The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The myth that has shaped the Christian Right and the LGBTQ rights movement for four decades

How the story of Anita Bryant became legend without being true

Demonstrators carry signs of Adolf Hitler, Anita Bryant, the Ku Klux Klan and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin during a 1977 gay rights march in San Francisco. (AP) (AP)

One story serves as a foundation for both the LGBTQ rights movement and the Christian Right, an early symbol of how the quest for equality might be attainable for the former, and an alarming sign that if the other did not organize, its values would be trampled.

In 1977, less than a decade after the Stonewall uprising helped to spark a new radicalism among gay and lesbian activists, they encountered a celebrity foe, Anita Bryant — evangelical pop star and Florida orange juice spokeswoman. Bryant mobilized a backlash against new gay rights legislation, first locally and then nationally. Gay rights activists responded with a boycott of Florida orange juice. By 1981, Bryant was no longer an orange juice spokeswoman, and it seemed that the boycott had worked.

Both sides learned the importance of grass-roots organization and publicity campaigns, and accordingly formulated strategies that would become central for two of the most significant social movements of the late 20th century.

There is just one problem with this story. It's all based on a myth. Rather than ending the career of “the Florida orange juice girl” the boycott likely extended her time in the spotlight.

Though false, the story of the orange juice boycott shows that myths can sometimes have a greater impact than reality.

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of seismic cultural changes with deep implications for both LGBTQ rights and Christian conservatism. For much of the 20th century, homosexuality was illegal and actively policed. Being outed could cost people their jobs, their families and even their freedom. Until 1973, same-sex attraction was officially classified as a mental illness.

Until the 1960s, therefore, the gay rights movement, led by “homophile” groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, provided social support and lobbied for some gay rights measures, but public activism was limited. Most members were closeted and the risks of coming out were too high.

In the 1960s, however, a new generation of activists was inspired by the radical and often theatrical politics of the New Left, contemporary feminist groups and Black Power. The Gay Liberation Front and other groups began to insist on gay visibility and to demand equal rights.

By the late 1970s, gay rights groups were flourishing in the big centers of New York and San Francisco. They were also beginning to emerge in places like Miami, St. Paul, Eugene, Ore., and Wichita. They had some success at winning inclusion in local anti-discrimination codes.

These victories energized the movement, but they were deeply troubling to Christian conservatives, who approved of the pre-1960s status quo and the legal bans on homosexuality that reflected their moral values.

Anita Bryant shared these views. She also had a platform from which she could do something. She used her celebrity to mobilize conservative activists and draw media attention to gay rights battles. Under the banner of her “Protect America’s Children” campaign, she helped to defeat anti-discrimination codes in Miami, Eugene, St. Paul and Wichita.

The success of Bryant’s first campaign in Miami prompted the gay rights movement to launch a boycott of Florida orange juice.

Yet, what they didn’t know was that by 1977, Bryant’s status as the spokeswoman for Florida orange juice was tenuous. Market research conducted by the Florida Citrus Commission revealed that her effectiveness as a spokeswoman had been declining for years. By the time the boycott began, the commission had already run successful tests on commercials to replace Bryant.

But the boycott placed the Citrus Commission in a precarious position. If they let Bryant go, they would appear to be either pro-gay or cowed by the gay rights movement. Mail poured into the commission’s offices but offered no clear path forward. Letters from gay rights activists arrived in equal number to letters from Bryant’s supporters, who threatened a counter-boycott if Bryant was fired.

In the end, the commission retained Bryant. A news release announcing the decision stated that the commission was “proud to be associated with Anita Bryant.” It also complained that the boycotts threatened “by either her friends or opponents is making use of a product in a moral issue in which it does not deserve to be embroiled.”

Bryant continued to be the face of Florida orange juice and the anti-gay-rights backlash until 1980.

Ultimately, it was her personal life that toppled Bryant. In 1980, her marriage fell apart. She initiated a messy public divorce over the objections of her husband and her pastor. Once a symbol of cheery suburban motherhood, she could no longer fill that role. Televangelists who had once been her allies now disavowed her as “wicked,” rebellious and a “disgrace.”

Only then did the Citrus Commission let her go, recognizing that her best selling points as a pitchwoman were no more.

Activists on both sides, however, quickly jumped to the conclusion that became political gospel: The boycott had ruined Bryant. This interpretation was incorrect, but it has proven so powerful, despite its inaccuracy, because it expresses profound truths for both groups.

Bryant stoked this narrative. Almost as soon as she became involved in the campaign against gay rights legislation, she claimed she had lost bookings and been “blacklisted” because of the actions of the “militant homosexuals” who opposed her.

This story resonated with conservative Christians, who were just beginning to mobilize in new ways to protect moral values that they believed were under attack by the gay rights movement, feminists and other forces on the left. The idea that their standard-bearer had been brought down by gay activists provided proof to support the narrative of cultural alienation that animated this movement.

For gay rights groups, this interpretation was also profound. The boycott helped to transform a still fragile, atomized movement into a national powerhouse. Bryant became the national symbol that the gay liberation movement needed, and the boycott offered an opportunity for groups across the country to demonstrate solidarity with one another.

In California, the San Francisco Tavern Guild printed signs that were posted in bars across the city. They announced, “To promote human rights, this establishment does not serve Florida orange juice or orange juice from concentrate.” Bartenders squeezed California oranges or made cocktails with apple juice or Tang.

The boycott also made it possible for far-flung supporters to forge a personal connection with the movement. In cities and towns that had no gay rights hubs, individuals could still boycott Florida orange juice in a show of solidarity. For those who needed to stay in the closet, the boycott offered a means of quiet rebellion.

Over time, the idea of the boycott’s success became a kind of folk tale in the LGBTQ movement. And in the retelling, the story almost made itself true. The boycott did not succeed in ending Bryant’s tenure as the “Florida orange juice girl.” But it did succeed in a broader sense, by helping to forge a national movement, garnering public support and drawing national attention to the issue of gay rights.

History is about facts, but it is also about stories. And sometimes, the fact that a story isn’t true doesn’t necessarily render it meaningless. Modern folklore, like the narrative of the successful orange juice boycott, can often tell us a great deal about the communities that have treasured it and passed it on.

President Warren G. Harding once said of a different national myth: “if it isn’t true, it ought to be.” But what we should ask ourselves as we sift through history is: “If it isn’t true, why do we want it to be?” What can we learn from the story?

In this case, it helps us to understand the perspectives and priorities of two significant and mutually opposed movements. On one hand, we see the sense of cultural alienation that mobilized millions of conservative Christians into a movement that remains influential today, arguably dominating one of the two major political parties. On the other hand, we see the forging of a national gay liberation movement built on common goals and shared battle stories like the orange juice boycott. The needs of these two movements helped turn a myth into a lodestar for millions of activists, in turn helping to shape the politics of the last four decades.