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Gay rights debate rages on 30 years after Miami-Dade challenge

BryantThirty years ago, most people didn't think about gay rights, much less discuss the issue in public.

A 1977 battle in Miami-Dade County between two local mothers changed all that, launching both the modern public debate about homosexuality and the emergence of politically powerful Christian conservatives.

While voters cast a decisive ''no'' vote for gay rights 30 years ago this week, the discussion triggered by the divisive debate -- which ended the friendship between singing star Anita Bryant and then-Miami-Dade Commissioner Ruth Shack -- has not ceased.

''It was the beginning of two movements, the Christian Coalition and gay rights,'' Shack now says.

''Prior to this, there was very little meaningful discussion outside the gay community about gay rights,'' said Fred Fejes, a Florida Atlantic University communications professor who is writing an academic book, Moral Panic: The Origin of the American Debate on Gay Rights.

And, Fejes said, ``We think about the religious right as being well organized. But back in 1977, there was no organized religious right, per se. Anita Bryant was a pioneer.''

The controversy started in December 1976, a month after Shack's election. She introduced an amendment to the county's nondiscrimination law to ban bias in jobs, housing and public accommodations on the basis of ``affectional or sexual preference.''

At the time, Shack's husband, Richard, was the theatrical agent for Bryant, who was Florida's orange juice spokeswoman. The Shacks socialized with Bryant, a 1959 Miss America runner-up, and her husband-manager Bob Green, a '50s rock 'n' roll disc jockey.

When Shack introduced the gay-rights measure, Bryant spoke out.

'I made a stand not against homosexuals, as persons, but against legislation that would tend to `normalize' and abet their life-style, and would especially afford them influence over our children who attended private religious schools,'' Bryant wrote in her 1992 autobiography, A New Day. She did not reply to several e-mail interview requests.

Kunst77Nineteen American cities already had passed similar laws. Shack's proposal unanimously passed on first reading.

On Jan. 18, 1977, an angry throng of conservatives, led by Bryant, packed the county's downtown Miami commission chambers. But the ordinance passed 5-3.

An unsigned Miami Herald editorial two days later congratulated Shack. But 10 days later, Herald Executive Editor John McMullan wrote another opinion:

''The Herald editorially opposed discrimination toward any group, including gays, while pointing out that it certainly was not endorsing homosexuality,'' he wrote. ``But subsequent actions more and more have indicated that this was a manufactured issue -- concocted, we suspect, by those more interested in flaunting their new deviate freedom than in preventing discrimination which they conceded they had not experienced.''

McMullan, who retired from The Herald in 1983, stands by his words.

''That was fair, certainly at the time,'' he said. ``It was the flaunting that always bothered me. But what people do behind closed doors is their business. Government has no place in those issues.''

CONSERVATIVES REACT

The ordinance nudged conservatives to action, according to Shirley Spellerberg, a right-wing '70s South Florida radio and television commentator.

''That was the first time anything like that had reared its head,'' said Spellerberg, who moved in 1980 and soon after was elected mayor of Corinth, Texas. ``As long as homosexuals do what they do in private, no problem. But when they start marching in the streets, and wanting to adopt children and have marriage vows, that is too much.''

On just one Sunday, Feb. 13, conservative Christians at 20 Miami-Dade churches collected nearly 12,000 petitions demanding a referendum. One month later, commissioners voted 6-3 to hold a special election June 7.

ShackBob Green, now 76, recalls how Bryant became involved:

''I sat down with our pastor and Anita on a blanket in our courtyard in our house on North Bay Road,'' Green said. 'I said, `You know, Anita . . . we don't need this kind of involvement and pressure on our family.' I said, 'These homosexuals are so flamboyant, so out front, the news will love them. You've got America and apple pie on one side and the homosexuals on the other.' ''

The Rev. William Chapman of Northwest Baptist Church easily persuaded Bryant, Green said.

'Our pastor said, `She's God's mother for America.' He firmly believed that Anita was sent by God, chosen, sent. He indicated to her that as a Christian mother and woman, this was her obligation.''

Bryant capitalized on her image, helping start a political group called Save Our Children. It produced TV ads depicting hedonistic gay-pride rallies in San Francisco.

''You had Anita Bryant saying, `Look-it, these people are sick and immoral,'' Fejes said. ``What would the typical heterosexual American know about homosexuality in 1977? Much of what they knew was what they learned in the '50s and '60s, that it was a sickness and a perversion.''

MOVING THE TARGET

Then the media discovered Bob Kunst, a Miami gay activist who with best friend Alan Rockway, a psychologist, ran a gay, bisexual and straight group called the Transperience Center in Coconut Grove.

Kunst began his own campaign -- attacking Bryant, calling for a boycott of Florida orange juice and using slogans like ``Better Blatant Than Latent.''

Shack was appalled. She and a few other liberals, including former state Rep. Marshall Harris, spoke about discrimination. Kunst spoke about sexual freedom.

''I introduced this as an antidiscrimination ordinance, he turned it into a lifestyle discussion,'' Shack said. ``It turned it into a discussion of sexuality and bestiality and pedophilia, as opposed to discrimination in the workforce.''

Kunst, who lives in Miami Beach and is now campaigning for Hillary Clinton, is proud of bringing gay sex out of the closet.

''There's no other community in the world that had the debate about sexuality like we did,'' said Kunst, who turns 65 in July. ``What did we do that was so wrong?''

Shack, a plain-spoken mother of three, was no match for the outrageous, publicity-driven Kunst.

Soon Kunst was debating Bryant, Shack became a third party and the campaign morphed into a circus that made network news and the cover of Newsweek.

On June 7, nearly 300,000 Miami-Dade voters went to the polls. The final vote: 202,319 (about 70 percent) in favor of repeal; 89,562 against.

''Today, the laws of God and the cultural values of man have been vindicated,'' Bryant declared.

Bryant, now 67, won the battle, but lost her career. She left South Florida in 1980.

In response to the landslide, Florida's Legislature banned gays from adopting. The 1977 law, still in effect, is the only absolute ban in the nation.

Resurrecting the ordinance came up several times after that, without enough support to pass it. On Dec. 1, 1998, the County Commission again passed the law, on a 7-6 vote.

Opponents petitioned for a vote. On Sept. 10, 2002, the law was narrowly upheld.

Times changed. The Archdiocese of Miami, Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and Miami Herald all strongly supported the new anti-discrimination law, said Shack, who was reelected twice and lost a bid to become county mayor in 1984. Since 1985, she has been president of the nonprofit Dade Community Foundation, which manages philanthropic funds and makes grants for community projects.

''I was pleased that I had seen the community and its point of view change such that it could now be held up,'' said Shack, 75.

McMullan, 85, who's lived in Dade since 1926, agrees.

''We've come a long way in this community,'' McMullan said, noting that the 1977 campaign caused a sea change. ``Those were difficult times. It was trailblazing, in a way. When you have trailblazing, you have a lot of controversy.''

1977 photos from top: Bryant, Kunst, Shack

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    I'm frequently at the same events as Ruth Shack; I've seen her art collection in her home. Never once did I imagine that this gracious, and wonderful woman had become a figurehead in early gay-rights advocacy. My generation only vaguely knows of Anita Bryant, and haven't been taught about the struggles in the late 70s and early 80s. How marvelous that there are pioneers for our cause still among us.

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