Thank You, Anita Bryant

Often times we forget the things or people for which or for whom we should be most grateful. You may be shocked when you read the name of the one to whom I express my gratitude. Yet 25 years have passed without my openly expressing my gratitude to the one person – other than some of the most radical religious fundamentalists – most vilified by gays and lesbians and who most often disparaged us. That person is none other than Anita Bryant.

In 1977, at age 46, I was in the second year of my doctoral program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I went to visit my parents during the Christmas break and, lo and behold, the first day I was there I saw yet another article about the ranting of Bryant in her “Save Our Children” campaign in Florida. She used every means at her disposal to make us look like the demons from Hell. I know now that she was nothing more than an apparent pawn in the hands of the religious fundamentalists who exploited her position as the spokesperson for Florida orange juice.

I had just left the Southern Baptist ministry to return to school for graduate training. I had also left because I am gay and I had not yet come out — which would be necessary if I were to survive. However, when I saw the article about this woman and her rhetoric, I was reminded of the oft-quoted statement of the German pastor, who said:

“In Germany, the Nazis first came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, but I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.”- Martin Niemoeller, Berlin Lutheran pastor arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Dachau concentration camp in 1938; the Allied forces freed him seven years later.

I could no longer maintain my silence and was compelled to write a letter to the editor. When it appeared, my parents saw it and they were afraid that others in their hometown might think that I was homosexual. Since they had no idea that I was, the letter would later serve as a springboard for my entering into discussion with my parents and an aunt and uncle at Christmas dinner that led to my coming out to them over dessert.

The prospect of telling my family was a terrifying one! While I knew I was loved I also knew all the lies they had been told by their pastors, their friends and the media. Why would my parents have been any different than any others from their generation? They were a God-fearing couple in their seventies — the product of the Victorian morals in vogue at the time of their births and ensuing childhood. However, telling them was an absolutely necessary part of the process. There could be no more hiding, no more lying – regardless of the results, which could have been of devastating proportions. How often I had read of those other gays before me who had told loved ones about themselves and had been cut off from family and totally disowned. At a time when love and understanding had been needed the most, they had been denied. However, the years of artifice and cunning had taken their toll and no longer was I able to bear up under the stress they engendered.

Even at the risk of losing the love of those who had given me life, I had to come out at long last or surely I would not survive. I determined that I could not be held accountable for their response to my disclosure. Selfishly, I suppose, I had believed that since I had borne alone the excruciating weight of my “secret” for all these years they would at least have each other to share in whatever reaction would be forthcoming.

That I would disclose was a fact. When, how and where were yet another matter. God assisted in my determining the answers to these questions as well. It was near Christmas in 1977 and I was scheduled to be in their home for a break from the pressures of academia. It was also during that dark period when Anita Bryant was allowing herself to be the spokesperson for the religious and political right in their highly publicized efforts to eradicate homosexuality and all those limp-wristed, child-molesting perverts who were trying to convert straight children to the ways of the abominable. A day or two after my arrival at my parents’ house, and just prior to my departure for a brief visit with friends before Christmas, an article appeared in the Chattanooga News-Free Press delineating the latest raving and ranting of Ms. Bryant. The dogmatic content of her standard message of untruth was to be generalized to be applicable to any gay person alive. Just as determinedly I knew that none of those descriptors applied to the one and only gay person I knew at that time. Her tirades could be no more generally applicable than if she had claimed that all heterosexual Americans were clean living, born-again Christians.

I saw in this article an opportunity to open the door to discussion of the issue of my gayness with my family. Before I left on my short junket I sat down at my typewriter and dashed off a letter to the editor. To say that the content of my letter was either gentle or flattering to Ms. Bryant was hardly appropriate. I equated her and the persons for whom she spoke to a modern-day Adolf Hitler and Nazi party whose sole purpose was to advocate the extermination of a group of people whose sole “crime” was that they were different. Using the tactics of fear and lies she was trying to enlist anyone she could in “God’s business” of “protecting our children.” Based on the knowledge they had at their disposal, my parents would have bought into this lock, stock and barrel. Perhaps they already had.

I mailed the letter. I knew from past experience that the time frame for writing a letter and possibly seeing it in print was about a week to ten days. My trip was to be about a week’s duration so I would be back to the house before it appeared in an afternoon edition. Since I believe that God was still directing my life and even this particular event, I never had a single doubt that the letter would be published. My only concern was when. Each day after my return I looked at the paper first, seeking my letter. On the second day, just two days before Christmas, on the editorial page I saw a letter to the editor with a caption something of this nature: “Anita Bryant compared to Adolf Hitler.” I quickly looked at the name at the bottom of that particular column to discover my own in bold print. I don’t know what else I might have expected to find. Could two people have written that same kind of diatribe?

