Fighting with Fruit: Anita Bryant’s long-lasting legacy

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Image courtesy of the Stonewall Museum.

A banana cream pie was a part of one of the most iconic moments in the gay liberation movement.

Anita Bryant, a chart-topping songstress who used her fame to fight “homosexual militants,” was speaking at a press conference in Des Moines, Iowa in 1977 when an activist, Tom Higgins, threw the pie in her face.

“Well, at least it’s a fruit pie,” she scoffed.

Her husband, Bob Green, then encouraged his wife to pray for Higgins. She prayed for him and his “deviant” lifestyle as she wiped away cream from her face, crying.

Lee Lawson, an Iowa native who was in Des Moines protesting Bryant’s visit that day, didn’t witness the incident in person, but word spread quickly.

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“Some of us were excited and some of us were embarrassed,” he said of the bold move, one some felt was too bold. “One of the things you had to be aware of is there was a large anti-war movement and we were trying to keep ourselves separate from that. They were a lot bigger and a lot more active than we were. We were trying to do our own thing.”

No matter the reason, Bryant was a huge roadblock in the fight for LGBT rights.

A former beauty queen, she had a healthy music career and eventually became “the orange juice lady” as a spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission. She sang in commercials and delivered the tagline “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.”

She stepped onto the American main stage in 1977, however, when Miami-Dade County passed a local ordinance protecting gay people from workplace discrimination. A devout Christian, she was horrified by the thought of gay people teaching children and launched the Save Our Children campaign to repeal the ordinance.

In an ad in the Miami Herald, the group wrote, “The other side of the homosexual coin is a hair-raising pattern of recruitment and outright seduction and molestation — a growing pattern that predictably will intensify if society approves law granting legitimacy of sexual perverts.”

Her campaign, eventually renamed the Crusade for Morality, drew a large following and the ordinance was repealed with 69 percent support. As Bryant and her husband celebrated, he kissed his wife for the cameras.

“This is what heterosexuals do, fellas!” he joked to a laughing crowd.

However, they weren’t done — homosexuality wasn’t just a Miami problem, it was widespread and needed to be fought. She would travel the country to spread the message of protecting children against homosexuals and worked to overturn, sometimes successfully, other protective ordinances.

Fliers were sent to homes across the country warning parents of the dangers of having gay teachers. In one, a donation could be sent back to the Crusade for Morality with a check box showing the person was against gays being allowed to teach or be ordained, in favor of prayers in public schools, and stricter control of sex and violence on television.

“She was very strongly disliked by the liberal and gay community,” Lawson said.

And they fought back. Lawson remembers people going into supermarkets and slicing open orange juice containers. The Florida Citrus Boycott Committee encouraged people to boycott Florida citrus products and instead purchase other fruit juices or orange products from other states. Celebrities also stood behind the equality movement.

It was in October 1977 that she made her infamous stop in Des Moines and was hit in the face by the banana cream pie. Two years later, the Florida Citrus Commission allowed her contract to lapse. Then, in 1980, Green and Bryant divorced, despite her religious convictions.

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Even though her mission was over, the damage had already been done. The LGBT rights movement was weakened by Bryant, and the final blow was the HIV/AIDS crisis.

“She slowed us down because she made a direct assault,” Lawson said.

However, the silver lining in the health crisis was it brought the LGBT community together to provide support for those suffering from the disease and the formation of better-organized groups.

The movement may have been knocked down, but decades later marriage equality is the law of the land and more protections are trickling from state to state.

Little did Bryant know how lethal a little banana pie, or orange juice, could be.

 

Editor's Note: This story was originally published in 2016.

This is a part of our LGBT History Month special package. Check out sfgn.com/2017historymonth daily for new stories. 


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