Gay rights

Personal evolution amid gay-rights drama


Special to the Miami Herald

I’m grateful for Anita Bryant.

I should clarify.

See, if it weren’t for Anita Bryant and her fear-mongering in the ‘70s, things would probably have turned out quite differently for me.

In 1977, when Miami (and, by extension, the entire nation) was debating whether children needed to be “saved” from homosexuals, I was one of those children.

I may have been 12, but I was quickly coming to understand that I was gay, or at least bisexual. Thanks to the popular culture of the time and shows like All In The Family and Barney Miller, I knew that “that thing” had a name. And I was probably that.

But I didn’t know what to make of it. Aside from the fact it wouldn’t make me terribly popular among my peer group, that is.

Enter Anita. Of course I knew the pretty lady from the orange juice commercials. But suddenly she was on TV telling everyone that they needed to “save our children” from homosexuality. I had no idea that there existed a (then-named) gay liberation movement, that local activists had recently effected passage of an ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual preference (then the term of the day) or that the world was suddenly focused on my hometown.

And I certainly didn’t let on to my parents that I had a personal interest in all of this. Still, it didn’t take long to realize how they felt about it.

I still have a vivid memory of my mother hosting a “Stop the ERA” (Equal Rights Amendment) party for her ladies’ group, complete with a big, red stop sign-shaped cake and horrified whispers about unisex bathrooms.

So I just sat back and watched the drama on TV. The anti-Anita ads, explaining how if you start exempting one group from legal protection it’s not long before you start making it OK to discriminate against anyone, seemed logical. But the fear-based ads suggesting that “exposing” kids to gay teachers would make them gay made no sense to me at all. I was one of those kids. What I was feeling was as innate as my hair color. I wasn’t the victim of some adult molestation that “turned” me.

Nope, thanks to those ads and debates, and the ads and debates in cities from Eugene, Oregon, to St. Paul, Minnesota, in the ensuing months, I got really clear with this part of who I was. And I got to see eloquent, real-life gay and lesbian people on television answering questions, no matter how insulting.

By 1979, my parents and I were walking through a parking lot on the way to see a play and we spied a group of people gathered around someone collecting signatures. I quickly realized that it was a gay activist canvassing for a new equal rights ordinance. The last thing I wanted was my parents to stumble into that.

But, being the curious sort, my mother was determined to investigate. Finally, I had to tell her what that was about in order to steer her away.

Hearing this, she went on a tear, screaming at the man that he was “sick” and “needed to go to the hospital.”

I was crushed. Not that they knew that, though. Actually, they took the fact that I was keeping her away from that as a positive sign, I learned later.

But this all gave me my armor. So, by the time I came out in high school, I had the emotional protection that so many LGBT kids lack, even to this day. I knew there was a community “out there.” I just needed to get to it.

After finding my voice in college in the ‘80s, I found myself working with some of the very same people who helped fight Anita in the ‘70s. I heard their war stories from Stonewall in 1969 to the AIDS pandemic, which was then devastating everyone around me.

In 1987, exactly 10 years after the loss to Anita, I was organizing what was a haphazard Pride march around the War Memorial Auditorium in Ft. Lauderdale. (It was haphazard because, even then, the Pride committee was fearful that people wouldn’t want to be identified as gay on local TV if there was a march outdoors.)

I brought orange armbands for the marchers. People put them on. Asked of their significance by reporters, I said the first thing I could think of.

“We’re commemorating the 10 years since Anita. We want to show that she may be gone, but we’re still here; we’re still fighting. And we’re going to win.”

Nearly another 27 years hence, I couldn’t have imagined how right I would turn out to be.

There are myriad battles left to fight, but marriage equality is spreading across the U.S. faster than my Twitter feed can reload, we have openly LGBT figures everywhere from Congress to professional sports and acceptance of LGBT people at unprecedented highs.

And yes, Miami finally did pass anti-discrimination legislation again. In 2002, voters upheld it.

And they did it with the help of my mother who called to tell me, proudly and unprompted, that she called everyone in her address book to tell them to vote for it.

Oh, and she and my dad helped celebrate my wedding to their “second son” last year.

Anita didn’t get an invite, though.

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