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It was totally unexpected. Shocking. Downright naughty, even. Yet so deliciously thrilling to the hundreds of angry gays who just happened to be watching a late Des Moines TV newscast 31 years ago.
Anita Jane Bryant, America’s homophobe du jour, beaming her famous Sunshine State coco butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth smile (“as God is my witness”), got pie plastered right in her pert-and-pretty little kisser.
For once, the demonessa of Dade County, Florida – the self-styled Queen of OJ (the titular forerunner to gridiron gruntbox Simpson) was struck dumbfounded. Speechless. It was heavenly. (Couldn’t have happened to a nicer person!)
But in spite of her castor-oil-in-the-OJ hostility, her pulp-and-pits deceitfulness about us gays, in the long run we owe the 1959 Miss America runner up turned popular, saccharine “Paper Roses” songstress a footnote of thanks. It was she who, more than anyone else then (and perhaps now), served as a catalyst by default to bring our communities together, uniting our movement to an unexpected solidarity.
I had almost forgotten how zealous she was. How sweetly go-for-the-jugular in her rant and rancor. How holier than thou. (Sorta like Sarah Palin.)
It all came back during last week’s Focus Features sneak preview of Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” a 2008 contender for Academy Awards best film/best actor categories, and also during “Gays in the ’70s,” a documentary shown at Triangle Foundation’s ReelPride event.
Both films played the Royal Oak Main. (“Milk” opens there on the 26th. Whatever you do, don’t miss Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. Five stars out of five. A truly moving experience on many, many levels.) So, let’s peel the orange for oldtime sake. Pulp, seeds and rind. Pesticide unavoidable…
Pert angelic Anita, spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission, wasn’t too happy when a gay rights Dade County ordinance passed. Six months later, speaking as a Southern Baptist mom, she launched a Save Our Children repeal crusade. She mouthed lies, lip-sych’d stereotypes.
She crooned to the media rafters. Gay people are wicked. Godless. Out to stalk school playgrounds. “As a mother I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce,” she shrilled. “They must recruit children. If gays are granted rights, next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes, people who sleep with St. Bernards, nail biters.”
Her blend of nail technician, canine venom worked. On June 7, 1977, Dade County’s anti-discrimination ordinance was rescinded by a margin of 69 to 31 percent. But her cohorts didn’t count on a gay backlash. “Anita brought us together big, big time,” says a nameless lesbian interviewed in the 1970s Gays documentary. Across America, hundreds of thousands militantly marched.
Sorry to say (yeah, sure you are, Mary!), things haven’t gone too well for Anita. Gay activists brilliantly organized a nationwide OJ boycott (some enclosing $2 and asking for a copy of a nonexistent pamphlet linking OJ with homosexuality.) The fallout from her political activism poisoned her career.
She lost her Florida Commission hefty salary, followed by Coca Cola, Kraft Food, Holiday Inn and Tupperware TV commercial accounts. Her marriage to hubby Bob Green squeezed out. In 1980 she dumped him. She married a second spousal lemon, Charlie Hobson Dry, in 1990. They tried to salvage her career, booking a series of small venues (including Windsor, Ont.)
Comeback proved elusive, and the Drys left behind them unpaid employees and creditors. Bankruptcy pie hit them twice. In 2005, Anita, matronly bigot of 65, was parodied on “Will & Grace.” The lemon merin(gay) moment now plays on http://www.youtube.com.
Let’s drink to that! (Milk over OJ, anytime.)