As far as I could perceive, not a single word had been deleted from the original. I read it twice with a lump in my throat and my heart pounding. I refolded the newspaper and put in on my father’s armchair in the den. I knew that each evening after supper he read this particular paper from cover to cover. He was not as thorough with the Chattanooga Times in the morning, but in the News-Free Press he even read many of the classified ads for amusement. So I knew he would see it. It may result in some discussion but while I had been away I had decided that on Christmas Day, no sooner nor later, while we sat around the table after dinner, with my favorite aunt and her husband in attendance, I would broach the subject. Might as well wait until I had one final meal!

My dad read the paper with his usual thoroughness but not a word was said about having seen the letter. The next day, the morning of Christmas Eve, I noticed my father being ushered out the door with urgency to go to the grocery store for some last minute items for the Christmas feast of the following day. When he was on his way, my mother approached me in the den to tell me that my dad had seen a letter from me in the paper the night before. She seemed extremely agitated and stated that she was afraid that people we knew would think I was homosexual after seeing the letter. I told her I could not be responsible for the thoughts and imaginings of our friends and that they would have to think whatever they needed to think.

That seemed to be a satisfactory solution for the moment. Her last comment could have served as an opening to my disclosure but it was not as I had planned. It also would have created havoc for the traditional family activities of both Christmas Eve night and of Christmas morning, all of which were very special to her. And, too, my father was not there. I wanted them to be together when I told them in case apoplexy were the order of the day and moral and physical support were needed for one or the other or both. I also had planned just how I would open the discussion after Christmas dinner. Any diversion from the detailed plan, rehearsed over and over and over again in my mind while I had been away the previous week, would surely put me at a distinct disadvantage. And for this I had to remain in control of myself, and the situation, at all times just so I could get through it without incident.

The rest of the day went well as did Christmas morning. All of us pitched in for the final preparations of the Christmas dinner and for the arrival of my aunt and uncle. Surprisingly I was able to taste what I was eating and did not even come close to throwing up even though, internally, anticipation of things to come had made me nearly a physiological and psychological wreck. After the feast and the consumption of a choice of our traditional pecan pie, devil’s food cake and/or fresh coconut cake – all homemade – we had settled back to relax and digest while finishing up the fresh coffee. I knew that my aunt, my father’s half-sister, was of the same political bent as he and, therefore, an avid reader of the Chattanooga News-Free Press as well. I now had the four most important people to me surrounding me and the time for disclosure had come.

I took a deep breath during a brief lull in the conversation and asked my aunt, in a surprisingly firm yet calm voice, if she had seen my letter in the paper. She confessed to not having done so since the busyness of the season had made it necessary for her to only skim her daily paper the last few days. She asked the nature of the writing and I told her that I had reacted strongly to an article about Anita Bryant and her efforts in behalf of Christians against any and all who might be homosexual. I told her also that I had chosen to “de-myth-ify” some of Ms. Bryant’s claims and in so doing had likened her to a modern-day Hitler. My aunt always had large, expressive eyes but at this point they made the saucer under her cup seem minute by comparison. She was shocked, though titillated, that I had dared to express an opinion publicly. At this point my mother reiterated her concern that others upon reading the article might think I was homosexual as well. I smiled politely but I was to be neither denied nor deterred from my appointed path.

Still saucer-eyed my aunt simply turned her attention back to me. At this point I asked her what she knew about homosexuality. (In truth, I often suspected that her husband, who had not married her until he was in his late sixties or early seventies, might have had similar tendencies though I never verbalized those potentially explosive ideas to anyone!) While she tried to hide under the umbrella of “nothing, really” I pressed her for an answer. I reminded her that she must have read something or heard things in conversations with friends.

After a brief period of thought she began to list the very things that Anita used in her harangue, none of which had foundation or any element of truth about them. She listed some of the stereotypes that had been perpetuated through street talk and idle gossip. I took the time to take each item she had mentioned and to tell her the truth from my perspective. Sensing that she was not totally ready to buy what I had said at face value, I asked her to once again go over the list of things she had always thought of as truth about homosexuals. When she had finished, I asked her if she thought any of those descriptors, whether real or fictitious, could be applied to me. In a most fervent voice, both strong and confident, she declared that she could never have thought of me in such a way. As only a very loving aunt could, she told me how proud she was of me and how she always bragged to her friends about her “handsome, healthy and wholesome” nephew, the former minister now working on his doctorate.

