The Day I Met Anita Bryant
My favorite job during my college years at the University of Arkansas was selling women’s shoes for Dillards Department Store. I’d love to say it was because I craved high style and design in my life, but honestly, it was about the money. It sounds mercenary, but if you bring out enough boxes of the right stuff, lots of women will walk away with two shopping bags full of heels.
Anita Bryant was a notable exception. The sum of my celebrity sightings is hardly impressive. They include Wynona at a mall in Nashville while working my way through grad school and Bozo the Clown at the Batesville airport when I was seven. One could argue that compared to these two Anita hardly registers. I say that because I’m about to have to explain who she is to the majority of my readers.
Anita Bryant was a runner up to Miss America in the late 50s who went on to record a few minor hits in the 60s, and then screwed up thousands of people’s lives in the 70s. Tall, dark, and wholesome, her big break came when she was tapped to be the national spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Growers. As you gasp in amazement at that plum gig, I’ll also throw in that she gained most of her notoriety as founder and spokesperson for the “Save Our Children” campaign of 1977, in which as America’s self-appointed mom she mobilized the religious right with sound bites like this all too familiar canard: “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children…” All of this was done in the name of Christianity, of course.
Long story short, she succeeded in removing a Dade County ordinance that prohibited people from being fired from jobs based on their sexual identity. Her work aided a ban on gay people adopting in the state of Florida, a ban that stands to this day. Then she went on to try rewriting discrimination into the legislation of California communities and other American towns, giving rise to the now common phrase, “The city council meeting isn’t over until the second-rate hack sings.”
Actually I just made that last bit up. It’s kind of mean. But maybe not quite as mean as helping to make it so that foster children who have been with a family from birth until they are 14 can never be adopted by the only parents they have ever known.
Of course, none of this registered with the extremely closeted and uninformed 22 year-old hillbilly boy fitting Anita for shoes that day back in 1991. I was just thrilled to have a semi-bona fide and attractive, in her own way, mostly retired gospel singer sitting there waiting for me to assist her.
I kept expecting her to smile or say something pleasant, or anything for that matter, as I tried to make a little small talk. She was a former Miss America pre-lim pageant queen after all, and therefore American royalty by default. One might expect at least a half-smile to come pretty easy. But she just sat there and said no to everything from Cole Haan to Amalfi without even making eye contact. She was perfectly in her right as a customer to say no with a frown, but it’s kind of unusual behavior for people in that part of the country. Maybe she could smell the gay on me. Or maybe her chickens had come home to roost. I don’t know. I suppose it doesn’t matter much now. What I do know is that dress Anita’s wearing in that photo above is completely awesome!