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ANITA BRYANT PROTEST (HOUSTON)

Liz Torres Speaking at a Gay Rights Rally
Liz Torres Speaking at a Gay Rights Rally. Courtesy of the Houston Metropolitan Reserach Center and Houston Public Library. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

ANITA BRYANT PROTEST (HOUSTON). Anita Bryant was a country and religious singer, second-runner-up in the 1959 Miss America pageant, orange juice spokesperson, and popular cultural personality in the 1970s. By the latter part of the decade, Bryant also became one of the leading public opponents of gay rights initiatives in the United States. In 1977 Dade County (Florida) commissioners controversially amended a civil rights ordinance that prohibited discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and employment to include protection based on sexual orientation. Anita Bryant’s campaign against gay rights, dubbed the “Save Our Children” movement, began with the successful effort to repeal the Dade County ordinance by popular referendum. “Save Our Children” volunteers distributed leaflets emphasizing the alleged dangers homosexuals posed to children and exploiting fears of child molestation and gay “recruitment.” After the repeal of the Dade County ordinance, the effects of Bryant’s efforts reverberated across the country, and she quickly became the public face of opposition to gay rights.

In 1977 Bryant came to Houston after receiving an invitation from the State Bar of Texas to perform at its annual convention at the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel. By that time gay organizing in Houston was relatively well-developed for a major southern city. The gay community benefited from the existence of the Texas Gay Political Caucus (later known as the Houston GLBT Political Caucus), which focused on state and local issues such as the repeal of the Texas sodomy law, job discrimination, and police harassment. Upon hearing of Bryant’s proposed visit to the city, Houston gay rights leader Ray Hill and Gay Political Caucus (GPC) president Gary Van Ooteghem organized what future GPC president Larry Bagneris called the Houston gay community’s “first major political act.” Fearing violence, the State Bar of Texas canceled the Bryant appearance, only to invite her again when Bryant’s husband threatened a lawsuit. Van Ooteghem also wired an invitation to Bryant to participate in a debate over gay rights with community members during her Houston visit. Bryant declined the invitation.

Anita Bryant Performing at the State Bar of Texas 95th Convention
Anita Bryant Performing at the State Bar of Texas 95th Convention. Courtesy of the Houston Metropolitan Reserach Center and Houston Public Library. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Leading up to her Hyatt appearance, Bryant emphasized to the media that her “Save Our Children” crusade had been misunderstood: “We’re not trying to take away anybody’s human rights. I’ve worked with homosexuals all my life and am willing to live and let live, but they’re [homosexuals] not willing to do that. Not all homosexuals are the nice, quiet, hairdresser-type.” The Bryant visit to Houston prompted a great deal of controversy in the city. One Houstonian wrote to the Houston Post, “Thank God for Anita Bryant. She was my answer to a prayer, for someone to come forward and take a stand against the evil of our nation.” Another wrote, “I dread Anita’s appearance here. . . . I would hate to see Anita divide and conquer here as she has in her beloved home town.”

Houston Police in Riot Gear at the Houston Public Library
Houston Police in Riot Gear at the Houston Public Library. Courtesy of the Houston Metropolitan Reserach Center and Houston Public Library. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

On June 16, 1977, Bryant performed at the Hyatt, and the gay community carried out its protest. Approximately 3,000 gay and lesbian Houstonians gathered in the parking lot of the Depository II bar. Carrying flyers and wearing black armbands with pink triangles (drawing a comparison between Bryant and Adolf Hitler), the protesters marched past the Hyatt to the Houston Public Library, where they listened to pro-gay speakers such as David Goodstein (publisher of The Advocate, the national gay magazine) and Metropolitan Community Church founder Rev. Troy Perry. Speakers also read telegrams from Hollywood celebrities Jane Fonda, Rob Reiner, and Ed Asner, indicating the national profile of this anti-Bryant demonstration. The crowd grew to at least 8,000 people. While the demonstration occurred outside, Anita Bryant received a standing ovation inside the Hyatt, with only ten attorneys wearing armbands in solidarity walking out.

Bryant’s “Save Our Children” crusade mobilized gays and lesbians across the country, and the Houston protest was no exception. Gay organizing in the city increased in the months and years following the protest. In 1978, capitalizing on this increase in gay activism, Ray Hill and the GPC organized Town Meeting I, a large public meeting of gay and lesbian Houstonians, which was held in the Astroarena to discuss a variety of gay issues. At the same time, the Houston Post published an article on the increased political clout of the gay community a year after the Bryant protest. Houston lesbian activist Pokey Anderson remarked on the state of the gay community following Bryant’s crusade: “We had been fighting invisibility for so many years that fighting Anita Bryant was a step up. At least we existed now in the public consciousness.” Historian Bruce Remington argued that the Bryant protest “provoked many homosexuals to ‘come out of the closet’ and join organizations that catered to their needs,” and Ray Hill noted, “She really did us a favor by coming out against us. After Anita spoke here, things started coming together like they never had before.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

John Gallagher and Chris Bull, Perfect Enemies: The Battle Between the Religious Right and the Gay Movement (Lanham, Maryland: Madison Books, 2001).
Houston Post, April 18, 1977; May 25, 1977; June 1, 2, 30, 1977. Montrose Star (Houston), June 30, 1977. Bruce Remington, Twelve Fighting Years: Homosexuals in Houston, 1969¬–1981 (M.A. thesis, University of Houston, 1983). James T. Sears, Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001). Vertical Files, Texas and Local History Department, Houston Public Library, Houston (Bryant, Anita).

Christopher P. Haight

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Handbook of Texas Online, Christopher P. Haight, "Anita Bryant Protest (Houston)," accessed October 21, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ona01.

Uploaded on November 22, 2016. Modified on January 3, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.