBTQ+ event in Des Moines when a man named Tom Higgins lobbed a pie in her face.

As Bryant’s anti-LGBTQ+ activism escalated, other celebrities began countering her message, among them Jane Fonda, Richard Pryor and Vincent Price. Bryant also became the target of regular barbs from Johnny Carson, host of the popular “Tonight Show.” (One memorable Carson joke from May 1977: “They had a 60-mile oil spill off the coast of Florida. Officials in Florida haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact cause of the oil spill, but they say that Anita Bryant blamed it on a gay tanker.”)

Bryant remained popular in conservative circles she was named the most admired woman in America by the readers of Good Housekeeping for three years running but eventually her over-the-top rhetoric began to take a toll, and companies started putting her at arm’s length.

In 1980, she divorced her husband, Bob Green, and moved to Alabama, a move that led some pro-marriage fundamentalists to grow disillusioned with her. In later years, Bryant made several attempts to jump-start her singing career, but they went nowhere. She was twice forced to declare bankruptcy.

Although she became less high profile, Bryant’s views on LGBTQ+ rights never wavered. In 1980, Ladies’ Home Journal asked Bryant to clarify her views. She replied, “I’m more inclined to say live and let live just don’t flaunt it or try to legalize it.” NBC News’ Eugenios reported that in 2021, Bryant’s granddaughter Sarah Green, who is bisexual, told Bryant about her plans to marry a woman. Green reported that Bryant responded by saying 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.

Now 84, Bryant runs Anita Bryant Ministries in Oklahoma City. Its website offers a sanitized version of the 1977 Dade County battle, calling it “a dramatic and emotional struggle with militant homosexuals.” Bryant insists that she opposed only “legislation that would tend to ‘normalize’ and abet their lifestyle” and “afford them influence over our children who attended private religious school.”

Some of the LGBTQ+ rights ordinances Bryant helped repeal were later reinstated, including Dade County’s, which became law again in 1998. (The law banning gays from adopting was invalidated by a state court in 2010.) Public opinion polls these days show majority support for marriage equality and anti-discrimination measures.

But the Bryant battle left a big footprint. Its hallmarks inflammatory anti-gay rhetoric, claims to be “saving children” and political mobilization in conservative churches are bedrock tactics still employed by Christian Nationalists today.

“The Bryant campaign set the stage for the idea that since gays and lesbians can’t reproduce in the ‘natural’ way they must recruit children to join their ranks,” according to Emily Gill, professor emerita of political science at Bradley University. “It also represented the singling out of a particular group of people who would no longer be protected from discrimination as others were.”

And those arguments as fallacious and offensive as they are remain at the heart of Christian Nationalist anti-LGBTQ+ campaigns decades after Anita Bryant shifted from pop music to agitprop.

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