It's a winter evening in 1977 and I'm clad only in a towel.
I'm prowling the corridors of the Everard Baths in New York. The Everard is not one of those new bathhouses in tune with the spirit of gay liberation. It has no amenities. There are no pleasant lounges for sitting around and socializing; there's no entertainment to bring men together in easy camaraderie. The place is grungy, and its patrons get right to the point—which, of course, is sex.
The Everard does have an old portable television. It's plopped on a table in a corner of the large basement space where there's also a swimming pool so uninviting that, in all my visits to the Everard, I've never seen someone take a dip in it. Tonight, when I wander through, I notice a crowd standing around the TV, raptly attentive to, of all things, a news report. As I walk over to see what the attraction is, I overhear a series of sharp, angry comments. These guys are pissed. A reporter is describing events in Dade County, Fla., where someone named Anita Bryant is waging a campaign against a gay-rights ordinance. Whenever her smiling face and coiffed hair flash across the screen, a new round of curses spews from the mouths of these towel-wrapped men.
The scene arouses my activist sensibilities. I remember thinking: If politics has entered the basement of The Everard, gay liberation has reached much farther than I thought!
No event in queer history enjoys a higher reputation than Stonewall. The 1969 riots are celebrated every year with scores of parades and marches in dozens of nations across the globe. 'Stonewall' has become shorthand for militancy, resistance, and pride. Yet its power has been as a symbol. We commemorate Stonewall after the fact. Not many people experienced it directly, and not many more read about it as news.
By contrast, the 1977 campaign to repeal the gay rights statute in Dade County, Florida involved huge numbers of people. It was a local event with a national reach, a story with legs. Newspapers and television covered it for months, the first time this was true for a 'gay rights' story. The battle in Dade County, home to the city of Miami, did more to build a national lesbian and gay movement than any other single event. It reached deep into cities and towns around the United States, leaving local communities stronger and better organized. It created a vibrant sense of participating in a common project, a feeling of shared danger.
The Dade County saga began simply enough. In January 1977 the county's board of commissioners voted to add sexual orientation to its civil rights statutes. The story might have ended there, as it had in a couple of dozen other cities that had passed non-discrimination ordinances, except for one resident of the county who attended the final hearing. Bryant, a popular singer who had once been a runner up in the Miss America pageant, was outraged by the county board's action. A born-again Christian, she testified with Bible in hand, and afterward she vowed to fight the ordinance. She and her husband, Bob Green, founded an organization, Save Our Children, to lead a campaign for a ballot initiative to repeal the gay rights law.
Bryant's celebrity status—she'd had gold records; she toured with Bob Hope and performed at military bases; and she was under contract with the Florida Citrus Commission to promote the sale of the state's orange juice—guaranteed media attention for this county commotion. She gave journalists plenty of good quotes. The sentiments that poured from her mouth were inflammatory. At the county commission hearing on the anti-discrimination statute, Bryant declared, 'I'm on fire ... Homosexuality is an abomination ... Homosexuals will recruit our children ... They will use money, drugs, alcohol, any means to get what they want.'
Bryant sounded this theme of recruitment again and again. On a trip to Chicago to appear on the nationally televised The Phil Donahue Show, she told the Tribune: 'Children are very easily persuaded ... a homosexual is not born, they are made. So there has to be some recruitment.'
By the time voters in South Florida headed to the polls in June, Bryant's statements had become apocalyptic. 'We will prevail,' she informed a roomful of supporters and journalists, 'against a life style that is both perverse and dangerous to the sanctity of the family, dangerous to our children, dangerous to our freedom of religion and freedom of choice, dangerous to our survival as one nation, under God.'
Rhetoric like this—at one point she referred to gays and lesbians as 'garbage'—did more than mobilize people to vote for repeal. It provoked homophobic violence. In Miami, the Roman Catholic archdiocese was also campaigning against the gay-rights ordinance. Priests delivered Sunday sermons on the topic and read to their parishioners letters from the archbishop instructing them to vote for repeal.
This message of intolerance saturated the heavily Catholic Cuban population of Miami. When Ovidio Ramos, a spokesperson for the Latin Committee for the Human Rights of Gays, took part in a call-in program on Spanish-language radio, the calls were so hateful and threatening that a depressed Ramos committed suicide a few days later. When another activist, Manuel Gomez, appeared on a Spanish-language television show, his car was firebombed. Later, after Gomez addressed a rally in the heart of the Cuban community, he was assaulted and left for dead in an alley. So many angry calls came to the Dade County gay coalition that police began to provide its offices with round-the-clock protection.
But the campaign didn't just mobilize the homophobes. It galvanized gay men and lesbians around the country. After gay bars in Miami posted signs announcing 'we do not serve Florida orange juice,' The Advocate issued a call for a national boycott of Florida citrus products. By March, the boycott had spread not only to big cities like Boston and Dallas, but to Idaho's only gay bar. Just like what I'd observed at the Everard that winter night, politics was becoming part of the evening conversation in gay and lesbian bars across America.
The growing network of lesbian and gay organizations also took up the cause. The national council of the Metropolitan Community Church passed a resolution encouraging its congregants to support the fight for gay rights in south Florida. Contributions from almost every state arrived at the office of the Dade County gay coalition. Activists traveled to Florida to help in voter education campaigns. Assessing the work that was being done, Jean O'Leary of the National Gay Task Force contended that 'the national debate provoked by the Dade County referendum has united and strengthened us as a national movement.'
The Dade County campaign energized the Chicago queer community too. Gay Life, the main community paper in 1977, carried articles about it in every issue that winter and spring. A local coalition formed to support Florida's gays. Community leaders planned a major fundraiser, the 'Orange Ball,' for Uptown's Aragon Ballroom in May.
Just a few days before the fundraiser took place, the anti-gay onslaught struck close to home. 'EXTRA! EXTRA! EXTRA!,' a special edition of Gay Life announced. 'Anita Bryant invited to Chicago.' The Chicago Tribune had just run a four-part series on child pornography, and the series pointed its finger straight at gay men. The series sparked a panic in the city. A Chicago alderman, Edward Burke, hastily scheduled city council hearings on the problem, and asked Bryant to testify. Waves from the 'Save Our Children' crusade were crashing against the Windy City's shores.
To be continued...
Copyright 2008 John D'Emilio