By DUDLEY CLENDINEN
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 28, 1999
Anita Bryant, as the year 1977 began, was an American songbird, a celebrity in her chosen hometown of Miami, and a kind of national icon treasured not just for her looks and talent but for the use to which she put them. For a generation, since emerging as Miss Oklahoma, a beauty of dark auburn hair, a rich clear voice and flashing smile, she had sung to the nation's faith in things wholesome, buxom and basic, to an American majesty passionate, Christian and strong.
It was a path she had taken at the age of 8, she said, when she accepted Jesus Christ and he told her to become a singer. A devout Southern Baptist, deeply patriotic rather than political, she became, like the Rev. Billy Graham in that period, an approving presence and adornment for presidents and their policies, a symbol of national faith and might. Seeing the conflict in Vietnam as "a war between atheism and God," she had entertained the troops with Bob Hope, been invited 14 times to the White House by Lyndon Johnson, and had sung The Battle Hymn of the Republic and God Bless America at the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
By January 1977, she had settled with her husband and children into a 33-room mansion on Biscayne Bay, from which she emerged to sing at conventions and in commercials for Florida orange juice. Anita Bryant was poised for a lifetime of maternal commerciality, but she is remembered now instead for the campaign by which she destroyed her own career and helped build the two great competing movements of the last two decades: conservative Christianity and the pursuit of gay rights.
When, by quietly organizing money and votes, gay activists had succeeded in electing a majority of the Metro-Dade Commission in November 1976, it had been a demonstration of the growth of homosexual influence in urban politics. But when the commission became the latest in a series of boards across the country to pass a gay rights ordinance the next January, it had been a shock to Anita Bryant, to her pastor and to the Roman Catholic archdiocese in Miami. As a fundamentalist and a mother, Bryant felt threatened.
"What these people really want, hidden behind obscure legal phrases, is the legal right to propose to our children that there is an acceptable alternate way of life," she said. "I will lead such a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before." She did. It was called "Save Our Children," the start of an organized opposition to gay rights that spread across the nation, and the beginning of what came to be known as the religious right. The Rev. Jerry Falwell came to Miami to help her, but it was Anita Bryant who first led fundamentalist Christians into politics under the banner of a domestic social issue. She persuaded the voters in Dade County to overturn the ordinance that June, but her personal attack on homosexuals drew tens of thousands of new recruits into the movement and made her the object of acrimony and scorn. Her marriage and career crashed.
Homosexuals and conservative Christians are now prominent on the national stage, and Anita Bryant has disappeared from sight.
New York Times editorial writer Dudley Clendinen, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter, is the author, with Adam Nagourney, of Out For Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America.