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Bryant’s crusade two decades ago was watershed for gay rights

January 26, 1997 GMT

MIAMI (AP) _ Anita Bryant had money, a hit song in ``Paper Roses″ and a wholesome, apple-pie image in beaming commercials for orange juice. Then she answered her pastor’s challenge to lead a crusade that had effects she didn’t expect.

Aided by conservatives across the country, the former beauty queen helped repeal the Dade County homosexual-rights ordinance that went into effect 20 years ago Tuesday.

However, she also found a formidable foe in Bob Kunst, a former anti-war activist turned gay activist and a man with a keen sense of publicity.

``We led America’s coming-out party,″ Kunst boasts now. ``There is no question the opposition was trying to push us back in the closet.″

Bryant’s campaign played a key role in the homosexual-rights movement’s coming of age, said Kerry Lobell, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

``The American public was able to see that bigotry full in its face for the first time,″ Lobell says. ``That campaign and the media attention it generated reached into so many towns and cities where gay people hadn’t been as active and visible. It gave them models for activism.″

At the time of the campaign, several states already had removed restrictions on sexual behavior between adults and about two dozen cities had passed laws granting homosexual rights in areas like housing and employment.

Led by Bryant, voters repealed the Dade County ordinance less than six months after it was enacted.

Now, however, Florida is among nine states _ plus more than 100 cities and hundreds of corporations _ that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, Lobell says.

Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign drew backing from church groups and conservative politicians by arguing that the Dade County ordinance could force schools to hire homosexual teachers.

Kunst, with experience in sales and marketing, fought back by protesting directly to Ms. Bryant’s corporate backers in the citrus industry.

In the backlash that followed, Bryant quickly lost her singing career, a chance at a television variety show, corporate sponsors and later her marriage. She was assailed from the left for her stance on homosexual rights and from the right for getting a divorce.

She retreated to her mother’s home in Oklahoma where she ``curled up in bed in the fetal position.″ A decade later she married her childhood sweetheart, opened a dinner theater and wrote a book, ``A New Day,″ about her comeback from her painful foray into politics.

Her personal assistant, Annette Scott, said Ms. Bryant was on vacation and unavailable to discuss the anniversary. But when she released her book four years ago, she made it clear she had not lost her convictions about homosexuality.

``People hated me because I spoke the truth,″ Ms. Bryant said in an interview on her book tour. ``I said back then that it was a death style, not a lifestyle, and that was before we had really heard about AIDS.″

Her former husband and manager Bob Green, who still lives on Miami Beach, says he immediately saw the perils of her crusade.

``I remember thinking the media would have a field day, that all of the things we worked for would go down the tubes,″ Green said in a recent interview. ``The convention invitations stopped cold, the singer thing fell through, her career was over.″

Kunst later shifted gears, crusading for a cure of AIDS in the late 1980s and early 1990s, traveling the world to pass out leaflets, hold up signs and challenge the establishment. His ally in the Dade ordinance fight, psychologist Alan Rockway, died of AIDS in 1987.

Now Kunst has taken on the issue of the Holocaust, campaigning to raise awareness and protesting the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant not far from the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

``My reputation is being a pain in the neck,″ says Kunst. ``I’m not running a popularity contest. I take advantage of opportunities, and fight for what is right.″