Anita Bryant, country singer and gay-rights opponent, had a banana cream pie thrown in her face by Tom Higgins, an openly gay man from Minneapolis, in 1977 during a press conference in Des Moines, Iowa. Instead of retaliating, Bryant’s husband, Bob Green, said to let Higgins go untouched as they prayed for him.Photo: AP
A few months ago, I appreciated Nancy Grace’s perspective. News media were reporting that a woman named Jessica Dutro had killed her little boy because she thought he might be gay. As a gay dad, I hurt for the little boy, but found that in much of the reporting, he had been ignored. The reporting was around the mother and it was her picture that was plastered in public view.
Except by Nancy Grace. When I went to her report, there was Zachary front and center. The focus of the attention was on him, as it should have been.
Through Nancy Grace, I met Zachary and was moved to write a requiem that seemed to mean a lot for tens of thousands of readers, and give his life some public legacy.
My gratitude for Ms. Grace waned significantly this week however. In a report with author Dr. Bethany Marshall about celebrity stalkers and “enormous aggression directed at stars,” Ms. Grace fell into a pool of misinformation, revisionist history and mind boggling insensitivity, all within a matter of minutes.
After fairly interesting comments on the psychology of stalkers, Ms. Grace seemed to get struck in the brain with a whole lot of crazy.
“Do you remember Anita Bryant?” she blurted out of nowhere:
“Anita Bryant was a religious singer, I think she represented the orange industry, she had a lot of conservative views, she had this beautiful voice, she was everywhere singing all the time, a lot of time it was Christian inspirational music.
“I still remember when I was a little girl, somebody came up and did this to her (picture of Anita with pie in her face), in public, I mean she was speaking on some issue dear to her heart, and I remember that as a little girl , she is a lady, to come out and I, I, don’t understand that, I don’t understand that, Bethany, why did that guy do that?
“That was the first time I recall this happening …to her… I mean, look at her, she makes me think of my own mother, why would you do this…to a sweet lady, whether you agree with her politics or not, why would you do that?”
Dr. Bethany Marshall, staying with her outline of what makes a stalker continued the madness, responds:
“Nancy, it speaks to the enormous envy I’m talking about. The fact is, what do we do when we are envious, we try to destroy the object of our envy.
“Anita Bryant was beautiful as you pointed out, she could sing, and what did he do, he attacked the most beautiful part of her. He defaced her, he wanted to humiliate her, he wanted to cut her down to size, he wanted to say ‘you are not all that’ and we think about this perp, he’s saying this to all these stars, “you’re not all that, I’m the one that should have the limelight, …so he’s climbing over the back of others to make himself a star, showing enormous aggression while he does it, it is really an attack on their agency.”
For those of us who lived through the days of Anita Bryant, and for those of us who simply know how to “google,” the conversation was shocking both in its dishonesty as well as in its disrespect for the historical context of the event it described.
Author Christopher Rice posted on his Facebook page:
“This is a prominent T.V. personality replacing history with lazy, uninformed crap and it has to be called out. Taking this incident out of context and weaving it into a bland, boring story about celebrities getting harassed on red carpets is outrageous and irresponsible. If Anita Bryant reminds Nancy Grace of her mother, should we also hold Nancy Grace’s mother responsible for scores of gay suicides?”
Calling out Ms. Grace, and her minion, Dr. Bethany Marshall sounded appropriate to me as well. Here is my open letter to them:
Dear Ms. Grace, with a copy to Dr. Marshall,
Your recent commentary on the danger in which stars find themselves due to stalkers was perversely intriguing. While I give you the benefit of the doubt on Brad Pitt’s recent situation, your leap into drawing a parallel with Anita Bryant was fallacious and deeply offensive.
I realize in the pace of television some facts are easy to skip, or even disregard. It would be easy to chalk some inaccuracies up to being “honest mistakes.”
In this case, such a dismissal is a little tougher when you, Ms. Grace claimed recall the incident from the perspective of “being a little girl”, when it actually occurred nine days before your 18th birthday.
You were actually a young adult and surely one that knew that Anita Bryant was not just some “sweet lady” singer with random conservative views. Anyone of my generation knew she was the freshly minted lightning rod for gay hatred.
To be fair, she did not see herself that way, but many of her own supporters did. Her son Robert Green Jr. made this clear in an interview.
He said: “I remember in the heat of the controversy going into a shop with my mom… [a man] came over and shook her hand and said he backed what she was doing and basically said “I hate fags, too.” She immediately set him straight about that, that she did not hate anyone. That wasn’t the point for her about what she was trying to do.”
As a gay dad, father to two 11-year-old boys who were adopted from foster care as babies, I can tell you that what Anita Bryant WAS trying to do was de-humanizing. Under the rallying cry of “save our children” she fought to keep gay people from becoming school teachers.
I can only imagine what she would think of me saving mine from death and disaster at the hand of drug addicted birth parents. She stated, “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children.”
Her commentary was not some benign statement of conservative political ideals, they were vile attacks on LGBT people.
She called the initial campaign “the seed of sexual sickness that germinated in Dade county “ and considered herself at war. In an infamous Playboy Magazine interview she justified calling gay men “fruits” because “they eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of life. God referred to men as trees, and because the homosexuals eat the forbidden fruit, which is male sperm.”
So, no, Thom Higgins who mashed a banana cream pie in her face was not imagining a personal relationship with her where he was envious of her beauty queen looks and ability to sing. He was angry.
While on camera, she and her husband were forgiving and gracious. Afterwards, Robert Green Sr. smashed another pie into one of the gay men’s faces in the parking lot.
Had she gotten her way in the national campaign she launched, first in Florida and then in Kansas, my family would have no rights. LGBT people would be unemployable, and with a health crisis on the horizon, many more of us would be dead.
Her intention still rings out: “If homosexuals are allowed their civil rights then so would prostitutes, thieves or anyone else.” Her victory in Witchita allowed many who fought against her in the campaign there to be evicted from their homes afterwards.
Sometimes the war for civil and human rights mirrors the laws of nature however, and Newton’s third law specifically: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Anita Bryant became the image of the threat to LGBT people everywhere and her voice galvanized activism. Her actions inspired a city politician named Harvey Milk to get elected, and gave him a voice that not only drowned hers out, it catapulted on into immortality.
As a dad, I tell my kids not to throw their food. Thom Higgins did that, and I would have scolded him.
I also teach my sons to respect and give dignity to others. Anita Bryant did not do that, and as such, I would have had her face some consequences for her actions. She lost her marriage, her career and her fame. Ultimately her efforts turned on her and she inspired a movement that was unified against all the bigotry and hatred she personified.
She paid her price.
Most of all, I require my sons to be honest and communicate with integrity. You did not do that. We expect better from you.
If I was your dad, you would be getting a big timeout right now.