A bitter fight is shaping up here as Miami's controversial "gay rights" law head for an election test.
Forced by a petition drive which gathered 6 times more signatures than needed, the Dade County Commission here voted to call a special election June 7 to decide the fate of a newly passed ordinance which prohibits discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, labor unions and private education.
Now both sides are gearing up for a campaign which has already attracted national attention because of the involvement of singer Anita Bryant. Bryant heads Save Our Children, Inc., the group which secured the petitions and which has spearheaded opposition to the gay mights law, passed Jan. 18.
The first salvo in the print campaign was fired last weekend, when anti-ordinance forces placed full-page advertisements in The Miami Herald and The Miami News.
"This is not a campaign to kick the homosexuals out of where they've always been," said Bob Green, Bryant's husband and business manager. "It's strictly a defensive measure on our part." Save Our Children contends that passage of the law will enable homosexuals to "recruit" youths.
The accusation was reiterated in the Sunday ad, which charged that the ordinance will allow homosexuals "to provide 'role models' for the impressionable - that is, the right to tell all society, especially our youth, that homosexually isn't wrong, just 'different' and, of course, 'Gays.'"
Such charges are denounced angrily by supporters of the ordinance. "This is absolutely a specious argument," said Ruth Shack, the commissioner who introduced the bill. And Bob Basker, spokesman for the Dade County Coalition for the Humanistic Rights of Gays, which is coordinating the gay campaign, pointed out that crime statistics show that society has more to fear from the heterosexual molester of female children than from the homosexual molester of male children.
Shack and Basker say the real issue is human rights, and that they expect to win the election when voters realize that.
"We hope to mount a full-blown political campaign with newspaper ads, television and public speakers," Basker said.
All this may become moot, however, if the election is called off, which now seems a possibility because of public outcry over its estimated cost of $400,000. Some county commissioners who voted for the election indicate they may switch to outright repeal of the ordinance. That decision will be made April 5.
The gays, meanwhile, have countered with an offer to underwrite the cost of the election by soliciting contributions from gay groups nationwide.
Why has the Miami ordinance created such a controversy when similar laws in 34 other cities had been passed and put into effect relatively quietly?
Both sides here believe it is because Anita Bryant has come out publicly against the law.
"Washington and other cities," said Neil Rodgers of the Dade Gay Coalition, "haven't had a major personality come out and create a witch hunt. People have lost sight of the issue; the controversy has become personality-oriented."
Bryant's husband agreed, noting that "Anita is the first person with a name to come out and speak on this issue." But timing is part of the reason as well, he says. "In the last few months everything has been coming to a head - violence on TV, pornography, and the movies portraying Jesus and his 'sex life,' and these issues all hit the morally concerned citizen at the same time."
Other observers see the powerful backing of church groups here as a strong factor. The law applies to private schools, and this fact brought heavy opposition from the Roman fundamentalist churches in the area.
That the issue has national dimension already is evident.
"As of Thursday," said Green, "we have received over $19,000 in unsolicited funds from out of state. We are getting 1,000 letters a day now, and have seven people assigned to do nothing but open and sort mail.Any time you get mail in that quantity you know you're stirring a lot of people."
Basker said his group, too, has been receiving letters, telephone calls and financial aid from other parts of the country as well as locally, both from gay and straight supporters. He estimated the coalition had already received about $20,000.
Many of the contributors, he said, are "terrorized by fear of a witch hunt."
Last week, a car belonging to a Latin who spoke out for gay rights on a Miami television news show was firebombed here.
Manuel Gomez said, "The firebombing is an absurd act, probably by a super-macho Cuban who felt ashamed at a Latin who was gay and wanted to give a warning."
Miami's fight over the ordinance seems certain to spread elsewhere. SOC has attacked HR 2998, a bill currently before Congress with many of the same provisions as the Miami law. Catholic archbishop here and other SOC says that even if the Miami ordinance is repealed, "the battle . . . has not ended." Green and Bryant haven't said so, but the implication is clear that they could become the focus for a national campaign against that bill.