If there’s one moment in history that never fails to bring me joy, it’s the time Anita Bryant got pied in the face.
Born in Barnsdall, Okla., in 1940, Bryant rose to fame through the Miss America beauty pageant circuit, winning Miss Oklahoma in 1958 and taking home the national runner-up title in 1959. She leveraged her marriage to Miami DJ Bob Green to launch a successful pop music career, nabbing a string of hits in the early ‘60s like “Paper Roses,” “My Little Corner of the World,” and “Wonderland by Night.”
To say that Bryant was a beloved entertainer in her day, at least among the United States’ white Christian majority and the commercial institutions that sought that demographic’s dollars, would be an understatement. The NFL selected her to sing the national anthem at the 1969 Super Bowl, and she performed her signature, militaristic rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at the halftime show two years later. She reguarly played Bob Hope’s USO shows during the Vietnam War, and she sang graveside at Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1973 funeral, at Johnson’s request. Bryant even served as a spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission from 1968 to 1980, appearing in ads for Florida orange juice throughout the ‘70s.
Bryant struck a delicate balance throughout her early career, appealing to both religious and secular markets as an uncompromising Christian entertainer in postwar America’s increasingly godless culture. But the late ‘70s would prove to be her undoing as she turned her focus away from fascist easy-listening and hawking orange juice with cartoon birds to make life hell for the average American homosexual. She used her national platform to combat a local ordinance that protected Miami-Dade County’s gay and lesbian residents from various forms of discrimination, forming an organization called Save Our Children to do so.
“What [gay] people really want, hidden behind obscure legal phrases, is the legal right to propose to our children that theirs is an acceptable alternate way of life,” said Bryant, per Out. “I will lead such a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before.”
Following Bryant’s campaigining, built on rhetoric that raised the specter of the predator homosexual and other homophobic fearmongering, the ordinance was repealed in 1977 by a 2-to-1 margin. It would be another 21 years before the county passed a similar law that protects residents from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. (Related: Judicial interpretations of Title VII and Title IX’s use of the word “sex” aside, the U.S. has no explicit federal law protecting queer and trans people from discrimination. All of these laws are legislated at the state or local level, leaving nearly half of our LGBTQ population completely unprotected.)
The 78-year-old Bryant now claims, via her ministry’s website, that she had no idea this “local” matter would become “a full-blown national issue.” But her retelling of events conveniently leaves out all of her similar efforts against pro-gay legislation in other states. Make no mistake: She was one of the nation’s most prominent anti-gay activists, up there with the likes of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other leading figures in the reactionary, “Moral Majority” movement of the later 20th Century. She wasn’t the good Christian woman next door who just wanted you to say your prayers and drink your O.J. She was a militant homophobe hellbent on destroying gay people’s happiness, state by state, city by city.
Her so-called “crusade” eventually led her to Des Moines in 1977, where, during an Oct. 14 press conference, some small kind of uppance finally came. Thom Higgins, a gay activist from St. Paul, Minn., who worked as a nurse until his death in 1994, hit Bryant in the face with a pie, finally shutting her up, albeit momentarily, with an act as palpably angry as it was delightfully campy.
“At least it was a fruit pie,” Bryant quipped before praying for Higgins, reportedly in tears.
Within a year of that pieing, Bryant had lost her foothold in the pop music market, and she was relegated to performing in revival tents for next to nothing. Though she retained her spokeswoman role for the Florida Citrus Commission, she was dropped as an Orange Bowl commentator, which, when combined with her sudden lack of secular bookings, resulted in a reported loss of half her income. The Commission subsequently dropped her in 1980, taking her $100,000 paycheck with them. That same year, she and her husband, Bob Green, got divorced. This prompted the religious right to turn against her, lest they make a divorcée the face of American family values. She then went on to toil in obscurity, where she remains to this day—though the untitled biopic Lawrence Kasdan’s working on could change that.
Bryant, through her ministry’s website, blames her divorce from Green on the “stresses and strains” of being targeted by “militant homosexuals” and a news media looking to push their agenda. On this, the 41st-ish anniversary of the pieing of Anita Bryant, I say: Be more militant. Throw a pie.