Remembering Anita Bryant

1977 Gay Rights Demonstration

By James Welch

A few days before the 1977 Anita Bryant Protest Rally in Jackson Square, I had decided to go to it. I was 26 years old and had never been to a political rally of any kind. The night before the rally, I picked up a Pink Triangle button to wear and thought to myself that I would in fact go.

The next day, I got dressed and ready to go to the rally. I put on the button, but then, took it off because I was afraid that somebody would bother me about it. I was taking the Magazine bus and thought maybe someone would see the button and do something to me. On second thought, I realized that this was New Orleans, and nobody would know what the significance of the button was anyway, but I still waited until I got off of the bus at Canal Street.

At first there was nobody who seemed to be going to Jackson Square so I wondered if the event was going to be a bust. However, by the time I reached the Square, it was packed with people (the newspaper later said about 1,500, which was quite large for Louisiana). I was quite surprised to see so many people! The crowd spilled out of the Square itself.

I recall that the first few speakers were hard to hear and were not particularly exciting, I was sorry to say. But after awhile, a small, stout woman from New York with a strong Brooklyn accent took the podium. I do not remember her name but she represented a lesbian group from New York. The first thing she said was that it was time for gays to realize that the criticisms against them were “bull shit” (as she said in a booming voice), and that seemed to get everybody excited. Then, she said that for years, gays had been teachers, marriage counselors, social workers, policemen, firemen, military members, cooks, janitors, and business people. And that gays were aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, and “most of all, we are their children! And the closet is no place to keep your kid!” I had never heard someone express what I supposed I had known all along. But it was absolutely riveting, and I felt a thrill inside of me. The crowd went pretty crazy after that.

Then, Leonard Matlovich spoke. He said that he had been drummed out of the army for being gay, and for wanting to love men rather than kill them. He said that he had at first believed that he was sick, but then, he realized that it was Society that was sick. While I don’t think we should blame Society for all of our problems, it never hurts as a crowd pleaser. By then, people were so excited, and I think that everyone thought there had been a sea change in our own beliefs about ourselves. It was evident in the enthusiasm of the group that something big had happened.

Then, the group went to Rampart Street to greet Anita Bryant’s motorcade. I don’t know if she knew what we were doing, but nobody cared anymore. That evening, when I took the Magazine bus back home (I wore the button), I was a completely different person. I remember thinking to myself that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I knew that I am a person too, and I have as much right to be a part of America or Society or the World as anybody else. It is a lesson I have never and will never forget.

James Welch
June 2017