Anita Bryant sang popular and religious numbers here Thursday night at a banquet of the State Bar of Texas, the professional association of the state's lawyers, while 4,000 homosexuals and their supporters rallied on the mall of the Houston Public Library and sang "We Shall Overcome," "America the Beautiful," "Jesus Loves Me," and other patriotic and religious songs.
Then the group paraded peacefully post the Hyatt Regency Hotel where Bryant appeared, shaking their uplifted fists and chanting "Go Home Anita" and "Equal rights now."
Shortly before the homosexual rally, about 200 of Bryant's supporters gathered in front of Houston's city hall to hear the Rev. Joe West, a fundamentalist Baptist preacher from San Antonio, excoriate homosexuals and say they should "go back in their closets and stay there until they repent their wickedness."
This appearance was the first for Bryant in a major city since she championed the defeat on June 7 of an ordinance in Dade County, Florida, banning discrimination against homosexuals in hiring and housing. Her visit proved quite peaceful. Bryant did not appear to be close to turning Houston, a bastion of southern Baptists and other religious conservatives into another Miami. West, for example, said he was disappointed by the low turnout at his rally.
Bryant's invitation to sing here had a tortuous history. Gibson Gale, president of the State Bar, first invited her to appear, then uninvited her, hinting that he feared violence and couldn't insure her security. He finally reinvited her after protests from other attorneys that she was being barred because of her political views in violation of her First Amendment rights.
Another state bar spokesman had acknowledged that Bryant was to have been dropped because she was "too controversial," and had added that her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment "had a lot more to do with it than her opposition to homosexuals."
By the time she did appear, the event seemed to be an anticlimax. She didn't express any anti-homosexual views before the lawyer's group.
The chief effect of Bryant's visit seemed to be to unify and galvanize Houston's homosexual community. Ray Hill, executive director of the Houston Human Rights League who calls himself a salaried gay activist and lobbyist, looked out over the crowd gathering for the rally early Thursday night and said: "I've been trying to organize gays in Houston for three years, and all I can say is, "Thank you, Anita!'"
Houston homosexuals however, are not seeking a Dade county-style ordinance, which may be one reason their sexual preference has not been politicized. "I don't think that gay rights or any other rights ought to be put to a vote," Hill said.
In Houston, he continues, homosexuals have achieved tolerance cooperating with local officials on an administrative level. Among the advances he cited are a tacit "non-raid, non-harassment policy by the Houston police" and nonenforcement of Texas's misdemeanor sodomy laws.
In recent years, through the efforts of Hill and others, homosexuals have organized voter registration campaigns and other political efforts. Several politicians have openly sought homosexual support, as did Mayor Fred Hofheinz in his 1975 election campaign. State Rep. Ron Waters, who represents Houston's Montrose neighborhood, a Bohemian area favored by homosexuals, young people, black professionals, Mexican Americans and others, also asked for gay support and credits the gay vote with turning the neighborhood from conservative to liberal.
"The reality here is that the establishment doesn't want for us to become a political issue and we don't want for us to become a political issue," Hill said.
Dr. James Leslie McCary, a psychology professor at the University of Houston who has written books including "Human Sexuality," and "Sexual Myths and Fallacies" said, "This community is not bothered by homosexuality."
In the 30 years he's been here, McCary continues, even the police department, often accused of brutality by others, has had a tradition enforced by its top leadership of generally leaving homosexuals alone.
Homosexuals here do have their critics, however. Most of them seem to be the same people who have appeared frequently at Houston city council's public sessions for the past year complaining about pornography, with some results. Now they are beginning to go after gays.
One housewife charged before the council this week that the University of Houston was a "recruiting center" for homosexuals. Another critic, the Rev. Albert Walling, associate rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, said that teachers should be screened to weed out even closet homosexuals just as Episcopal priests were when he was ordained. Walling who heads the Houston Community Standards Coalition, said that he personally advocated enforcement of the state's sodomy laws "both in the adult bookstores and in the bedrooms."