One of the best indicators that a hot-button political issue has maxed out its news potential is when diversionary side-shows begin to take center stage. Enter Carrie Prejean, the former Miss California, and the endless controversy that continues to surround her statement made during her bid for Miss USA that she believes in "opposite marriage" not same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage activists, as well as many mainstream news outlets such as CNN, immediately launched a series of personal attacks on her for everything from breast implants to the rumor that her mother had a lesbian affair, calling her the new Anita Bryant.
At the Miss USA pageant on April 19, Carrie Prejean answers that she believes in "opposite marriage"
The comparison to Bryant—based partly on her being Miss Oklahoma, and a runner up in the Miss America pageant—is completely invalid. Bryant launched her notorious Save Our Children campaign in reaction to the 1977 passage of an anti-gay discrimination bill in Dade County, Florida. Her campaign, followed quickly by the Briggs Initiative, a California voter proposition that would have banned all homosexuals from teaching in the state’s schools, was the kick-off event to the culture wars of the last three decades. Prejean’s inarticulate "opposite marriage" comment—"traditional marriage" is the usual phrasing—during her pageant interview was quite different from a sustained political campaign to overturn a civil rights law. It is true that Prejean began making appearances for the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, a national and mostly ineffective anti-same-sex marriage lobbying group. But these, unlike Bryant’s campaign, are not part of a larger personal and political strategy. Prejean has made little impact on the national same-sex marriage debates. Nevertheless, the contretemps over her public statements and her minimal engagement with conservative anti-same-sex marriage forces has placed her in the limelight of this issue.
What the comparison between Prejean and Bryant does raise, however, are some interesting questions about how we now view Bryant as a historical figure. While generally unknown to younger generations, Bryant’s image has made a comeback recently in Milk where she is used, in news footage, not only for historical context but comic effect. This use of Bryant as a comic scapegoat, while distressing, is not a surprise. Since she emerged as a political figure in 1977, neither mainstream media nor gay activists knew how to treat her. She was a self-professed "Christian mom," beauty queen, singer of Christian and popular songs, and spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Growers Association. She—like Prejean—was ridiculed for her place in popular culture and generally condemned by gay activists and the liberal media as a kook, a right-wing nut job, and an out-and-out bigot. True, political tensions were raging at the time, but her political adversaries actually knew how to articulate convincing arguments against her beyond such name calling. This disparagement of Bryant (and, for that matter, Prejean) is understandable as a foolish knee-jerk response, but it completely misses a central lesson of social progress and political organizing that is often ignored.
While I don’t intend to defend Bryant, I do think that her actions and her political campaign made a great deal of sense in its historical context. It is impossible to understand Bryant without understanding the politics of popular culture. Not only did the civil rights movement make enormous strides in the late 1960s, but so did the Stonewall Riots that inaugurated Gay Liberation. Let’s also keep in mind that the groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions about reproductive rights—especially Roe v. Wade in 1973—forever changed how the nation thought about sex and sexual behavior and that by 1977, 11 states had actually repealed their sodomy laws. No wonder religious and social traditionalists like Bryant were beginning to worry about where America was going.
Legal and judicial reform is one barometer of social change, but so is popular culture and Bryant must have been extremely sensitive to it. A quick scan through 1970s popular culture reveals how its ideas about sexuality, gender, and relationships were a radical break from the past:
- In 1970, the Kinks had a huge hit with "Lola" which told the story of a young man who meets, has sex with, and falls in love with a drag queen. It played on AM radio for children to hear and sing along.
- In 1971, Bette Midler, the newly crowned queen of camp, was a staple on daytime and evening talk shows discussing how she got her start at the gay male Continental Baths singing to mostly naked men who were looking for sex. TV audiences thought it was a great story.
- In 1972, the openly bisexual David Bowie and his alter ego Ziggie Stardust, brought glam rock in all of its glorious androgyny to American teens who adored it.
- In 1976, Elton John came out. Not a surprise, but still there is enormous power of publically "coming out."
- In 1977, the naughty bisexual behaviors and drug habits of Studio 54 clientele were discussed at length in almost every national news and lifestyle magazine.
- Liza and Bianca and Andy (alarmingly, you can also toss in Roy Cohn as well) were the darlings of the smart set and the gossip columnists. And to make things better—or worse, depending on your point of view—national magazines such as Time and Newsweek were printing articles on the newly emerging culture of sex clubs that were flourishing in large cities—like the Catacombs in San Francisco and New York’s Mineshaft (a gay s/m club) and Plato Retreat (a heterosexual club).
- Perhaps the final straw was that the obviously gay Village People had their first huge hit with "San Francisco You’ve Got Me (1977)," followed by "Macho Man," and "YMCA" (1978), all of which celebrated the newly public and unabashed gay male urban culture.
Between 1969 and 1970, 30,000 gay men moved to San Francisco to build a very visible gay community. What started out as a radical homo-and-heterosexual counterculture in the mid-1960s dovetailed with a new idea of a "gay lifestyle" (Anita Bryant’s words) that led to the "homosexualization" of American culture. Why would we think that Anita Bryant and others who firmly believed in more traditional forms of family, gender, and sexual arrangements wouldn’t feel under assault? U.S. culture had radically changed over a short period of time.
We may now view these changes as liberatory, but for a large number of Americans, even those who were happy with some adjustments in popular and sexual culture, these changes were spiritually and psychically life threatening. In this context, Anita Bryant, her politics, and her campaign make a lot more sense. In this context, she isn’t crazy, funny, hysterical, or even homophobic. She is a conservative, deeply religious American who is doing what she thinks is right.
Whoever would have thought less than two decades later the very idea of same-sex marriage would be debated and three decades later three states would allow these marriages? And there are other battles as well. Same-sex marriage, given another decade, is an inevitability, but issues such as the rights of queer kids to be autonomous from their homophobic heterosexual families, the limits being placed on queer speech in high schools, and the resurgence of campaigns against public sexuality, both in sex clubs as well as on Craig’s List and Internet sex sites, are ready to be fought.
It is easy to dismiss Carrie Prejean as a silly beauty queen who, frankly, doesn’t present herself as an intelligent adversary. But until the gay rights movement takes her concerns seriously and works to address them, the public discussion is not going to move forward. We certainly saw this in November with California’s Prop 8, where voters declared that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, a reversal of a recent State Supreme Court decision that allowed same-sex marriage.
When it was discovered that a majority of African American and Latino voters backed Prop 8, gay rights groups immediately announced it wasn’t because these groups were homophobic, but because they were not yet "educated" on the issue. This condescending attitude—not unlike the attitudes toward Bryant and Prejean—is both insulting and demeaning. Rather then taking the political, religious, and social concerns of these minority voters seriously, gay rights leaders chose to dismiss them as, essentially, ignorant. Not only was this a missed step forward. It was two steps backwards. Progress happens, but at this rate, slowly.