Anita Bryant's Battle Is Back

Gay rights activists stand outside the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Church on Monday, Sept. 9, 2002, in Miami, showing support for a Miami-Dade County ordinance that bans discrimination against gays and lesbians. The ordinance is up for vote Tuesday.
The county where former beauty queen and orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant mounted a crusade against gay rights 25 years ago is taking up the issue again.

In 1977, Miami was the site of one of the biggest battles of the gay rights movement when Bryant successfully led a drive to repeal a Miami-Dade County ordinance protecting gays from discrimination. A new such ordinance was passed in 1998, and now gay rights opponents want to repeal that one, too.

The repeal measure is on Tuesday's ballot.

This time, though, the fight is not nearly as furious as it was a generation ago. Gay rights supporters have higher-profile backing than they enjoyed back then. And a poll released Wednesday by The Miami Herald found that the repeal effort is likely to fail.

The telephone poll of 600 likely voters found 54 percent against repeal, 34 percent in favor and 12 percent undecided.

At a news conference in downtown Miami on Monday, the area's most powerful local politicians including the mayors of Miami-Dade County and the cities of Miami, Miami Beach and Hialeah, representing many of Miami-Dade's more than 2 million people, pleaded with voters to strike down the repeal effort at the polls on Tuesday.

"It's not a referendum on family values. It's not a referendum on homosexuality. It is a referendum on equal rights and discrimination," Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas said. "It's about whether we're going to go on the record once and for all and tell people that we truly are a progressive and tolerant community... Or are we going to take several steps back tomorrow and go back to the days of Anita Bryant, back to the mid-70s?"

Gay rights opponents argue that homosexuals are seeking special treatment, not equal rights. "There's no ordinance protecting people with three nostrils," said Matt Dupree, director of the Florida Christian Coalition.

Rev. Richard Dunn, a Miami preacher who backs repeal, took out radio ads arguing his case. "Don't be fooled. It's not about discrimination," says Dunn in the commercials. "It's about special rights and no one should have special rights based on their private sexual behavior."

Gay-rights activists are fighting the measure and similar ones on the November ballot in Tacoma, Wash., and Ypsilanti, Mich.

"It's important that we beat back these repeal attempts," said Seth Kilbourn of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign. "All we're asking for is to be treated equally."

Corporations such as BellSouth and Carnival Cruise Lines have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to preserve the ordinance, and 18 of the county's 32 mayors, including Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, have expressed their support.

Officials from the Democratic National Committee have warned that repealing the ordinance could hurt Miami's chances of hosting the party's 2004 convention.

"We're a world-class city and we can't allow a small minority painting us as a community that favors discrimination," said Georg Ketelhohn, co-chair of the No to Discrimination/Save Dade campaign.

According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, between 66,000 and 85,000 gays and lesbians live in Miami-Dade County.

Miami-Dade's ordinance was reinstated at the end of a decade that saw the passage of gay-rights measures in cities across the country. Florida is one of 38 states without a state law banning anti-gay discrimination.

Since the 1998 ordinance was adopted, Miami-Dade's Equal Opportunity Board has received nearly 70 complaints of anti-gay discrimination.

Alexandra Rodil of Miami filed a complaint in 2000 when she was fired from a real estate firm two days after her employer learned she is a lesbian. The board sided with Rodil, and she reached a settlement with the firm.

"This is not about special rights, this is about equality," Rodil said. "Am I not the kind of person who deserves a job?"

Miami lawyer Rosa Armesto de Gonzalez, an opponent of the gay-rights ordinance, said gays have not proved a need for special protection as have blacks and others covered by civil rights laws.

"Everything they've asked for, they're given," de Gonzalez said.

Months of campaigning by conservatives returned the issue to the ballot despite the arrests of four people - including that of the county's Christian Coalition leader - on charges they submitted false signatures.

George Gonzalez, a University of Miami political science professor, said anti-gay activists have toned down their rhetoric this time around.

"Those that are for repealing do not want to get so shrill as to alienate themselves further from the secular mainstream," he said.

Elsewhere around the country, a November ballot measure in Nevada will ask voters to ban same-sex marriages.