THH Episode 52: Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson

Transcript for Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson

Jump to Show Notes

[Music]

Beckley: We’re here today with Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson, who is an Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University. And she joins us here today to speak about her article that is very related to our most recent episode about Anita Bryant, and I am so excited to talk with you today. Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here.

Beckley: Yeah. And I was telling you before we started recording that, as I was doing the research for the Anita Bryant episode, my boss actually sent me your article. And I was so glad because I was going to get was definitely going to get something wrong in that episode. And it’s always nice to have another historian spoofing and save me from that, and do the work before I have to. So I was wondering – So in your article, you kind of debunk a myth that has been pervasive in our culture for several decades now, I was wondering if you could kind of start off by telling the myth as it’s been told by various groups for decades.

Johnson: For sure. So Anita Bryant, as you know, and as your listeners will know, was a medium famous pop singer in the 1970s. And a really big celebrity in the evangelical world. And she was also famously a spokeswoman for Florida orange juice. So, a lot of people have talked to remember this experience of like, coming into their living rooms, and she would come onto her ads and be like, hello, I’m Anita Bryant. And they’re grandmothers – I’ve heard this from multiple people, their grandmothers would be like, hello, Anita. Um, so she was sort of a political in the way that conservative Christians were in the mid-1970s. She had some very political ideas about feminism and about homosexuality. But she identified herself as being outside of politics until 1976, when her local Miami Dade County passed an anti-discrimination code that included affectional, or sexual preferences, which is the mid-1970s way of saying gay people. Um, and she found out about this actually, from her pastor who was furious about it, and who wanted her to use her celebrity in order to spearhead a movement against the anti-discrimination code. And it was personal for her because the sponsor of the amendment was Ruth Shaq, who was a friend of hers, and the wife of her booking agent, and she had told all her church friends to vote for Ruth. So she felt responsible for the amendment. So she became the face of this successful effort to repeal the amendment. It passed two to one, the repeal vote, which happens six months after the code was originally passed. And this mobilized a national response among gay and lesbian, it was mostly gay and lesbian groups then. And one of the things that they did was boycott Florida Orange Juice, because that was her most famous corporate sponsor. And there’s been in both communities – the conservative Christian community and the LGBTQ community – this idea that the boycott destroyed her career brought her down. And it was this early triumph for a new, more radical gay liberation movement. And so I believed that as well, and I was doing research in the archives of the Florida Orange Juice marketing and advertising committee, and found that not only did they not fire her because of it, but they actually probably extended her contract because they didn’t want to seem like they were taking a side. And so, first of all, there was remarkably little discussion of her political activities, even well into the boycott. But they did do a sort of marketing survey to see how well. . . Oh wait, you only asked about the myth.

Beckley: I want – I want to know anything you’ll give us.

Johnson: Um, so they had been looking into Anita Bryant’s effectiveness, basically, ever since they hired her in 1969. They had been doing yearly marketing surveys, and they had been finding that her appeal was declining it, it soared through the 1970’s – 71, 72 and then had been declining since then, sort of steadily and there was no real change as a result of the boycott, they did this kind of emergency study in response to the boycott. And they found that 11% of people said that they supported her more because of the boycott. 10% of people said they supported her less. And the vast majority of people did not care at all. And they were getting letters, sometimes sacks full of letters every week. And they were equally upset on both sides. There were people saying, “If you fire Anita Bryant I will never buy Florida orange juice again. And people saying I’m boycotting Florida orange juice until you fire Anita Bryant.” And to be perfectly honest, most of the people who were threatening to be upset if she was fired, were closer to their core demographic. They were Florida growers and Florida families. And so they essentially didn’t know what to do, they had this really difficult decision to make. And in the meantime, Singer sewing machines had had a contract with Anita Bryant to, for her to have her own like daytime variety show. And they cancelled it in the midst of the controversy, and that went really badly for them. They got a lot of bad publicity. So Florida orange juice said, we’re going to put out this kind of like, ambivalent support letter that says like, we’re very proud to be associated with Anita Bryant, but please don’t involve us in the politics on either side, we’re not interested. And there were a few things that contributed to the sense that she was fired because of the boycott. One was the there was one particular Florida Orange Juice executive who just popped off a lot and said things to the press, like, I wish we would fire her, which and he was very high up in the company, so people took that as gospel truth. And he got a lot of trouble behind the scenes. And then she was actually let go in 1981. But the key thing there was that she had then gone through a really messy divorce with her husband, which he opposed. And she had been both as a pop star and then as a political figure. She had represented herself as this emblem of American motherhood and Christian housewifery and patriotism. And all of that kind of crumbled in the midst of this divorce. So the things that she had based her non-political celebrity on, and the supporters who had rallied around her during the boycott, all kind of fell away. And at the same time, the marketing research that Florida orange use was doing suggested that this kind of 1950s-esque, although it started in the late 60s, view of the sunny, happy housewife was really not resonating with their consumers anymore. And so by 1981, they figured they were far enough away from the boycott, that they could let a let Bryant go without losing too much. And it was close enough that people remember it as being the boycott that sent her down.

