- “The Civil Rights of Parents”: Race and Conservative Politics in Anita Bryant’s Campaign against Gay Rights in 1970s Florida
On 18 January 1977, at a public hearing in Miami before the Board of Commissioners of Dade County, Florida, opponents and proponents of an ordinance that would prohibit discrimination against lesbians and gay men in the areas of housing, public accommodations, and employment squared off. The small contingent of gay rights activists supporting the ordinance was vastly outnumbered by hundreds of Baptists who arrived on buses chartered by two local churches. Bearing signs such as “God Says No. Who Are You to Be Different?” and “Protect Our Children, Don’t Legislate Immorality for Dade County,” these activists packed the Dade County Courthouse Commission chambers and filled the hallway outside, loudly jeering at those with whom they disagreed. Both the conservative evangelical Christians and the gay rights advocates were in agreement about one thing: the consequence of the antidiscrimination ordinance would shape the ability of gay men and lesbians to be integrated into public life—and thus, the very definition of citizenship was at stake.1 [End Page 126]
“It is a peril to the nation,” argued those challenging the gay civil rights ordinance, including celebrity Anita Bryant, renowned at the time as the national spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission and for her bestselling pop albums. At the hearing, Bryant claimed her right to control “the moral atmosphere in which my children grow up” and insisted that the state’s support of gay civil rights infringed upon her status as a parent. She declared to the Metro Dade commissioners: “God gave mothers the divine right to reproduce and a divine commission to protect our children, in our homes, business, and especially our schools.”2 Children, homes, and schools were endangered, she later asserted, because “homosexuals cannot reproduce—so they must recruit. And to freshen their ranks, they must recruit the youth of America.”3 Robert Brake, a Catholic and a conservative Coral Gables city commissioner, concurred with Bryant. Making clear his stance that homosexuals deserved no public visibility or rights, Brake averred that homosexuals ought “to go into their closets, in their bedrooms, in their privacy and take care of themselves there.”4 Together their statements appealed to the powerful belief that all children ought to be heterosexual and that society had a stake in preventing homosexuality in children.5
Appropriating civil rights rhetoric and conflating it with the rhetoric of child protection, these antigay activists described their own investments in the following way: “The civil rights of parents: to save their children from homosexual influence.”6 This language signals a connection that historians have only begun to excavate: conservative opposition to gay rights evolved alongside its opposition to African American civil rights in the 1970s.7 A strong emphasis on child protection ran through white conservative opposition to both racial and sexual minorities that helped legitimize and popularize conservative ideas and activism. In contrast, gay activists’ minority rights–based claims operated in tension with analogous claims made by African Americans—a tension that derived from two factors: a church-based sexual conservatism among African Americans; and the supposed ability to publicly recognize racial identity, but not sexual [End Page 127] identity, based on visible markers.8 These dynamics underpinned the dramatic repudiation of gay rights in Dade County in 1977 and have framed debates on sexual rights since.
Anita Bryant and the organization to combat gay rights that she represented, called Save Our Children (SOC), are infamous as catalysts for the backlash against gay rights in the 1970s, but the history of this group, which is used as a touchstone in histories of conservatism and sexuality, is only beginning to be understood.9 Analyzing the racial origins of SOC’s activism and the gay rights response to it in the 1970s reveals a migration of conservative ideas and activists from race-based conflicts to gender- and sexual-based conflicts. SOC’s discourse of child protection embodied a protean logic of family privacy against queer sexuality. That strategy was, in part, learned from southern US resistance to desegregation, dating back to the Civil War, which...