Bryant became known as an outspoken opponent of gay rights and for her 1977 "Save Our Children" campaign to repeal a local ordinance in Dade County, Florida, that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. This involvement significantly damaged her popularity and career in show business.
Bryant was born in Barnsdall, Oklahoma, the daughter of Lenora A. (Berry) and Warren Bryant. After her parents divorced, her father went into the U.S. Army and her mother went to work, taking her children to live with their grandparents temporarily. When Bryant was two years old, her grandfather taught her to sing "Jesus Loves Me". She was singing at the age of six onstage on local fairgrounds in Oklahoma. She sang occasionally on radio and television and was invited to audition when Arthur Godfrey's talent show came to town.
Bryant became Miss Oklahoma in 1958 and was a second runner-up in the 1959 Miss America beauty pageant at age 19, right after graduating from Tulsa's Will Rogers High School.
In 1960, Bryant married Bob Green (1931–2012), a Miami disc jockey, with whom she eventually raised four children: Robert Jr. (Bobby), Gloria, and twins Billy and Barbara. She divorced him in 1980, drawing criticism of hypocrisy from the Christian right regarding the indissolubility of Christian marriage which Bryant had championed and "the deterioration of the family" against which she had preached. She appeared early in her career on the NBC interview program Here's Hollywood and on the same network's The Ford Show Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Bryant placed a total of 11 songs on the U.S. Hot 100, although most were at the bottom reaches of the chart. She had a moderate pop hit with "Till There Was You" (1959, US #30), from the Broadway production The Music Man. She also saw three hits in "Paper Roses" (1960, US #5, and covered by Marie Osmond 13 years later); "In My Little Corner of the World" (1960, US #10); and "Wonderland by Night" (1961, US #18), originally a hit by Bert Kaempfert. "Paper Roses", "In My Little Corner of the World", and "Till There Was You", each sold over one million copies, and were awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.
Bryant released several albums on the Carlton and Columbia labels. Her first album, eponymously titled and released in 1959, contained "Till There Was You" and other songs from other Broadway shows. Her second album, Hear Anita Bryant in Your Home Tonight (1961), contains "Paper Roses" and "Wonderland by Night", as well as several songs that first appeared in her singles. Her third album, In My Little Corner of the World, also in 1961, contains the title song and other songs that have to do with places around the world, including "Canadian Sunset" and "I Love Paris". Bryant's compilation album, Greatest Hits (1963), contains both her original Carlton hits (because Columbia purchased all the masters from Carlton) plus sides from her Columbia recordings, including "Paper Roses" and "Step by Step, Little by Little." In 1964 she released The World of Lonely People, containing, in addition to the title song, "Welcome, Welcome Home" and a new rendition of "Little Things Mean a Lot", arranged by Frank Hunter. Bryant also released several albums of religious music.
In 1969 Bryant became a spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission, and nationally televised commercials featured her singing "Come to the Florida Sunshine Tree" and stating the commercials' tagline: "Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine." (Later, the slogan became, "It isn't just for breakfast anymore!") In addition, during this time, she also appeared in advertisements for Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Holiday Inn, and Tupperware.
Bryant performed the National Anthem at Super Bowl III in 1969 and sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" during the halftime show of Super Bowl V in 1971 and at the graveside services for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973.
Bryant was interviewed by Playboy in May 1978.
Bryant hosted a two-hour television special, The Anita Bryant Spectacular, in March 1980. She recounted her autobiography, appeared in medleys of prerecorded songs, and interviewed Pat Boone. The West Point Glee Club and General William Westmoreland participated. In The New York Times, John J. O'Connor commented: "For all of her careful projections of wholesomeness and benevolence, Miss Bryant delivers a message that is persistently hostile and aggressive."
On March 23, 1969, Bryant participated in a Rally for Decency at the Orange Bowl to protest the controversial onstage behavior of Jim Morrison of The Doors.
In 1977, Dade County, Florida, passed an ordinance sponsored by Bryant's former friend Ruth Shack that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Bryant led a highly publicized campaign to repeal the ordinance, as the leader of a coalition named Save Our Children. The campaign was based on conservative Christian beliefs regarding the sinfulness of homosexuality and the perceived threat of homosexual recruitment of children and child molestation. Bryant stated:
What these people really want, hidden behind obscure legal phrases, is the legal right to propose to our children that theirs is an acceptable alternate way of life. [...] I will lead such a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before.