Beckley: Well, and then I have read newspaper interviews that she did, where she went out and kind of blamed the boycott and and her political dealings with – blamed that for her being fired for her losing a lot of revenue. I read one, where she said that she could no longer buy the prime cuts of meat, and now she had to buy the choice cuts of meat. So she was saying, you know, she’s lost so much revenue that she’s had to change every facet of her life. And, you know, I kind of looked at that, at first I was like, okay, so this is her saying that the boycott, and her political dealings did lead directly to loss of revenue and loss of contracts. But when we were talking about it, when we were kind of brainstorming and factchecking were like, oh, well, that is good for her narrative that it was that rather than her divorce, that kind of was the nail in the coffin. So, your work definitely helped there where it kind of contextualize her self-proclaimed victimhood, if you will.

Johnson: Yeah, so she, it wasn’t just the divorce. It was also this kind of broader decline in the American appetite for the kind of patriotic over the top motherhood

Beckley: That Leave it to Beaver type.

Johnson: Exactly. And so it doesn’t. It doesn’t make her feel good to feel either like she is less popular on her own. merits, or that she’s made this huge mistake by divorcing her husband. And her turn towards victimhood is something that’s really emblematic of the new Christian right at this time, which is what we historians call the kind of beginning of the modern religious right in the United States. Leaders had been really skeptical of the African American freedom movement in the 1950s and 1960s. But by the 1970s, they are taking that language and using it to say that conservative Christians are being denied their civil rights, that they’re being denied their right to speak in the public square. And they take this kind of rightsp-based language directly from the black civil rights movement and other civil rights movements at the time to make the argument that their First Amendment rights are being infringed. And that’s exactly what Anita Bryant is doing in this moment.

Beckley: Yeah. And I noticed even before that, her using that language, I forget if it was during her press conference here in Indianapolis when she arrived here, or if it was one in Dade County, where she was saying that I don’t want to abridge anybody else’s rights, but my rights are being infringed by allowing gay individuals to influence our children and things like that. So she definitely was already mirroring that even early in her crusade, I guess she called it. So yeah, it definitely kind of as a theme throughout her journey, it seems like.

Johnson: yeah, and I think the thing to remember is that she was really practiced at narrating her own self. She wrote, I think, a record of 11 autobiographies in nine years, she would have had a blog if a blog was possible, but a blog wasn’t possible. And so she just published that much about herself. She had a lot of practice and a lot of finesse with taking what was happening and making it a narrative that suited her brand. So this wasn’t something she was just kind of coming up with, as the Florida orange juice thing was happening. It was something she already really knew how to do. And she actually ends up even mirroring the language of the gay rights community at this time. There’s this great quote, where she says, you know, they were all talking about coming out of the closet. And then I realized, Anita Bryant has come out of the closet too, as a conservative Christian, which is no longer a cool thing to be, according to her.

