ON TUESDAY, VOTERS in Floridaís Miami-Dade County apparently voted down an attempt to repeal a gay-rights ordinance (final results were not available at press time, but preliminary counts indicated the repealís failure by a slim margin). Contrary to what the media and gay political groups would have you believe, this is no big deal. Really. The ordinance in question doesnít even provide health benefits for municipal employees. It is a relatively toothless measure that prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, housing, credit, and employment in Miami-Dade County, which is home to an estimated 66,000 to 85,000 gay men and lesbians. In an era when the gay-rights movement is fighting for the rights of same-sex couples to marry, for openly gay parents to adopt children, and the repeal of archaic sex laws that would send most of us to prison if they were actually applied across the board, the battle over Miami-Dadeís limited-rights ordinance wasnít all that significant. Even if it did resurrect the shadow of orange-juice queen Anita Bryant. Which is what all the fuss has been about.
The week before the vote, the New York Times ran a front-page article that opened with the line: "More than two decades after the campaign by the entertainer Anita Bryant to overturn one of the countryís first gay rights ordinances divided Miami and cast the city as a symbol of intolerance, voters will face the issue again on Tuesday." Similar stories appeared in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Miami Herald.
But the vote had nothing to do with Bryant, who lives in relative anonymity in Tennessee and who didnít comment publicly on the repeal initiative. At least it didnít until the media made the inevitable comparisons with 1977 and gay lobbying groups took the bait. A leaflet distributed by the group No To Discrimination/SAVE Dade, which lobbied to keep the ordinance, touted the slogan UNDO ANITA! HOMOPHOBIA IS SOOOO RETRO. Lori L. Jean, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), which committed $50,000 to Save Dade and put six full-time staffers on the initiative fight, declared in a June 5 press release: "[T]his will not be Anita Bryant II."
"We are drawing a line in the sand," Jean said in an interview. "And when we win this, it will be the proof in the pudding that we have turned the tide." Seth Kilbourn, a field manager monitoring ballot initiatives across the country for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), notes that while the heat is on to defeat referendums across the country ó this November there are referendums to repeal local gay-rights laws in Tacoma, Washington, and in Ypsilanti, Michigan ó "the defeat of the ballot initiative in Miami-Dade is essential."
To be sure, the focus on Miamiís initiative petition battle rather than, say, Ypsilantiís, is understandable. "The fact that Florida has come into the spotlight of national politics with the governorís race between Janet Reno and Jeb Bush reinforces an interest in the vote," says Chris Bull, author of Perfect Enemies: The Battle Between the Religious Right and the Gay Movement (Crown, 1998). "It also has all of the perfect elements of a great news story: history, celebrity, race. There is the battle for the Latino vote, and it has national politicians weighing in. All of this is set in a sunny beach community invaded by the harsh reality of politics."
In all the hoopla over the Miami-Dade vote, however, itís important to remember something. Last year, there were six referendums nationally to repeal gay-rights laws. Five of them were defeated. Itís hard to believe that Tuesdayís defeat of the anti-gay repeal effort is going to stop the hard-core right wingers who wage these battles from trying again next year. Or the year after that.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, Bryant ó best known as spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Growers, second runner-up in the 1959 Miss America pageant (she lost to Mary Ann Mobley), and a moderately successful gospel singer ó brought her gleaming smile, bouffant hairdo, and right-wing Christian politics to the movement to repeal the countryís first gay-rights ordinance, in Miami-Dade County. On the face of it there are striking similarities between the situation in Miami-Dade in 1977 and what is happening in 2002. In both instances the Dade County Commission amended the countyís anti-discrimination law to include sexual orientation, and in both cases opposition from right-wing Christian groups sought a referendum to overturn what was essentially a gay-rights ordinance. But thereís one key difference between the two campaigns. The battle against Bryant in 1977 mattered enormously. The one "against" Bryant today didnít.
