Anita Bryant (1940–)

2012-01-11 10:54:04

If the Stonewall riot was the event that galvanized the movement for gays’ civil rights, Anita Bryant was the personality that first embodied at the national level the opposition to those rights. Her successful campaign to repeal the gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida, not only inflicted an enduring setback for that state and ignited copycat referenda throughout the nation, but also set the negative terms of that debate for years to come.

Born on March 25, 1940, Bryant early achieved national attention when she represented Oklahoma in the 1959 Miss America pageant. Second runnerup in that competition, she parlayed the attention into a successful recording career. Bryant would become particularly known for her rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a patriotic association that she would effectively exploit during later antigay campaigns. To most households, however, Anita Bryant was known simply as the Florida orange juice lady, serving for many years as the national spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission. Bryant wed Bob Green in 1969, a Miami disc jockey who then served as her manager, and went on to raise four children.

On January 18, 1977, the Miami Dade Metro Commission voted to include protections for gay men and lesbians in its human rights ordinance. The amendment to Chapter 11A of the Dade County Code would have prohibited discrimination in the areas of housing, public accommodation, and employment. Bryant founded the Save Our Children, Inc. organization to spearhead a petition drive to put the ordinance on the June 7 ballot for repeal by popular vote. An overwhelming majority rejected the ordinance, setting the stage for similar repeals in Wichita, Kansas, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Eugene, Oregon.

The unprecedented battle inflicted long-term consequences on all parties. At the local level, the nondiscrimination provisions were not reinstated until 1997 (Ord. 97-17, February 25, 1997). The Christian right again forced a referendum vote on September 10, 2002, which this time failed. More enduring fallout, however, includes a state law enacted in the 1977 aftermath that bans adoptions by gay persons. This policy survived a challenge in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused an appeal from the Eleventh Circuit upholding its constitutionality against equal protection claims (Lofton v. Secretary of Dept. of Children and Family Services [2005]).

More generally, the Dade County fight significantly altered the terms of discourse concerning gay rights. Where before the predominant stereotype had been the ineffectual poof, Bryant popularized the image of the gay ‘‘militant’’ bent on converting others into homosexuality, largely through child molestation. This new characterization would help give rise to the favorite myth of the right of a literal ‘‘homosexual agenda’’ that explicitly targets the seduction of young children.

Although her antigay movement enjoyed considerable success, Bryant herself did not. Having built her reputation on defending the family, her conservative supporters rejected her after a 1980 divorce from Green. Permanently estranged from her base, she quickly lost her association with the Citrus Commission, initiating a series of financial setbacks that included bankruptcies in 1997 and 2001. Despite the personal costs incurred by her spearheading this early campaign, recent interviews at the time of this writing have indicated no softening of her antigay position.


References and Further Reading

  • Bryant, Anita. The Anita Bryant Story: The Survival of Our Nation’s Families and the Threat of Militant Homosexuality. Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1977
  • Nussbaum, Martha C., and Saul M. Olyan, eds. Sexual Orientation & Human Rights in American Religious Discourse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Lofton v. Secretary of Dept. of Children and Family Services, 358 F.3d 804 (Fla. 2004), cert. denied 125 S.Ct. 869 (2005) 
  • Miami-Dade County Ordinance Chapter 11A 

See also Christian Coalition; Gay and Lesbian Rights; Falwell, Jerry; Family Values Movement