Thursday, March 1, 2007

Anita Bryant

I’ve been reading “The Mayor of Castro Street,” by Randy Shilts, about Harvey Milk and his political career in San Francisco in the 1970s. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘70s, and what it meant to be gay at that time.

I was 13 at the dawn of the ‘80s, so I was too young to know much about earlier gay consciousness. I remember Milk’s assassination, and I remember news accounts about the growing gay scene in San Francisco, from mustachioed guys with their arms around each other to the zany Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

But most of all, I remember Anita Bryant.

I guess that’s not surprising, since I grew up in Florida. As the pitchwoman for Florida orange juice, Anita was one of the most famous people in the state. A former beauty queen with a few hit records, she was repeatedly named the most admired woman in America by Good Housekeeping magazine. She was on TV all the time, singing about the Florida Sunshine Tree, with her big brown eyes and bouffant-ish hair.

I thought she was beautiful.

And then, to my young mind, she seemingly went nuts. In 1977, the newscasts were suddenly full of images of Anita being forceful, even angry, about “homosexuals.” She said “homosexuals” were out to convert children and subvert society and do all sorts of terrible things to our country. Her tirades were sparked by a new Miami law protecting gays from discrimination.

Did I even know I was gay in 1977 or ‘78? I was certainly attracted to boys in my class, and I certainly felt defensive when I saw mocking gay characters on TV shows like “Barney Miller.” I hadn’t embraced “gay” as an identity, but yeah, I knew.

When Anita railed against “homosexuals,” I knew she was talking about me. I felt a huge sense of betrayal by this paragon of Florida wholesomeness who always smiled and sang about orange juice. She was like a friendly aunt who suddenly and inexplicably turned vicious.

As soon became apparent, I wasn’t the only person who felt that way. Carried away on the tide of her own extremism, Anita lost everything. Her marriage fell apart. Her orange juice contract dried up. Her singing career went up in smoke. She got a pie in the face, and then vanished from television.

She won a reversal of the law in Miami, but her victory has been eclipsed by time and tolerance; Dade County once again protects gay residents from discrimination.

Anita has been both credited and reviled for helping to launch the religious right as a political force. Activists blame her for the standing Florida law that prevents gay parents from adopting children.

But she also galvanized the gay rights movement even more. And though the fight goes on, the movement is winning. With every generation that grows up in a more diverse world, and with every person who comes out of the closet, tolerance grows.

Even now, I have a soft spot for Anita.

I know, I know. In the gay community, and even in much of middle America, that’s only slightly less extreme than saying you have a soft spot for Adolf Hitler.

But really, Anita is merely a woman whose delusions took her down a path of destruction. She believed she was doing the right thing, and her religious fervor and close-mindedness blinded her. She destroyed others, and in the process destroyed herself. Which is how destruction works: You throw the snowball and get buried in the avalanche.

I’m not naive enough to believe she’s seen the error of her ways. And I don’t mean to downplay any of the hurt she inflicted, or the homophobic climate she helped foster.

But I also feel bad for her. Her efforts to find an audience since her downfall have left her performing for auditoriums that are 3/4 empty, and forced her into bankruptcy twice. As of 2002, she lived in Tennessee, where she apparently owed a lot of people money.

Probably the last thing she wants are conciliatory words from me. But I hope she remembers the days of the Florida Sunshine Tree as fondly as I do, and odd as it may seem, I hope she’s happy.

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