For those of us who’ve been around long enough to remember who Anita Bryant is and was — and a pat on the back if you do — then it’s likely you also remember the devastating impact she and her words had on a generation of young gay men in the '70s who were struggling to come to terms with their sexuality in the days before AIDS struck our community like a sledgehammer. From being alternately amused and annoyed by the perennially grinning Florida Sunshine Tree girl hawking tubes of frozen concentrated orange juice (one container to two quarts of water, as I recall) we quickly went to feeling hurt, shocked, and angered when Anita took up the mantle of a latter-day Joan of Arc to do battle against the sworn enemies of God — the “homosexuals.”
Not only did Anita mobilize an army of haters to combat the great Satan of sodomy, but she laid the groundwork for the modern religious right that planted the seeds of intolerance on school boards, city councils, and local and state ballots across the country — and that led to pronouncements that AIDS was a judgment from God when the epidemic struck. You can trace a blood-red line directly from Anita to the likes of Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, and the Tea Party in our own day. Echoes of the movement even resound in Donald Trump’s scapegoating of the menacing “other” in the form of immigrants and potential terrorists.
I can remember being 17 years old and nervously buying a copy of Playboy magazine at the newsstand because Anita had given a supposedly scandalous interview about gays and the people who hate them. At the time, the joke was that one read Playboy for the articles, but in my case, of course, the joke was true. I remember sitting on the floor with my supportive friends (all straight in those days) and laughing till we ached at the craziness of her mind-set — especially the confession that her personal turning point of revulsion had come when she found that gay men actually swallowed the semen of other men! I laughed — but at the bottom of the laughter, in the pit of my stomach, was a gaping wound and a confirmation of a deep self-hatred I was desperately trying to overcome and in some ways still am. It was akin to another punch in the gut I received a few years earlier when my mom brought home a copy of Everything You Aways Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) — the biggest best seller of its time and the first truly honest and open sex guide published in this country — to find that I was doomed to a life of blow jobs in bowling alleys with no hope for love or affection or dignity. Yet just as strongly, I was flummoxed and fascinated by the mind of such a person — how did these beliefs get started? What deep inner fears and hurts did they reveal? Could such a person ever be reached and changed?
We’ve come a long way from the bad old days of 1978 and have much to be grateful for. In many ways, Anita reignited a gay rights movement that had gone stale and complacent, setting a torch to a bonfire of hatred around which the gay community could organize. Efforts to demonize people with AIDS backfired in the long run, and the dignity and solidarity with which the gay community addressed the epidemic became an inspiration that helped turn the tide of public opinion toward something like sympathy and even respect. Today, same-sex marriage is a done deal, the law of the land, something I couldn’t have imagined a decade ago, although the battle for full equality is far from over. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey published just two weeks ago found that nearly one in every five gay and bisexual students have been raped at some point in their lives, compared to one in 20 heterosexual students, while a shocking one in four have attempted suicide in the previous 12 months. And for all its potential to help cure the loneliness and isolation I felt as a kid growing up gay, social media has become a tool for bullying and shaming that is used against gay and lesbian youth more than any other subgroup.
Yet in the long run, it’s still the strangeness and sickness of a mind that can hate that fascinates and haunts me. That mind still parades across my TV and computer screens each day as Trump bellows his random animus at a shooting gallery of nonwhite, non-Christian moving targets while red-capped idolaters shove protestors and call members of the news media traitors. In her Playboy interview, Anita Bryant gave us glimpses into how such a mind gets formed and what the key moments and issues are that can bring it into being. Her distant father, her unhappy mother, her conservative upbringing, the sense of unfairness she felt as an ambitious woman in a sexist society. And of course, probably most importantly, the inner donnybrook she (and most of us) must wage each day against the good old American demon of sexual repression.
What we ultimately hoped to bring about in presenting a literal staging of Anita’s interview was a chance to not only laugh at the absurdity and pathos of it all but to contemplate how a hateful mind evolves, and what it might take to diminish that hatred. It’s a cause that’s just as important — perhaps even more important — than it was in 1978.
ROBERT WHIRRY is the cowriter of Anita Bryant's Playboy Interview, which opens September 16 at Los Angeles's Cavern Club Celebrity Theatre. Click here for tickets and more information.