The name had to be changed because of legal action by the Save the Children foundation.
The campaign marked the beginning of an organized opposition to gay rights that spread across the nation. Jerry Falwell went to Miami to help Bryant. She made the following statements during the campaign: "As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children" and "If gays are granted rights, next we'll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail biters." She also said, "All America and all the world will hear what the people have said, and with God's continued help we will prevail in our fight to repeal similar laws throughout the nation."
On June 7, 1977, Bryant's campaign led to a repeal of the anti-discrimination ordinance by a margin of 69% to 31 percent. However, the success of Bryant's campaign galvanized her opponents, and the gay community retaliated against her by organizing a boycott of orange juice. Gay bars all over North America took screwdrivers off their drink menus and replaced them with the "Anita Bryant," which was made with vodka and apple juice. Sales and proceeds went to gay civil rights activists to help fund their fight against Bryant and her campaign.
In 1977, Florida legislators approved a measure prohibiting gay adoption. The ban was overturned more than 30 years later when, on November 25, 2008, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Cindy S. Lederman declared it unconstitutional.
Bryant led several more campaigns around the country to repeal local anti-discrimination ordinances, including campaigns in St. Paul, Minnesota; Wichita, Kansas; and Eugene, Oregon. Her success led to an effort to pass the Briggs Initiative in California, which would have made pro-gay or neutral statements regarding homosexual people or homosexuality by any public school employee cause for dismissal. Grassroots liberal organizations, chiefly in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, organized to defeat the initiative. Days before the election, the California Democratic Party opposed the proposed legislation. President Jimmy Carter, governor Jerry Brown, former president Gerald Ford, and former governor Ronald Reagan – then planning a run for the presidency – all voiced opposition to the initiative, and it ultimately suffered a massive defeat at the polls.
In 1998, Dade County repudiated Bryant's successful campaign of 20 years earlier and reauthorized an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting individuals from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by a seven-to-six vote. In 2002, a ballot initiative to repeal the 1998 law, called Amendment 14, was voted down by 56 percent of the voters. The Florida statute forbidding gay adoption was upheld in 2004 by a federal appellate court against a constitutional challenge but was overturned by a Miami-Dade circuit court in November 2008.
Bryant became one of the first persons to be publicly "pied" as a political act (in her case, on television), in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1977. Bryant quipped "At least it's a fruit pie," making a pun on the derogatory term of "fruit" for a gay man. While covered in pie, she began to pray to God to forgive the activist "for his deviant lifestyle" before bursting into tears as the cameras continued rolling. Bryant's husband said that he wouldn't retaliate, but followed the protesters outside and threw a pie at them. By this time, gay activists ensured that the boycott on Florida orange juice had become more prominent and it was supported by many celebrities, including Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Paul Williams, Dick Clark (Bryant had made several appearances on his shows, especially his namesake television show), John Waters, Carroll O'Connor, Linda Lavin, Mary Tyler Moore, Charles Schulz, Billie Jean King, and Jane Fonda. In response, David Allan Coe wrote the song "Fuck Aneta Briant" [sic], which appears on his 1978 album, Nothing Sacred. In 1978, Bryant and Bob Green told the story of their campaign in the book At Any Cost. The gay community continued to regard Bryant's name as synonymous with bigotry and homophobia.
The fallout from Bryant's political activism hurt her business and entertainment career. Her contract with the Florida Citrus Commission was allowed to lapse in 1979 because of the controversy and the negative publicity generated by her political campaigns and the resulting boycott of Florida orange juice.
Bryant's marriage to Bob Green also failed at that time, and in 1980 she divorced him, citing emotional abuse and latent suicidal thoughts. Green refused to accept this, saying that his fundamentalist religious beliefs did not recognize civil divorce and that she was still his wife "in God's eyes." In 2007, Green stated: "Blame gay people? I do. Their stated goal was to put her out of business and destroy her career. And that's what they did. It's unfair."
