This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots that took place in New York City on June 28th and 29th, 1969. It’s for this reason that LGBTQ Pride events and parades are usually held in June. The anniversary has also brought about an exploration and even a reckoning with the history of Stonewall, those who made it happen, and the event’s impact. One particular thread by Eric Gonzaba on Twitter caught my attention:
In this thread Gonzaba discusses some of the organizations and events that pre-date Stonewall, such as The Society for Individual Rights. He then connects these events to a name that we hear referenced a few times on The Golden Girls: Anita Bryant.
Blanche: Oh, hello there! How’d you do?
Rose: We came in second.
Blanche: Oh, that’s terrific! What’d you get?
Dorothy: Treated badly. They told us to get out of the way when they took the winner’s picture with Anita Bryant.
Dorothy’s line might make it seem as though she was disappointed to miss out on the photo op, but I think it’s actually a clever dig at Bryant on the part of the writers. They, along with the show’s audience, would have been very familiar with Bryant’s anti-LGBTQ stance over the years, and it’s safe to say that none of them would want to be seen alongside her. The second reference to Bryant, from season 4, in the “Sophia’s Wedding: Part 1” episode, is the more memorable of the two.
Now, there’s certainly a lot to unpack here, but the caterer’s mannerisms and his initial crack about his mother overlooking his own marriage code him as gay, which sets the scene for the line in question. The character is definitely a stereotypical depiction, but it makes sense here. At the end, he first references the 1958 film, I Want to Live!, starring Susan Hayward, which revolves around the story of a sex worker convicted of murder. When Blanche says that he’s “ready to fly right outta here,” his “Well, excuse me for living, Anita Bryant!” retort becomes the punchline of the scene. This exchange humorously illustrates why Bryant was so reviled along with drawing attention to changing attitudes towards the LGBTQ community in society and popular culture.
But just who is Anita Bryant? As Gonzaba also pointed out, Bryant’s anti-LGBTQ efforts in the late 1970’s “galvanized” the community and, since this is one of the references that may not be as obvious for younger viewers, I thought it would be a good time to explore the history behind it and Bryant’s impact on some of the rhetoric that continues to this day.
Originally from Oklahoma, Bryant married Miami disc jockey, Bob Green, in 1960. She was a former beauty queen and made her name in the 60’s as a singer, releasing several albums and appearing alongside Bob Hope on USO tours. Her saccharine voice and perfectly coiffed facade helped build her career as a spokesperson for brands like Kraft and Tupperware along with hosting Orange Bowl parades. In 1969 she became a brand ambassador for the Florida Citrus Commission and helped promote the newly opened Walt Disney World in the early 1970’s. Of course, Golden Girls fans will also recall the time Blanche was the queen of the Citrus Festival Ball in the season 5 episode, “Ebb Tide,” but fortunately she chose a path towards LGBTQ acceptance rather than hatred.
The fact that The Golden Girls also takes place in Miami, located in Dade County (now known as Miami-Dade County), is another obvious connection to Bryant’s political efforts that began in the area. In 1977, the county passed the Human Rights Ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Although 34 other cities had previously passed similar legislation, Miami was in for a not-so-nice fight as Bryant took this as the perfect opportunity to launch her Save Our Children campaign. We may be more familiar today with conservative politicians and televangelists who have promoted their own anti-LGBTQ views, but Bryant was one of the first to take the national stage with hateful messages that LGBTQ people were “recruiting” children to “their ranks” and that equal rights would lead to “[giving] rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail biters.” I’m clueless on that last category, too, but she also called LGBTQ people “human garbage,” a particularly hateful and inflammatory description even at that time. If all that sounds a little too familiar, note that Jerry Falwell, a Bryant supporter, founded his own Moral Majority organization two years later that helped elect Ronald Reagan as president in the 1980’s.
Further capitalizing on her notoriety as a spokesperson, Bryant made numerous television appearances espousing her views and took Save Our Children on the road. In Houston, a protest grew to include 10,000 people and police were stationed outside the public library downtown, although the event was peaceful thanks to the efforts of local activists like Ray Hill. Harvey Milk also addressed protesters in San Francisco. Despite initial support for the ordinance and its passage, the bill was repealed in June of 1977. LGBTQ activists then led a boycott of Florida orange juice that was supported by celebrities, and Johnny Carson began making fun of Bryant regularly on his Tonight Show monologue. Her constant bigotry and concern about people’s private lives that had nothing to do with her or, ultimately, the children, became tiresome and culminated with her being pied in the face by activist Thom Higgins during a TV appearance in Des Moines, Iowa. Her career declined soon after, and she divorced Green in 1980, leading even her former conservative Christian champions to distance themselves from her.
As Gonzaba and others have noted, Bryant’s efforts ended up mobilizing LGBTQ communities across the country to fight against her efforts and raise awareness for equal rights. Houston held its first Pride Parade in 1978, and Ray Hill remarked that “Houston’s gay and lesbian community actually became a community. Before Anita, gay community meant where the bars were; after Anita, gay community meant people.” Finally, the anti-discrimination ordinance was reinstated in Miami-Dade County in 1998. Florida had also banned gay adoption in 1977, and this was ultimately ruled unconstitutional in 2008. Unfortunately, some cities like Houston have seen a resurgence in the type of hateful and false rhetoric spouted by Bryant, and those inspired by her, as they have tried to pass their own anti-discrimination laws in recent years.
To connect all this back to The Golden Girls, we can recall that each of the actors supported the LGBTQ community over the years, most notably Estelle Getty at the time. By the time the “Sophia’s Wedding” episodes aired in 1988, the AIDS crisis brought a new dimension to the LGBTQ fight for equal rights. Although Anita Bryant’s time in the public eye had faded by that point, her influence was not forgotten, and she rightfully continues to be upheld as a symbol for bigotry and homophobia. This moment is another great example of how The Golden Girls so often uses humor to connect with audiences and history in sometimes surprising ways. Ultimately, the caterer’s line becomes a symbol for the many positive strides made by the LGBTQ community since Stonewall in spite of enormous opposition.
Special thanks to Eric Gonzaba and Matt Baume for inspiring me to write this post.
Girls and Gays: The Uniquely Queer Golden Girls (Overeducated, Underemployed)
Bryant, Anita (glbtarchive.com)
Anita Bryant Sucks Oranges (Queer Music Heritage)
The First Pride Marches, In Photos (Smithsonian Magazine)
The Orange Juice Boycott That Changed America (Extra Crispy)