This article is an adaptation of an assembly I gave recently to mark LGBT History Month.
1969 was a landmark year for LGBT rights with the Stonewall riots in the USA. As a consequence, the 1970s saw a dramatic level of engagement and activism, but the history of this period is far less well known than the campaigns for civil rights led by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others. This is a fascinating – and ongoing – period of history and deserves a much greater spotlight from educators. This article will highlight one aspect of the campaign that shows how the boycott strategy was not just about buses in Montgomery, but also orange juice…
1977 was a watershed year for the campaign for equal rights for LGBT groups. This was because a famous American singer called Anita Bryant launched the ‘Save Our Children’ campaign. She was a big name in America: she sang at the Superbowl, she advertised Coca Cola, and at this time was the prominent face of Florida Orange Juice. In 1977, Dade County in Florida passed a law that prevented discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. Bryant – a committed Christian – was furious. In her campaign against gay rights she argued that because homosexuals can’t have their own children, they recruit and groom other people’s children and abuse them. She succeeded in overturning Dade County’s reform.
This campaign gripped America – and it mobilized the gay community. They launched a boycott of orange juice which meant that something as simple as doing your grocery shopping became a political act. If you bought orange juice it could be implied that you were homophobic. If you didn’t, it could be inferred that you were pro-gay rights. The orange juice boycott meant that it wasn’t used in drinks in gay bars, and instead people ordered an ‘Anita Bryant’ cocktail (vodka and apple juice) which meant the money went to the campaign to fight back. Bryant ultimately lost. She was criticized by leading public figures such as President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan – soon to be President of the USA and also a man who emphasised his Christianity in his politics.
The events of this period are captured brilliantly in the novel Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. This novel was serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle, which meant that Maupin could react to events as they happened in each instalment of the book. One of the most powerful pieces of modern American literature comes when a leading character, Michael, writes to his parents about the Bryant campaign. Michael has moved to San Francisco and his parents have no idea that he is gay. When he discovers that they support Anita Bryant, he writes to them to tell them the truth about his sexuality. This letter has since been used by countless thousands of young gay people (male and female) as a template for telling their own parents about their true selves. It goes like this:
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write. Every time I try to write you and Papa I realize I’m not saying the things that are in my heart. That would be OK, if I loved you any less than I do, but you are still my parents and I am still your child.
I have friends who think I’m foolish to write this letter. I hope they’re wrong. I hope their doubts are based on parents who love and trust them less than mine do. I hope especially that you’ll see this as an act of love on my part, a sign of my continuing need to share my life with you. I wouldn’t have written, I guess, if you hadn’t told me about your involvement in the Save Our Children campaign. That, more than anything, made it clear that my responsibility was to tell you the truth, that your own child is homosexual, and that I never needed saving from anything except the cruel and ignorant piety of people like Anita Bryant .
I’m sorry, Mama. Not for what I am, but for how you must feel at this moment. I know what that feeling is, for I felt it for most of my life. Revulsion, shame, disbelief – rejection through fear of something I knew, even as a child, was as basic to my nature as the colour of my eyes.
No, Mama, I wasn’t “recruited.” No seasoned homosexual ever served as my mentor. But you know what? I wish someone had. I wish someone older than me and wiser than the people in Orlando had taken me aside and said, “You’re all right, kid. You can grow up to be a doctor or a teacher just like anyone else. You’re not crazy or sick or evil. You can succeed and be happy and find peace with friends – all kinds of friends – who don’t give a damn who you go to bed with. Most of all, though, you can love and be loved, without hating yourself for it.”
But no one ever said that to me, Mama. I had to find it out on my own, with the help of the city that has become my home. I know this may be hard for you to believe, but San Francisco is full of men and women, both straight and gay, who don’t consider sexuality in measuring the worth of another human being.
These aren’t radicals or weirdos, Mama. They are shop clerks and bankers and little old ladies and people who nod and smile to you when you meet them on the bus. Their attitude is neither patronizing nor pitying. And their message is so simple: Yes, you are a person. Yes, I like you. Yes, it’s all right for you to like me, too.
I know what you must be thinking now. You’re asking yourself: What did we do wrong? How did we let this happen? Which one of us made him that way?
I can’t answer that, Mama. In the long run, I guess I really don’t care. All I know is this: If you and Papa are responsible for the way I am, then I thank you with all my heart, for it’s the light and the joy of my life.
I know I can’t tell you what it is to be gay. But I can tell you what it’s not.
It’s not hiding behind words, Mama. Like family and decency and Christianity. It’s not fearing your body, or the pleasures that God made for it. It’s not judging your neighbour, except when he’s crass or unkind.
Being gay has taught me tolerance, compassion and humility. It has shown me the limitless possibilities of living. It has given me people whose passion and kindness and sensitivity have provided a constant source of strength.
It has brought me into the family of man, Mama, and I like it here. I like it.
There’s not much else I can say, except that I’m the same Michael you’ve always known. You just know me better now. I have never consciously done anything to hurt you. I never will.
Please don’t feel you have to answer this right away. It’s enough for me to know that I no longer have to lie to the people who taught me to value truth.
Your loving son,
The first time I heard this letter was in 2005, when my older cousin Dugald registered his civil partnership with his long-time partner Gerald. They were one of the first couples in the UK to take advantage of this change in the law and Gerald read the letter at the ceremony. It was one of the proudest days of my life.
My simple message to my pupils is this. Your sexuality is an intrinsic part of who you are; as Michael says it is as basic to your nature as the colour of your eyes. It is a huge part of your identity. I hope that any member of a school community who has the bravery to come out as being gay is treated with the utmost kindness. It is an act that takes a lot of courage and is worthy of respect. I also passionately believe that any community is made stronger by diversity. Imagine how boring the world would be if we were all the same.