Anita Bryant–is there a more hated name amongst the LGBT community? Perhaps, but not many. Even though it’s been decades since her damaging words filled pages and airtime, her work has left a legacy. For some, the effects of that legacy are more personal than for others. That couldn’t be more apparent than in Andrea Meyerson’s Letter to Anita.
This documentary explores the aftermath of former beauty queen and public figure Anita’s anti-gay campaign of the late ‘70s, as seen through the eyes of Ronni Sanlo. The results of the campaign so affected Ronni that she penned a letter to Anita in 2009. In a clever move, Meyerson used the letter to structure her film and had out actress Meredith Baxter narrate.
Ronni was a married mother of two living in Florida when she came out in 1979. What she didn’t realize at the time was that Anita’s Save Our Children coalition, formed in 1977, had been so effective that in 1978 the Florida legislature passed an anti-gay parenting law (among other anti-gay laws), which stated that homosexuals could not have children. This ultimately meant that after her divorce she not only didn’t receive joint custody, she actually had to settle for a limited visitation arrangement of two days every two weeks–days that her ex-husband selected.
Of course, anti-gay policies in Florida did not begin or end with Anita’s work. The movie does an amazing job detailing the efforts of the Johns Committee, 20 years prior, to rid the state government and public education of homosexuals, as well as the Bush-Trask Amendment of 1981-82, which looked to deny state funding to higher education institutions with gay student groups. The latter would result in one of Ronni’s great accomplishments, as in her role as executive director and lobbyist for the Florida Task Force, she and peers from other organizations took the amendment to the Florida Supreme Court, where it was ruled unconstitutional.
It’s doubtful that Ronni would have ever been involved in such work if it weren’t for the whirlwind Anita’s actions put her through. Since losing custody of her kids, her ex-husband and his fundamentalist parents had taught them to hate and fear her. They were scared to so much as touch her because they had heard that since she was a lesbian and worked with men with AIDS (which she did at the time as an AIDS surveillance officer), she must have AIDS too, and touching her would make them get sick and die. Regrettably, the age of consent in Florida was 12 at the time, and her daughter chose to not see her anymore. At nine-years-old, her son was too young to see her on his own, meaning his sister’s refusal to visit with Ronni resulted in her not seeing both her kids again until they were in their twenties.
Ronni stayed in Florida until 1994 when her children were both adults. She had wanted to stay nearby in case they needed her, but since they were of age by ’94 she felt it made sense to accept the University of Michigan’s offer to have her direct the school’s Lesbian and Gay Programs office. This kick-started a long career in higher education, and three years later she became the director of UCLA’s LGBT center. And while Anita’s legacy will be little more than a regrettable blurb in our history books, Ronni’s includes establishing “Lavender Graduation” at the University of Michigan in 1995. The first of its kind, the ceremony recognizes LGBT and ally graduates and is now tradition at many colleges and universities across the U.S.
The film also features Anita’s son, Robert Green Jr., and his wife. He reveals he grew up to slightly resent his mother for essentially making him a poster child for her campaign. Yet while he appears sympathetic to Ronni’s plight, you can tell that homebred indoctrination still holds some sway, as he makes it a point to say he also sees his parents’ side of things.
As the movie rolls on, we see that Meredith Baxter is fortunately not just a pleasant voice in this film–she also gets to interview Ronni. Their interactions visibly move her, and towards the end of the film Meredith sets Ronni up for a great answer when she asks how she feels about the Anita Bryant legacy today.
“I’m very grateful to Anita Bryant,” comes Ronni’s intriguing response. After all, the ramifications of Anita’s actions propelled Ronni into her work as an LGBT activist. And it wasn’t just her. Ronni makes the claim that Anita did more to get a response out of the LGBT community than even Stonewall did. Without a doubt, the Anita Bryant era was a pivotal turning point moment in LGBT history.
Not without its flaws, Letter to Anita is nonetheless a low-budget effort that works. You can easily overlook the movie’s sporadic use of poor quality graphics and transition techniques in favor of appreciating its smart use of archival footage and the education it provides. Indeed, at under one-hour in length, Letter to Anita is a great visual primer for those interested in learning about Florida’s controversial record on issues affecting the LGBT community. What’s more, it’s a fitting tribute to one of our great pioneers–Ronni Sanlo.
Find out when Letter to Anita will be playing near you by visiting the movie’s Facebook page.