The year 1977 was a watershed moment which marked an essential and historical change for the gay civil rights movement in Utah. In January, Commissioners of Dade County, Florida passed a gay anti-discrimination ordinance.
Anita Bryant, a Florida citrus industry spokeswoman, and former Miss America runner-up, then spearheaded an anti-gay movement called the Save Our Children Committee. They claimed that homosexuality posed a threat to America’s children as they believed that America’s youth were leading into the “deviant lifestyle.” Backed by Christian fundamentalists, Bryant as a spokesperson was able to collect enough signatures to force a ballot referendum and in June the ordinance was repealed. The Save Our Children’s anti-gay movement began a national backlash on the gay rights in many cities and states that had previously passed gay rights ordinances.
Bryant’s ties to the citrus industry in Florida made orange juice a boycott item in gay households and businesses for several years starting in 1977. A favorite Florida Orange Juice advertisement “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine” was changed to the slogan “A day without Human Rights is like a day without sunshine” in the gay community. The play on the Florida citrus campaign became a rallying cry in the gay civil rights movement.
In early June, a Gay Freedom Day “Human Rights Conference and Symposium” was held in Salt Lake City and was attended by nearly 500 attendees. However, without the help of Joe Redburn, owner of The Sun Club, the symposium would not have broken even. A few days before the seminar, Dade County, which included the city of Miami, repealed their anti-discrimination ordinance.
One of the keynote speakers invited to the Salt Lake conference was Leonard Matlovich, a former Vietnam Air Force Veteran. He had been excommunicated from the Mormon Church and was at the time fighting his dishonorable discharge for coming out publicly as a gay man. He had even made the cover of Time magazine.
At the opening ceremony of the symposium, a reporter noted how a few people wore “Gay and Proud” buttons, probably astonished that anyone would be so open in public about their sexual orientation. At the time Matlovich told reporters that he was in town to “continue the battle of Dade County … and we shall overcome … No longer will we be your slaves of silence. We will be free Americans just like everyone else.” Matlovich added that gays “demand our rights but in a nonviolent way. The gay campaign centers on the ability of homosexuals to acknowledge who they are without fear of reprisal or discrimination.”
On the weekend of the symposium, Barbara Smith, president of the LDS Relief Society of the Mormon Church, sent a telegram to Bryant congratulating her for her work to repeal the protection of homosexuals in employment and housing. Bryant’s commendation in the message said, “On behalf of the one million members of the Relief Society … we commend you for your courageous and effective efforts in combating homosexuality and laws that would legitimize this insidious lifestyle.”
In an article, “Unnatural Without Excuse,” in the Deseret News, Mormon Apostle Mark E. Peterson claimed that “every right-thinking person will sustain Miss Bryant as a prayerful, upright citizen, for her stand.” Peterson hoped she would “keep this evil from spreading, by legal acceptance, through our society.”
On the 8th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, Hugh Bringhurst, director of the Utah State Fair, announced that Bryant would be the headline entertainer at the fall event.
What the gay community’s response was to the Bryant invite was to the State Fair was to hold a meeting on July 14 to inform and coordinate plans for a protest at the fair. Only six organizations sent representatives to the meeting. The groups which participated were the Metropolitan Community Church of Salt Lake, the Gay Services Coalition, the Gay Student Union, Affirmation, Women Aware, and the Socialist Workers Party. Although Integrity/Dignity was invited, they declined to state they had reservations over joining forces with a group which included Marxists, a reference to the Socialist Workers Party.
While Women Aware stated the purpose of any demonstration around Bryant’s appearance should be to bring solidarity to the gay community and to get media coverage, they admitted that there would only be a modest response from feminist groups. They also said not to expect much straight support for any protest. The gay community was primarily on their own.
The months leading up to the Sep. 18 appearance of Bryant at the State Fair was filled getting the word out and organizing the community. Camille Tartaglia, of the Imperial Court, had been voted chairperson of the State Fair Committee of the Salt Lake Coalition for Human Rights. The Village Idiot, a head shop, which advertised poppers as “something for your head” also sold T-shirts boasting “Let he who has not sinned cast the first orange” and “Anita Bryant Sucks Oranges.” They also sold bumper stickers with the slogan “Hurricane Anita.”
Thus the first gay protest in Utah, organized by the Salt Lake Coalition for Human Rights, was held 40 years ago at the State Fair Grounds to protest Bryant’s invitation. Rev. Bob Waldrop of the Metropolitan Community Church had rented a booth at the fair which he donated surreptitiously to the committee from which the protest staged. Tartaglia organized a picket line of over 100 people at the fairgrounds. There, gay protestors were spat upon and faced an openly hostile mob. However, the supporters of Gay Liberation silently stood their ground for the right to “co-exist on this planet with their brothers and sisters.” The protest march outside went without incident. Inside the arena was a different matter.
One eyewitness remembered that as Bryant sang, “thousands of foot-stomping, Bible-toting zealots, ignorance overriding good taste, filled the stadium as a handful of brave men and women picketed outside the stadium in the cause of human dignity against man’s inhumanity to man.”
However, according to Chuck Whyte, who was 19 years old at the time and inside the stadium, several gay protestors had sneaked in oranges and pelted the stage which caused Bryant’s performance to be interrupted. Security hustled Bryant off the stage and into her limousine wherein she left the fairgrounds. The orange throwers quickly dispersed into the crowd and managed to go without any incident.
After leaving the fairgrounds, the protestors went to Temple Square chanting gay pride slogans and then proceeded over to Memory Grove. Tartaglia had brought in Bob Kuntz as a keynote speaker. Kuntz had led Miami’s opposition to the campaign to repeal Dade County’s gay rights ordinance. Over 500 people attended the candlelight vigil organized by Women Aware. The vigil was for those who they feared would be killed or commit suicide as a direct result of the Dade County controversy.