Some Christian fundamentalist audiences and venues shunned Bryant after her divorce. Because she was no longer invited to appear at their events, she lost another major source of income. With three of her four children, she moved from Miami to Selma, Alabama, and later to Atlanta, Georgia. In a 1980 Ladies' Home Journal article she said, "The church needs to wake up and find some way to cope with divorce and women's problems." She also expressed some sympathy for feminist aspirations, given her own experiences of emotional abuse within her previous marriage. Bryant also commented on her anti-gay views and said, "I'm more inclined to say live and let live, just don't flaunt it or try to legalize it." However, the biography page on her Anita Bryant Ministries website (written in 2006) continues to defend her earlier anti-gay activism and views.
Bryant appeared in Michael Moore's 1989 documentary film Roger & Me, in which she is interviewed and travels to Flint, Michigan, as part of the effort to revitalize its devastated local economy.
Bryant married her second husband, Charlie Hobson Dry, in 1990. The couple tried to reestablish her music career in a series of small venues, including Branson, Missouri, and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where they opened "Anita Bryant's Music Mansion." The establishment combined Bryant's performances of her successful songs from early in her career with a "lengthy segment in which she preached her Christian beliefs." The venture was not successful and the Music Mansion, which had missed meeting payrolls at times, filed for bankruptcy in 2001 with Bryant and Dry leaving behind a series of unpaid employees and creditors.
Bryant also spent part of the 1990s in Branson, Missouri, where the state and federal governments both filed liens claiming more than $116,000 in unpaid taxes. Bryant and Dry had also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Arkansas in 1997 after piling up bills from a failed Anita Bryant show in Eureka Springs, a tourist area in northwest Arkansas. Among the debts were more than $172,000 in unpaid state and federal taxes.
In 2005, Bryant returned to Barnsdall, Oklahoma, to attend the town's 100th anniversary celebration and to have a street renamed in her honor. She returned to her high school in Tulsa on April 21, 2007, to perform in the school's annual musical revue. She now lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, and says she does charity work for various youth organizations while heading Anita Bryant Ministries International.
One student of Bryant's writings has written: "Many of her public statements, including her books, were ghostwritten by others, and there is internal reason to conclude that the most political books were pasted together by several hands from various sources."Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1970)
Amazing Grace (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1971)
Bless This House (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1972)
Bless This Food: The Anita Bryant Family Cookbook (NY: Doubleday, 1975)
The Anita Bryant Story: The Survival of Our Nation's Families and the Threat of Militant Homosexuality (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1977)
With Bob Green
Fishers of Men (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1973)
Light My Candle (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1974)
Running the Good Race (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1976), fitness guidance
Raising God's Children (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1977)
Bryant's name has frequently been invoked as a prototypical example of opposition to LGBT rights. When Elton John was criticized for touring Russia in 1979, he responded: "I wouldn't say I won't tour in America because I can't stand Anita Bryant". In his song "Mañana", Jimmy Buffett sings "I hope Anita Bryant never ever does one of my songs". In 1978 David Allan Coe recorded the song "Fuck Aneta Briant" [sic] on his album Nothing's Sacred. Also in 1978, the song "Killer Queers" by seminal LA punk band The Controllers on their first single mocks Bryant, calling her "Anita Blowjob". San Francisco punk band Dead Kennedys made a scathing reference to Bryant at the end of the song "Moral Majority" on their 1981 release In God We Trust, Inc.
Bryant was regularly lampooned on Saturday Night Live, sometimes with her politics as the target, sometimes her reputation as a popular, traditional entertainer known for her commercials, sometimes a combination of the two. Some references were less overtly political, but equally critical. In the film Airplane!, Leslie Nielsen's character, upon seeing a large number of passengers become violently ill, vomit, and suffer uncontrollable flatulence, remarked: "I haven't seen anything like this since the Anita Bryant concert." Other television shows that targeted her were Designing Women and The Golden Girls. She was also the target of mockery in the RiffTrax short Drugs Are Like That.
Armistead Maupin, in his 1980 novel More Tales of the City, used Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign to prompt a principal character to come out of the closet.
Bryant was a principal antagonist in the 2008 American biographical film Milk about the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk. She appears in archive footage.
In May 2013, producers announced plans for a biographical film based on Bryant's life to star Uma Thurman.