The Anita Bryant Effect


If we can learn anything from the history of gay rights, it’s that The Iona Institute and John Waters have just woken a sleeping giant, says Rob Buchanan.


Winston Churchill famously said: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something”. When I read about organisations or people who are willing to devout their efforts to blindly opposing mine, I can’t help but take comfort from this statement. Because history has taught us one very good lesson about what happens when people try to deny other people their rights.

Let’s take the case of Anita Bryant as an example.

Bryant (pictured above) was an American beauty queen, devout Christian and singer in the 1950s and ’60s, spreading a message of peace and love throughout the land. However, when she wasn’t singing about that kind of thing, she waging a one-woman war, hell bent on strangling the fledgling gay rights campaign as it took its baby steps. She became the figurehead of populist homophobia in the US during the ’70s due to her crusade to enforce discrimination against gays and repeal equality laws.

It seems the only thing Bryant loved more than fundamentalist Christianity and discrimination against gays, was money. She was the spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission (a nationwide ad campaign featured her singing ‘Come to the Florida Sunshine Tree’), and she appeared in ads for Coca-Cola, several Kraft Food products, and Holiday Inns. Her connections to these products would prove important to her downfall.

In 1977 Florida passed an ordinance preventing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Bryant began a crusade against this, cryptically calling it Save Our Children. She explicitly tied homosexuality to child abuse, much as Putin’s regime has today. One of her hateful slogans was: “Homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children”.

The fact that a former close friend of Bryant called Ruth Shack, whom she had fallen out, had championed Florida’s initial anti-discrimination ordinance added venom to the whole nasty campaign. In the short term Bryant’s willful misinformation proved successful, whipping up moral panic and extremism, and the anti-discrimination ordinance was repealed. However it was a pyrrhic victory.

Rather than destroying the resolve of the gay civil rights lobby, Bryant succeeded only in outraging ordinary, decent people who otherwise would have been neutral or ignorant to the cause of gay rights. Boycotts of products she endorsed were organised and as their profits for plummeted, especially orange juice used in many gay bars, Bryant’s funding began to dry up.

People from other discriminated against minorities found fraternity in the gay rights fight, and most importantly (and paradoxically), Bryant galvanised the gay community, stirring them in to mass action.

Milk HarveyWe have Anita Bryant to thank for nurturing the beliefs and resolve of Harvey Milk, spurring him and several other gay candidates to enter politics in San Francisco in the ’70s.  As a figurehead for bigotry she became a focus, motivating gay men and lesbians to network and organise rallies. Celebrities, local and international, began to take up the gay rights cause, as did many politicians of the day.

As Bryant continued her bitter crusade, the winds of change couldn’t be quelled. Her career began to fall apart, as did her marriage. After her divorce she was abandoned by much of her previous fundamentalist Christian supporters. She built up debts of hundreds of thousands in unpaid taxes and fell in to bankruptcy.

Bryant’s campaign stirred up a sleeping giant of the gay lobby. Her bigotry served only to show how noble and right the gay cause was, by comparison. She created a soapbox for the gays and put our cause centre stage.

By forcing RTÉ to apologise, and crowing about the financial settlement they got, the Iona Institute have put homophobia and the gay rights cause centre stage in Irish media and politics. By trying to stamp free speech out, they have given us a voice. We didn’t talk about homophobia before in the fight for same-sex marriage, but now it’s part of the discourse. If the Iona Institute had kept quiet, the whole thing might have blown over. But now it won’t.

We have people like Anita Bryant to thank for the notion of a global gay community and the grass roots activism that has led to our freedom. We have the Iona institute and John Waters to thank for galvanising the gay community and for helping the marriage equality cause in a way that millions of euro worth of PR never could have.


© 2014 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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