|What Was the "Save Our Children" Campaign?
Following a decade of relative liberalization, GLBT people faced a powerful backlash in the late 1970s, exemplified by Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign. While her efforts did much to galvanize the nascent religious right, they also re-energized the gay rights movement.
Bryant was born in March 1940 in Barnsdall, Okla. Raised a Southern Baptist, she began singing at an early age, first performing at her grandparents' church and later appearing with evangelist Billy Graham. After being crowned Miss Oklahoma in 1958 and winning second runner-up in the Miss America contest the following year, Bryant embarked on a career as a professional singer.
With a string of pop hits and best-selling religious albums, Bryant came to exemplify the wholesome all-American girl. She entertained the troops with Bob Hope at USO shows during the Vietnam War, was the first celebrity to perform the national anthem at a Super Bowl, and sang the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" at Lyndon B. Johnson's funeral. In the late 1960s, the Florida Citrus Commission hired her as spokeswoman for their orange juice advertisements.
Then, in January 1977, the Miami-Dade County Commission passed one of the country's first gay anti-discrimination ordinances. Bryant was disturbed by the new law and launched a campaign for its repeal. "If gays are granted rights, next we'll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nailbiters," she fretted. "Miami's blundering 'gay' ordinance is no more a civil rights issue than is the arrest of a drunk for disturbing the peace."
Dubbing the effort "Save Our Children," Bryant became one of the first to employ the religious right's now-ubiquitous "family values" language, exploiting fears that homosexual men were pedophiles determined to corrupt children. "The recruitment of our children is absolutely necessary for the survival and growth of homosexuality," she stated. "Since homosexuals cannot reproduce, they must recruit and freshen their ranks." On June 7, voters overturned the ordinance by a wide margin. Bryant vowed to take her campaign to the national level, declaring, "The battle of parents to protect their children from homosexuality has just begun."
The Miami upsetwhich put the gay issue on front pages across the countrymobilized GLBT people from large cities to small towns. In San Francisco and New York City, spontaneous demonstrations erupted on several consecutive nights. Thousands marched in the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Angry queers confronted Bryant wherever she appeared on her singing tours. When she performed at a legal convention in Houston, some 20 lawyers wearing black armbands with pink triangles stormed out in protest.
Countless individuals came out of the closet for the first time, and numerous new local organizations sprang up. The town of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in Canada, held its first-ever gay rights rally. Most famously, the GLBT community launched a boycott of Florida orange juice that gained widespread support. According to Robert McQueen and Randy Shilts, writing in the July 27, 1977 issue of The Advocate, the defeat "resurrected a slumbering activism and converted apathy into anger and action."
The viciousness of the Dade campaign also prompted liberal politicians and members of the media to speak out. President Jimmy Carter said he did not regard homosexuality as a threat to the family, while an editorial in a Winston-Salem, N.C., daily newspaper called the vote "a disgusting parody and abuse of democratic process."
But gays and their allies were not the only ones spurred into action. "[I]t was Anita Bryant who first led fundamentalist Christians into politics under the banner of a domestic social issue," according to journalist and social historian Dudley Clendinen. One of her supporters, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, went on to found the Moral Majority in 1979. Although the California counterpart to the "Save Our Children" campaignthe 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have banned homosexuals from teaching in public schoolswas soundly defeated, the religious right succeeded in extending its political influence during the ensuing decade, in part due to the devastating impact of AIDS on the GLBT community.
"I am willing to sacrifice my career and do whatever is necessary to save our children from homosexuality," Bryant had declared, and her prediction came true. The Citrus Commission declined to renew her contract (although it would hire another homophobic spokesperson, Rush Limbaugh, in 1994), and bookings for singing engagements fell off. Bryant and her husband divorced in 1980, earning her the scorn of many erstwhile allies among Christian conservatives. "It was hard to understand the viciousness," she lamented to the New York Times. "All of a sudden, nobody would touch me."
She returned to the Midwest and remarried, but her attempt to revive her performing careersinging and preaching to church tour-bus audienceswas largely a failure. Although Bryant "helped build the two great competing movements of the last two decades," in Clendinen's estimation, she never again played a prominent role in political activism.
Liz Highleyman at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 3 April 8, 2005