In late January, Robert Green Jr. found himself back where he started more than 30 years agotrying to reconcile the parents he knew with the public image they created, an image he fled and largely avoided for decades.
Green Jr. is the oldest son of famous anti-gay crusaders Anita Bryant and Bob Green, who battled the Dade County, Fla., ordinance banning discrimination against gay people and won in 1977.
On Jan. 26, Green Sr. died at the age of 80, after suffering kidney failure.
The news of his passing spread slowly, mostly because Green Jr. spent weeks agonizing over his father's obituary before he widely announced the death. He has complicated feelings about his father, a man he said was devoted and kind to his children. He wants his father to be remembered for more than the fiercely anti-gay stance that came to define his family, but Green Jr. concedes disappointment in some of his father's views.
Green Sr. married Anita Bryant in 1960, abandoning his deejay career to manage the fledgling singer. The couple raised four children together before Bryant called it quits in 1980 and left Green. Three of the four kids left with Bryant, but Green Jr. moved with his father just three blocks from their old home. Green Sr. spent the next three decades fixated on the past. Green Jr. fled to Wheaton College in Illinois, far away from the controversy and pain of his parent's divorce. For years, he avoided looking back.
Green Jr., a senior copywriter, lives in Chicago now and has a family of his own. He also has a number of gay friends, a fact he discusses unremarkably. He does not share his parents' views on LGBT issues.
Windy City Times caught up with Green Jr. and asked him to share his memories of growing up and explain why he spent his life trying to escape that past, only to come back around.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Windy City Times: You were disheartened by your father's outlook on life before he died. Why?
Robert Green Jr.: He blamed gay and lesbian people for the disappointments that followed the aftermath of that for wrecking my mom's career, which of course my dad at the time had been very much a part of as her manager as well as her husband. I think he blamed gay and lesbian people in some parts for my parent's divorce and the difficulty that my dad had in finding other work.
Nowhere have I seen … any expression on his part of responsibility for the life he ended up leading. To be honest, I didn't really broach the subject with him. In the limited amount of time that I had with him, living up here in Chicago. ... I preferred I guess to keep things positive and not go into that territory.
I have to some extent gone into that territory with my mom, however. We've definite have some back and forth about what her views were back then, what they are now and if those views have changed in any way and from my point of view, if not, then why not?
WCT: So, you don't share your parents views on gay rights?
Robert Green Jr.: I think of the four of us kids of Bob Green and Anita Bryant, I am probably the most sympathetic towards gay and lesbian rights and probably in a lot of ways more socially, politically, religiously left of certainly where my parents were at that time. All of us are more moderate than our parents.
WCT: Your dad converted to Christianity around the time he married your mom. Was your sense that he following your mom's lead on gay issues?
Robert Green Jr.: I think, at first, he was trying to dissuade her from taking any public position. He was clear-sighted about what the consequences for their careers would be. I do think that my mom always had much stronger religious and moral convictions than my dad. He did very much follow her lead in those areas of her life. I think he followed her lead in the decision to fight gay rights.
WCT: Do you think their battle against gay rights, as some have suggested, caused the end of their marriage and careers?
Robert Green Jr.: No. I think it just aggravated problems that they already had in their marriage that existed maybe from the beginning. I think it's telling that my dad accepted my mom's version of Christianity right around the time they got married. That was kind of a condition of their getting married.
From what I could tell from the time when I was old enough to pay attention to such things, there was always this tension between them about the direction her career should go in, about how many engagements she should take on. … I think from pretty early on as her manager, he saw all of the praise she was getting from everybody, and so he made a deliberate effort to play devil's advocate, play her toughest critic. She would finish a show, and everyone would tell her how great she had been. Then, when the two of them would be alone, he would point out every single mistake she had made. I have to doubt that was purely something he did to make her a better performer. I think he maybe subconsciously resented her success.
WCT: Your dad has been portrayed as someone whose life just stopped after their divorce. Do you think that's accurate?
Robert Green Jr.: Yeah. I think in a lot of ways it did. I know that in the year or two after that he pretty much broke down. I don't think he was really fully-functioning for a couple of years. Three out of the four of us kids moved away with my mom. I decided to stay, largely because I was worried about my dad, you know, what if he decided to kill himself? I had one more year of high school, so I figured I would stay with him. Here were the two of us in this big, more or less empty, big house. He never really let go of his sense of loss, his grief, the resentment over the breakup of his family.
WCT: What was he like as a person?
Robert Green Jr.: Like any human being, he was a complicated guy. It is unfortunate that most people only had gotten to see them through the lens of their position against gay rights. As a dad, he was a lot of fun to be around. He had a perverse sense of humor his whole life. To people outside our family, I think he would often come across at first as a prickly character, but once they saw the prickliness was part of the sense of humor, they enjoyed being around him.
WCT: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about your parents?
Robert Green Jr.: I guess that they were hateful. I remember in the heat of the controversy going into a shop with my mom… [a man] came over and shook her hand and said he backed what she was doing and basically said "I hate fags, too." She immediately set him straight about that, that she did not hate anyone. That wasn't the point for her about what she was trying to do.
WCT: Do you remember when you started actually interacting with gay people?
Robert Green Jr.: When my parents first got involved in this, I was a teenager. Being at that age, I was questioning pretty much everything about what my parents thought and did anyway, regardless of whether they had gotten involved in that or not. It's not like I sought out this strange forbidden tribe, but I was very open to meeting and talking with gays and lesbians.
Since then, I've made friends with a lot of people, some of whom I didn't know were gay or lesbian. I don't think in some cases they knew for a while… it's deepened our friendship, or sense of loyalty and solidarity to still be friends after each came out and for them to see that there was no need to worry in our case.
WCT: Were your gay friends afraid to come out to you because you are the son of Anita Bryant?
Robert Green Jr.: I don't really think so, because people who potentially worried about that already knew to some extent. … I didn't share my mom's views. I don't think it was a worry really. It was more like, it made me a curiosity to some extent.
WCT: Do you think your mom has softened on the issue?
Robert Green Jr.: I think she is certainly more willing now to live and let live, I guess. She's about 70, and she's still amazingly energetic, and she would be putting a lot more energy into fighting gay rights if she still felt as strongly.
WCT: Do you remember the details of the controversy and how it felt?
Robert Green Jr.: I was in my early to mid teens in the late 70s and yeah, I certainly do remember a lot from it. I'm kind of like my dad in that until the past two years, I have not really liked revisiting those times, those memories.
WCT: What changed in the last two years?
Robert Green Jr.: I think maybe it's because I'm middle-aged. I have a family of my own. I'm just at a point in my life where there's enough distance. I think more and more, it's been easier for me to accept that past and not just turn away from it.