Friday, May 16, I had my first experience with a mental health/chemical dependency conference hosted by a drag artist. The incomparable Aleksa Manila presided over the “Saying it Out Loud” conference, complete with multiple costume changes and delightfully tasteless jokes between various announcements, awards, introductions, and seminars. This was the thirteenth annual gathering of this conference, which was created with the goal “to continue to co-create learning, growth and understanding of the best practices and relevant clinical services needed to support members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning communities.”
Dr. Ronni Sanlo served as the keynote speaker, as well as screening a new documentary, “Letter to Anita,” about her almost-wasn’t involvement in LGBTQ activism. Now I’m going to get into a few spoilers here, but I don’t think the basics of Sanlo’s story are the heart of the documentary, as much as is the personal perspective she brings to them. So, when I say her activism “almost-wasn’t,” I mean that Sanlo, like a number of lesbian women of her generation, went about her life as a heterosexual woman, married (to a man) with whom she had two children, not really aware that there were other options.
Unfortunately, just as Sanlo was realizing that there were other options, that the attraction she felt to women wasn’t something that made her completely alone in the universe, Anita Bryant was ginning up Florida’s legislature to pass laws denying parental rights to gay parents. Sanlo’s divorce went through. Her children, for all practical purposes, were taken away from her.
Hearing the story now, it seems unfathomable to me. In part, my disbelief comes because at the time Sanlo was being viewed as an unfit parent simply for acknowledging who she was, I was living a few doors away from a blended family—two lesbian mothers with three teenage children among them. Granted, at the time, I was in grade school and not really aware that the two parents in that household were ‘romantically linked.’ I was under the impression, for whatever reason, that the families were living together for other reasons—economic? ecological? I remember that, in the fifth or sixth grade, when our class was given an assignment to write an editorial letter about an issue of concern, I mentioned the family as I explained why we shouldn’t be mowing down forests and fields to build new houses when there were other options, including multi-family homes, that would allow greater preservation of nature. Clearly, I had missed the more important political/social issue facing the family.
At any rate, the nature of my neighbors’ relationship was eventually pointed out to me by gossiping peers, with the implication that I was stupid for not having realized it, along with the weird sexual goings-on that were certainly a part of that relationship. Not to say that I was super-forward-thinking at the time, but I knew the two women as my neighbors who had been pleasant to me whenever I encountered them. So whatever sexual things may have been going on between the two women were of about as much interest to me as those of the parents of anyone I knew. That is to say, I really didn’t devote much time at all to thinking about sexual things between various peoples’ parents, and may, as I tilted toward pubrerty and all manner of prurient thoughts, have actively avoided thinking about them.
As far as I was concerned back then, anyone who was cool and/or innocuous toward me warranted much less concern, anger, or fear than the bevy of teenage male piltdowners who seemed to have little more to do than roam the suburban streets trying to prove their masculinity by tormenting children much younger and smaller than them—a model of “manhood” I unfortunately subscribed to briefly when I hit a similar stage in life.
I can only imagine that the lives of the couple from the blended family had some parallels to Sanlo’s—at least in terms of them apparently having partnered with men to build families in order to live out the deliciously limiting American Dream. It’s not too big of a stretch to believe my neighbors, like Sanlo, had seen few other options for relationships but hetero marriage and procreation. It was my understanding that both of my neighbors were divorced, although, like same-sex partnerships, such things were not discussed a great deal at the time, despite divorce quickly becoming commonplace—something that would reach almost all of my friends who hadn’t, like me, experienced the death of a parent. And if the exes of my neighbors were still coming around to visit their teenage children, I wasn’t aware of it. Then again, I wasn’t aware of much that went on in the lives of those teens, since there was far too great of an age gap between us—that impossibly vast chasm between elementary school and high school—for us to concern ourselves with each other.
Speaking of parallels and gaps, “Letter to Anita” touches on another critical piece of Sanlo’s life that fits in with the development of my own understanding of individual rights, freedoms, and what it actually means to be something “other” than heterosexual: Anita Bryant’s crusade against, well, all people who don’t fit her very narrow definition of appropriate relationships (never you mind Bryant’s own divorce).
As I’ve noted before on my blog, I was raised religiously, in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. My father was a pastor in said church. My father died when I was rather young. I spent a great many years struggling with religious ideals and how they fit into the world. And despite my current agnostic tendencies, I still hold onto an idea of religion as an expanding element in peoples’ lives, a force that should open people up to larger experiences, a force that should create love and acceptance, as opposed to a limitation on peoples’ lives that causes anger, hatred, judgment, and closed-mindedness. I spent a lot of time struggling over moral issues, their relation to legal and spiritual concerns, and how we all get along as a people who are supposed to be dedicated to personal freedom, personal responsibility, community ties, love, and all the rest of that stuff.
But Anita Bryant, with her perfectly coiffed hair and starchily-pressed orange and brown polyester outfits, was telling me, in her own, orange-juice-endorsing way, to fear, hate and distrust people I knew, people who had shown me kindness, people I knew to be funny, smart, and no threat to me at all. She put out albums (which, as a teen, my younger brother delighted in purchasing from the local Goodwill for the purposes of mocking and destroying) filled with patriotic and religious songs, promoting the goodness of the USA and Jesus. Yet, everything she said, every objective she pursued, was in contrast to freedom, goodness, and the anti-judgmental stance that Jesus and America were supposed to represent.
Yes, Anita Bryant, in contrast to all she stood for, or wanted to stand for, had helped turn this white, hetero, suburban boy, and his white, hetero, suburban friends, into supporters of gay America…into people who would forever see the gay menace she was so sure was destroying us all, as nothing more than the paranoid delusion of close-minded, controlling, angry people who were completely incapable of seeing the irony of their anti-freedom, anti-love stance as they waved their flags and thumped their Bibles. Anita Bryant, as Sanlo notes, managed to galvanize opposition to gay rights opposition–even out into the hetero world and parts of the Christian community she was so sure she could count on to share her views.
So God bless Anita Bryant. God bless Ronni Sanlo. And God bless us everyone.