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How Anita Bryant Helped Spawn Florida's LGBTQ Culture War

Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, is part of a long legacy of anti-gay rhetoric and legislation in the state.

At a public hearing in Dade County, Florida, parents were enraged. The nation, they said, was in peril and children were at risk. A recent ordinance had granted gay people housing and employment protections, and that meant teachers couldn’t be fired because of their sexuality. Florida classrooms quickly became a battleground, and opponents of the ordinance said the state’s support of civil rights for homosexuals was infringing on their rights as parents. 

Action had to be taken, and a campaign to limit the legal rights of LGBTQ people — all in the name of protecting children — was enacted. A woman who spoke at this hearing said it was her right to control “the moral atmosphere in which my children grow up.” That woman was Anita Bryant, formerly Miss Oklahoma and a white, telegenic, Top 40 singer who was well known for her Florida orange juice commercials (“A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine!” she’d say). Bryant spearheaded an anti-LGBTQ campaign of such impact that its echoes can be heard in today’s rhetoric. The year was 1977.

Last month, nearly half a century after Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its opponents. The measure, which takes effect July 1, prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in “kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” Similar bills are being considered in 19 other states, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank that has been tracking the bills.

Advocates of Florida’s bill say its purpose is to allow parents to decide how and when LGBTQ topics are introduced to their children. Opponents say it hurts the very children advocates are trying to protect. Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, a queer youth advocacy group, said in a statement that the bill will “erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face.” 

Historians say they’ve seen this before.