December 15th, 2006
Crowned Miss Oklahoma in 1958 and second runner-up Miss America in 1959, Anita Bryant was a wholesome, 30-something singer in the 1970s who was voted “Most Admired Woman in America” by Good Housekeeping magazine three years in a row. She parlayed her wholesome image into a successful career in the Florida Citrus campaign (“Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine”).
But many of us remember her for her infamous 1977 “Save our Children” campaign to repeal a Dade County, Florida gay rights ordinance. She led a particularly nasty campaign, complete with charges that gay men and women were only interested in recruiting children. That campaign quickly led Florida legislators to pass a law banning gay adoptions — a ban that is still in place today. Eventually, the controversy over her anti-gay activism ruined her career and her personal life. Her citrus contract was not renewed, she and her husband divorced, and she moved back to her native Oklahoma where she fell off the national radar.
The St. Petersburg Times caught up with her a few years ago. Bryant remarried and has tried, without success, to revive her career, first in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Branson, Missouri. That failed in 1997, and she was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Anita and her husband then moved to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where history repeats itself. She opened the Music Mansion, a Branson-style theater, and put on a show where she sang songs from her 1950’s and 1960’s heyday and preached her Christian beliefs. She was well-liked among her conservative Christian followers, but popularity remained elusive. Attendance was sparse; even on her best days the theater was never more than 25% full. Salaries went unpaid, bills piled up, promises were broken, and the theater eventually closed amid hard feelings and anger. Yet Bryant seems to remain unphased by all the damage she has done:
“In my opinion, you do not do people like they have done people and live a Christian life,” said Margaret Cole, who cannot explain the strange, faith-based hold that kept her in Bryant’s service for so long.
“If I owed people like they owe people I would not be able to lay down at night and sleep.”
Ashley Matthews, a dancer who is owed $3,200 in back pay, said the hard times left some workers so strapped for cash they stole popcorn and candy from the theater’s concession stand so they could eat.
While theater employees subsisted on popcorn, Anita and her husband continued to live in a $350,000 home in a gated community in the Smokies.
Anita Bryant has left a lot of devastation in her wake. Not only did she stoke the fires of homophobia in the late 1970’s with legislative effects that last to this day, she has also left a trail of unpaid bills, back taxes, broken promises, and abused employees in her wake.
Her theater manager, Brion Bever, tried to cover expenses from his own pocket but he was never reimbursed. He even deferred his own pay so others could be paid. His credit history was ruined when suppliers went after him because he signed for deliveries on her behalf. Those bills went unpaid and Bryant left Bever holding the bag.
But being the good Christian that she is, Anita has — get this — forgiven him:
Anita Bryant approached him on the day he was fired and dismissed all that he had been through, he said.
“Anita looked at me and she says, “I forgive you,’ ” he recalled. “And I’m like, “For what?’ She said, “I forgive you and God will forgive you, too.’ And she turned around and walked off.”
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Prologue: Why I Went To “Love Won Out”
Part 1: What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Part 2: Parents Struggle With “No Exceptions”
Part 3: A Whole New Dialect
Part 4: It Depends On How The Meaning of the Word "Change" Changes
Part 5: A Candid Explanation For "Change"
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And don‘t miss our companion report, How To Write An Anti-Gay Tract In Fifteen Easy Steps.
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