They carried signs saying “Protect our children” and “Don’t legislate immorality.” Their leader said she spoke as a mother and a Christian, her “Save our children” campaign proclaiming to save Florida’s youth from the influence of gay people.
It was 1977, and singer Anita Bryant, known for her Florida orange juice commercials, became the face of an effort to repeal a Dade County ordinance that prohibited discrimination against gay men and lesbians. Almost 50 years later, the same rhetoric has resurfaced in Florida Republicans’ fight against teaching LGBTQ issues at schools, transgender treatment and their threats against businesses that host drag shows.
To use the old cliche, history does repeat itself, for good and for ill. This time, unfortunately, it’s for ill.
Lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis might not use the same blunt, discriminatory language Bryant did. She often said things like, “Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit. And to freshen their ranks, they must recruit the youth of America.” Instead, the 21st-century anti-LGBTQ crusaders will casually throw the “groomer” label at people who question their tactics, an old trope to paint gay men as pedophiles. They will describe being LGBTQ as a “trend” among youth.
Like Bryant in 1977, they say they are acting in the name of “Protection of Children” — to name a bill targeting drag shows. It’s under that premise that the DeSantis administration has threatened essentially to shut down drag-show venues that allow minors. The state is going after their liquor licenses.
Last year, the target was Wynwood’s famous drag brunch at the restaurant R House. This week, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation filed a complaint against the Hyatt Regency Miami for hosting a Christmas-themed drag show in which the state says minors were present. It’s important to note that kids were required to be accompanied by an adult to attend.
In the free state of Florida, parental rights reign unless a parent’s choice doesn’t align with state bureaucrats. Whose job is it anyway to parent children?
Republicans know they cannot ban drag performances outright because — probably to their dismay — drag queens have First Amendment rights to free expression. So they will look for any loopholes to exploit. Some drag performances include sexual content and suggestive outfits. That has given Florida leaders the perfect opportunity to clutch their pearls and declare these shows attack “the public morals and outrages the sense of public decency,” as the state wrote in its complaint against the Hyatt. The agency claims performers were “wearing sexually suggestive clothing and prosthetic female genitalia.”
If Florida’s real issue is with exposing minors to sexually explicit content, then they should also vet every artist who performs at big concert venues, such as the Miami-Dade Arena. Will they ban teens from attending Madonna’s upcoming concert? Her performances aren’t known for passing the morality test. What about teen pop idol Ariana Grande, who utters in one of her songs, “Can you stay up all night? (Expletive) ‘til the daylight?” Will the DeSantis morality police ask for IDs whenever she performs in Florida again? And should the governor go after Hooters, the restaurant chain known for its chicken wings and waitresses whose T-shirts and shorts are barely there?
If the real issue with drag queens were sex and morality — and not the fact that they are usually gay men dressed as women — conservatives activists in other parts of the country wouldn’t object to public libraries hosting drag-queen story time for children. There are no genitalia or thongs in those events, only performers seating, reading books and keeping kids pleasantly entertained. That hasn’t stopped protesters from claiming they appeal to pedophiles and the far-right Proud Boys from storming some readings.
There’s nothing new or original about labeling LGBTQ people as harmful to children. We would call that rhetoric pathetic if it weren’t so dehumanizing. Drag queens and kings, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, queer and non-binary people have as much right to exist in the “free state of Florida” as the conservative group Moms for Liberty.
And where is their disapproval of heterosexual teachers, coaches and other supposedly trusted adults who sexually molest young teen-age students?
Unfortunately, Bryant’s crusade proves that using children’s well-being as a tool works. She helped repeal Dade County’s gay-rights ordinance in 1977. But she also ignited a gay-rights movement in South Florida. In 1998, the Miami-Dade County Commission reinstated that ordinance.
Bryant’s career fell into obscurity after her “Save our children” campaign. The face of the anti-LGBTQ movement has changed, but its tactics remain worryingly similar. Like before, Floridians can and should fight for those marginalized, whose rights and lives are treated as pariahs. A true free state can only be so when those who aren’t in the favor of the political elites are treated with humanity.