When Bryant became the spokeswoman for the campaign to repeal Miami-Dadeís first gay-rights ordinance, the campaign focused almost entirely on her "Save Our Children" slogan that claimed the gay-rights ordinance was a plot by homosexual activists to recruit children in grade schools. And she acquired no small measure of popular support ó between 1978 and 1981 Good Housekeeping named her "the most admired woman in America." She was a colorful figure who was unafraid of placing herself squarely in the public eye with outrageous quotes. She declared that homosexuals were the way they were because they ate sperm and "sperm was the concentrated form of life" ó even as she devoutly intoned gospel passages and sang hymns in her steady, if not particularly beautiful, light-soprano voice. She was even spunky enough to make jokes in difficult situations: when a gay activist threw a pie in her face, she gamely wiped it away, tasted it, and quipped, "Itís a fruit pie."
The 1977 campaign to repeal Miami-Dadeís gay-rights ordinance kicked off a full-fledged assault on the nascent gay-rights movement. Charges of child molestation and homosexual recruitment were potent strategic weapons. The use of the phase "the homosexual agenda" cleverly evoked a sinister, well-networked, insidious master plan to corrupt all aspects of American society. The repeal movement was also one of the Religious Rightís first major power eruptions, and itís now clear that it was a harbinger of the coming culture war ó a war thatís been fought on many fronts, but most effectively by religious conservatives trying to overturn gay anti-discrimination laws through the use of statewide and local referendums. Indeed, between 1978 and 1988, there were 44 attempts to repeal local gay anti-discrimination laws across the country; nearly 75 percent of them succeeded.
Bryantís campaign was the first of these. And it was successful. Voters threw out the gay-rights ordinance by a 69 to 31 percent margin, giving impetus to other groups ó all of them connected to national conservative and right-wing Christian groups such as the Christian Coalition and the now-defunct Moral Majority ó to carry out similar actions nationwide. In the end, Bryantís campaign captured the public imagination, and lesbian and gay activists responded in full force. Gay activists organized nationally against Bryantís campaign, memorably launching a boycott of Florida orange juice. This mobilization formed the infrastructure for much of the political work in legal reform and AIDS organizing that occurred over the next 25 years.
Itís a mistake, however, to think that the battle that just ended carries the same weight. While no one with a progressive bent would argue that the Miami-Dade vote wasnít important in itself, the passionate care it received from national gay groups and the scrutiny it received from the mainstream press was out of whack and misplaced. If this battle was about "turning the tide," as NGLTFís Jean put it, then what was the recent overthrow of Arkansasís sodomy law two months ago? In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court of a conservative state not only held the law unconstitutional, but also delivered a lengthy opinion arguing that all citizens deserved the right to privacy in their own homes, and that gays and lesbians were fully protected under the state Constitution.
The reality is that in the past five years, the movement for gay and lesbian rights ó expressed in many forms, from fighting anti-gay ballot initiatives to pursuing AIDS work, legal reform in the arena of family law, and initiatives on the international front, such as the fight to obtain a fair trial for 52 Egyptian men arrested on suspicion of merely being homosexual ó has been incredibly successful. In July 2000, a civil-unions law was put in effect in Vermont. Twenty-one states now make possible some form of second-parent adoption, which allows the gay or lesbian partner of a biological or adoptive parent to adopt a partnerís child. Only one state in the country ó Florida, ironically ó expressly prohibits gay and lesbian people from adopting children. The private sector has been a leader in implementing domestic-partnership benefits that enable their gay and lesbian employees to extend health coverage to their partners. In 1962, every state in the country had laws against sodomy; now just 13 do. Programs for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth have spread across the nation. And there are more than 200 openly gay or lesbian elected officials in the US today.
But at the same time, there is so much work left to do. No state in the country grants same-sex couples the right to marry. Twenty-nine states do not allow both parents in a same-sex couple to be legal guardians of their children. The vast majority of gay or lesbian people working in America today do so without protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation, much less domestic-partnership benefits. In 13 states, itís still illegal simply to have queer sex. Most GLBT youth are harassed in their schools simply for being who they are. And itís impossible to run for office as an openly gay person without oneís sexual orientation becoming a campaign issue.
Clearly, the gay-rights movement has enough on its plate without returning to the battles of a quarter-century ago.
Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martinís, 1998). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org