Deep, deep, breath time again! All eyes and ears at the table were focused on our conversation. I told her that I was flattered to hear her say those things. I told her also that maybe now she could see just why I was trying to help her and the others understand the untruthful and derogatory things that had been built up as stereotypes about homosexuality. I added that obviously they could not be true if she believed the things she had just said about me because they were polar opposites and since I was homosexual either one or the other had to be the truth because both could not.

Have you ever stood outside at night in the winter when snow is falling and noticed how absolutely quiet it was? Imagine that kind of quietness increased tenfold and that will give you some idea of the decibel level in the dining room for the next few seconds (read: eternity!). I had finally unlocked the cell of that personal prison in which I had been confined for nearly forty-seven years and had walked out into a world where it seemed suddenly that no solitary soul knew me and I was completely and utterly alone. But I was free! As Martin Luther King Jr. was wont to say, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last.”

My mother was the first to break the momentary silence with a statement of denial, “Oh, Ted, you’re not either!” I assured all that it was not my imagination and that it was some baggage that I had been carrying around with me since I was a child. I had to deal with the cruelties of my peers in the unkind things they had said. I had listened to, and even participated in, the jokes that made me look like a freak but could never defend myself for fear of reprisal. I had experienced the devastating loneliness of one who must constantly be on guard to avoid self-exposure or discovery. The next step involved an exploration of why I had not told them many years ago so they could “get me some help.” I tried to explain that I did not need help but rather acceptance and affirmation of my personhood. The five of us talked until remnants of Christmas desserts had crusted on our plates and the last of the coffee in the cups was stone cold. The session was concluded with guarded affirmation – certainly protestations of love, no matter what, but concern about “what the Scripture said.” We dealt with that in one final discussion that seemed to put it all into perspective.

When I first had begun to experience the sense of calling into the ministry approximately fifteen years before there had been a similar tension in the family. I was employed in a supervisory capacity in a chemical laboratory and had a good job and security. It was of significant concern to my life-long-hard- working parents that I would “throw all that away” to enter something as insecure as the ministry in a Southern Baptist church. Since the call was real for me, it could not be denied and I left that security. As the years passed and they saw how God was using me, I never had two more faithful supporters of my ministry than my parents. I reminded them of that and they once again confirmed that they indeed believed that I was definitely called of God to ministry. With that in my favor I reminded them that my being gay obviously had not deterred God in calling me and that I had been used positively in spite of what the Anita Bryants of the world might say. I hoped that my being gay would not hinder their affirmation of me as a total and good human being. That seemed to satisfy them and the subject of my homosexuality was never again openly discussed prior to their deaths.

Though completely drained emotionally, there was a certain exhilaration manifesting itself. I was in a state of euphoria yet emotionally and physically exhausted at the same time. When we excused ourselves from the table I further excused myself momentarily from their presence by expressing the need for some solitude for a brief period. I retired to the rear of the house where I sat in near darkness and simply wept with relief. There was no longer a need to lie. I gave my thanks to God during this quiet time. Without the strength that can come only from the Almighty I would have remained a prisoner in the jail of fear and lying, living in the stench of the tomb that my closet had become.

I am approaching my 72nd birthday. I have been out for 25 years. I have had a wonderful soul mate/partner for the last 19 of those years. Though he had no religious training in his family during his youth, I find in him more of the qualities of Jesus than possessed by most of those fundamentalists who stand on street corners proclaiming their holiness and righteousness. My life has become a thing of greater beauty simply by his being a part of it.

So, while my initial protestations toward Anita Bryant were those of hostility and derision, I stand now to thank her for forcing me out of my prison of a closet into the light where I have become a spokesperson for equality. I shall always be grateful for her rhetoric that opened the way to life fulfilling for me.

I have just written her to thank her personally. I also reminded her that perhaps now she could join our fight for equality since she was free herself from the exploitation of the religious right. I hope she can take some strength to do so from the following quote:

Usually, for most gay women and men, coming out in the church has meant coming out of the church… Coming out of the closet, a process the church should be enabling and ennobling, is a process which must be experienced more often in the secular world rather than the Christian community… And for most of those numerous gay persons who choose not to come out in the church because they want to stay in the church — in Christian community — the church has meant more than just a closet… the church has become for them a giant tomb, smelling of death rather than life. (Chris Glaser)

Thanks, Anita.