Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins
by Anthony Chase
Brian Christopher Williams’ play, Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins, transports us back to 1977. In that year, a former beauty queen and iconic American singer named Anita Bryant became the unlikely leader of a campaign to overturn a law in Dade County, Florida intended to protect homosexuals against discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation. The campaign was called “Save Our Children,” and while it was successful in overturning the local law, its unintended consequence was to help ignite a militant gay rights movement from coast to coast. More than the Stonewall riots, more than years of harassment, Anita Bryant helped awaken homosexuals from complacency and inspire them to political activism.
It is against this backdrop that Williams’ play, directed by Chris Kelly, introduces us to 15-year-old Horace Poore, whose sexuality is simultaneously awakened by another iconic figure of the 1970s, Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz. As Horace narrates his story, the tumultuous events within and around him converge.
In real life, Anita Bryant is alive and well and living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but without question, the former beauty queen, recording artist, and orange juice spokesperson sent her career into a terminal tailspin on the day she declared that “Homosexuals cannot reproduce---so they must recruit. And to freshen their ranks, they must recruit the youth of America.”
Anyone who remembers 1977 remembers Anita Bryant. She was ubiquitous. Her television commercials for Florida orange juice, in which she cheerfully proclaimed, “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine!” were played constantly. She hosted the Orange Bowl parade.
To those whose jobs, homes, and very security she sought to destroy, of course, Bryant was the personification of smug cruelty, but she brought her cheerful persona, seemingly unfettered by her vast ignorance, to the “Save Our Children” campaign.
Bolstered by the “victory” of “Save Our Children” in Miami, where the anti-discrimination ordinance was defeated by a margin of 69 to 31 percent, Bryant decided to take her campaign across America. She was spectacularly successful. Portraying homosexuals as lustful predators and drooling perverts, “Save Our Children” was successful in St. Paul, Minnesota, in Wichita, Kansas, in Eugene, Oregon.
These “victories,” however, came at a price for Bryant and her supporters.
“Save Our Children” was unwittingly drawing attention to gay rights issues, and quickly, Bryant’s ignorance began to show beneath her warmly confident and friendly mask. She told an interviewer for Playboy magazine that homosexuals are called “fruits” because “they eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of life. God referred to men as trees, and because the homosexuals eat the forbidden fruit, which is male sperm.”
She argued that homosexuality was “unnatural” because “even barnyard animals don’t do what homosexuals do.” When the interviewer asserted that homosexuality does, indeed, exist in other species, Bryant brightly responded, “Well, I’ve never heard of it,” and merrily insisted that despite the facts of biology, it was unnatural nonetheless.
Then, in a watershed moment, her candy-coated image was irrevocably shattered when gay activists in Des Moines, Iowa hit Bryant in the face with a strawberry rhubarb pie. She tried to maintain her celebrated composure, quipping, “Well, at least it’s a fruit pie,” and began to pray for her attacker, but within seconds she was in tears. A photograph of Bryant crying with pie on her face appeared on the front page of the New York Times the next day. Reaction to the attack was amazingly polarized, with those sympathetic to progressive causes unable to conjure any sympathy for Bryant. While the majority of the public was still fearful of gay rights, support for Bryant, personally, was eroding fast.
Her lucrative contract as spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission was cancelled after gay rights activists called for a boycott of their product. Bryant’s personal life began to come undone. Before long, she was divorced, she was bankrupt, and she was in therapy.
Not surprisingly, this simple woman who smugly asserted that “Research data consistently shows that homosexuals must make a choice whether to act out their sexual preference or to keep it under control,” and that “Homosexuality is learned; it can be unlearned,” maintains up until today that she was merely punished for doing what was right. She believed herself to be loving, when the wider world saw her as hateful; she believed herself to be a devout Christian, when others saw her to be judgmental and arrogant. She continues to have her small cadre of followers, but to the broader public, Anita Bryant is the equivalent of an American Eva Braun.
She has had a lasting impact. The Christian right wing is still a huge presence in American politics. The Dade County anti-discrimination law that Bryant successfully helped defeat in 1977 was not overturned until 1994, and anti-gay adoption laws in the state of Florida were in effect until last year. Still, it would seem that the tide has turned on Anita Bryant. A vote against gay rights of 69 to 31 seems very far away, and anti-gay discrimination in laws has become increasingly specific. The success of Proposition 8 in California, seen as a crushing defeat for gay rights activists, focused exclusively on the definition of marriage and only passed by a margin of 52 to 48. This is a far cry from laws that used to require that gay teachers be fired.
And yet, those who see Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins may be startled at how similar the rhetoric remains. As we look back to the recession of 1977 and to a time when its opponents equated gay rights with “special rights,” or maintained that it was homosexuals who were the true bigots, it might seem that many things remain entirely unchanged.
The cast of Anita Bryant Died for Your Sins includes Caitlin Coleman, Marie Costa, J. R. Finan, Timothy Patrick Finnegan, Wendy Hall (who portrays Anita Bryant), John N. Kaczorowski (who portrays a sexually ambiguous gym teacher who resembles Mark Spitz), Matthew Nerber, and Justin Ryan. The production runs from January 21 to February 12 at the BUA Theatre (119 Chippewa Street, between Delaware and Elmwood/886-9239).
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