The Florida Legislature has passed the so-called “don’t say gay” bill banning discussions of sexual orientation and gender identify in the early primary years. Hearing about this bill passing brought me back to 1977.
In 1977 a law was passed, also in Florida, banning discrimination in housing and employment based on sexuality. This law was an important step toward respecting gay and lesbian civil rights. But after it was passed, Anita Bryant and a group called Save Our Children managed to get the law overturned. This group based their campaign on the slogan, “Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit,” and they claimed that the bill would allow gay teachers into schools creating dangerous role models for kids. The Save Our Children campaign stirred up so much fear that they were able to overturn this law banning discrimination.
These two anti-gay campaigns, 45 years apart, both imagine a problem where there is none in order to stir up fear and prejudice. In 1977, gay teachers were not a negative influence on their students — it was unlikely that the students even knew that their teachers were gay back when almost everyone was in the closet in their professional life. And primary school teachers aren’t having classroom discussions about sexuality or gender identity. However, if a student has a gay or lesbian parent, or is dealing with gender identity or same sex attraction, teachers will be required to stand by if these students are bullied, rather than try to create some understanding.
The blatant fear-mongering and cruelty of the Save The Children campaign incensed me when it drew national attention in 1977. I wanted to do something, and it occurred to me that if people were afraid of having a gay role model influencing a child, then there couldn’t be a more important gay role model than having a gay parent. So, in 1979 I found five families raising children in openly gay homes and I asked them to tell their story for a book titled “A Secret I Can’t Tell.”
People assume that because I wrote this book, I must be gay or the child of a gay parent. That’s not the case. I grew up in a reform Jewish family in a diverse neighborhood in Cincinnati. I was influenced to be accepting of others by my family, but my attitudes were also formed by growing up in an integrated neighborhood. Sadly, the United States is a very segregated country. Only two of the 113 cities with populations of 200,000 or more qualified as integrated, and studies have shown that children who grow up in multiracial surroundings tend to be less anxious about racial differences, more empathetic and more caring about others.
As I was growing up the white kids in my neighborhood played at the Black kids’ homes after school and the Black kids hung out at the white kids’ homes. That shouldn’t be any big deal, Black and white kids playing together, but this was the ‘60s when there was still Jim Crow going on in the South. When you grow up with people from different backgrounds and cultures, accepting those differences becomes normal.
I am acutely aware that the white people in our neighborhood had White Privilege — with the police, with the criminal justice system, with getting into colleges and with getting the jobs we wanted later in life. The microcosm of our neighborhood, where people accepted each other, didn’t extend to the country at large. It didn’t even extend to the city of Cincinnati at large, which is a very conservative city.
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I think that there is also something that can be called, Heterosexual Privilege. When I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s there was tremendous hostility and prejudice directed toward anyone suspected of being gay, lesbian or transgender. Growing up straight, I wasn’t fully aware of the ridicule and the threats of violence that the LGBTQ+ community had to deal with on a daily basis.
This country is in a different place today than it was in 1977. In the ‘60s and ‘70s there were laws on the books making it illegal for a man or a woman to be dressed in clothes not belonging to his or her sex, and states wielded their liquor laws to arrest gay patrons and shutter gay bars, which were the only place where gay people could be themselves. In 1979, when I began writing my book, there were sodomy laws against “perverted sexual practice” in almost every state, in fact they are still on the books in 16 states. And it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association issued a resolution stating that homosexuality was not a mental illness.
If Americans are becoming more accepting of differences in race, religion, culture and sexuality, it is not due to our neighborhoods becoming less segregated. More than 80 percent of large metropolitan areas in the United States were more segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990. However, even as segregation has gotten worse in the United States, TV, sports and social media are finally giving us an image of America as an integrated country in ways that didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago. When you watched TV, even into the 21st century, you’d think that we lived in an all-white, Christian, heterosexual world. Now, the characters on TV, the sports stars and the TikTok personalities are creating a virtual community that allows us to appreciate others who are different than we are.
Looking back on the bill from 1977, and the “don’t say gay” bill today, I see both as misguided attempts to discriminate made by older white men from segregated communities that insulated them from understanding and respecting the wonderful diversity that makes up this country and this world of ours. I’m hopeful, even optimistic, that these fear-mongering laws will not stop the growing momentum towards equality and justice, empathy and compassion, allowing us to one day be a nation that accepts and values everyone for their unique humanity.
Joe Gantz is the producer of Taxicab Confessions on HBO, and the documentaries American Winter, Ending Disease, and The Race to Save the World. He has just republished his book, A Secret I Can’t Tell, on the first generation of children growing up in openly gay homes with updates from the families.