Beckley: I noticed a lot of mirroring and a lot of very, I mean, probably by the standards of the time, quietly, very homophobic language as far as fruit pies, even, you know, right after she was hit in the face with the pie saying, Oh, at least it was a fruit pie, kind of laughing it off like that. And, yeah, I was not alive during any of this – I’m from the 90s. I was born in 92. So I really didn’t become aware to the early 2000s. Obviously, still a lot of homophobia. But to read, people just saying awful, blatant homophobic things, just in the newspaper for everybody to read. It was just so shocking. This was my first queer history topic that I’ve covered. So I think that going into it, obviously, I expected homophobic language and and kind of coded messages. But they weren’t coded. They were coming right out and saying it and it was pretty shocking to read. I mean, I’m not queer. I can’t imagine being queer now or ever, but just I just admire the people that did come out and did face and Anita Bryant and did kind of come out and proclaim themselves as queer and here and kind of opposing her it was. It made it even more of a topic that I was excited to cover as I read more and more.

Johnson: Yeah, it’s, it’s the casualness of it. I think I also, I run an Oral History Program in Muncie, Indiana, looking into the queer history of the area. And what I’ve heard from a lot of the older generation is that they grew up thinking that they were literally the only gay person who had ever existed. And when you look at like the casual homophobia that was just in mainstream press, and the assumptions that are being made, you can see how you would come to that conclusion, but like, literally no one else in the history of time had ever had these same feelings that you did. And I think that, for me is one of the most heartbreaking things. Another thing about Anita Bryant is that she so she frequently frequently said, I don’t hate gay people. In fact, I love them even more than the people who claim to support them, because I am trying to save them from eternal burning in hell, whereas like supporting them on Earth is nice. Obviously, you don’t even care about their souls.

Beckley: To kind of pivot a little bit and talk about this at a meta level. When I first read your article, I obviously loved it because it crushed it miss conception I had. But also I love it, because it is such a good example of history being an ever evolving process. It’s not, history isn’t a written thing in a book is a process that we are always perform. And every time we uncover a new source, or we include a new viewpoint that’s never been included, that story is going to change. And often times, I find that when you do change the accepted story, the accepted narrative, you get labeled as a revisionist historian, which I don’t think is an insult that people think it is because that’s, again, what history is, is revising those all the time. Have you gotten any of that kind of feedback for your article? Can you talk a little bit about that, and about the process of history.

Johnson: Yeah, for sure. So before we started recording, I said to you that this is the article that has gotten the most negative comments on it. And it was actually a really interesting experience that’s been kind of emblematic of my career, which is that a lot of the comments on the Washington Post article accused me of being homophobic, there’s one person who says, I know this woman, she’s a huge Christian conservative, and I do not know them. And that is not accurate. But then I also got a voicemail where a woman, a Pentecostal woman, essentially laid hands on me over voicemail in order to cast out the demon of homosexuality, which, like I said, is kind of typical of my career. And I don’t know what this says about human nature. But I have found that whatever people are, they assume I’m the opposite. So whatever they want from the history, they assume I’m against them. And I, I think that part of it is that misunderstanding that you’re flagging, but the idea that by changing history, or by finding new things about history, that we, as historians have some kind of bad motive, when really, that is what we are trained to do. We’re trained to find the new angle, the new, the new thing to say, because there are always new perspectives, and always new things to say. And, as I tried to say, in my article, I think the story is really interesting, because it – I mean, we have this kernel of a fact that Anita Bryant was not fired as a result of the boycott and was, in fact, in fact, kept on longer. And yet, I think some of the lessons that have been taken from that myth are still very true. I mean, the fact that and, and that the myth helped those things to become true. So the fact that the gay community felt like they had taken down and Anita Bryant ended up feeling like this huge success, which galvanized the movement and made us stronger in a way that wouldn’t have happened, or maybe, maybe wouldn’t have happened. And a lot of people have said that it set up the activism of the AIDS era that it created those networks that were already in place. So I don’t think this revision is bad for the queer community. I think it actually tells us something more about our history. And that’s what historians in general are trying to do. Certainly, I’m not arguing that we are just objective narrators with no relationship to what we’re talking about. But most of the time, I think when we uncover new perspectives and new facts, what we’re doing is history. That is what historical research is, and we’re trying to shine new light, to get new understandings not to put down communities that have believed things, because that’s the evidence that they had.

Beckley: I often say that if history was unchanging, and if what we wrote in the book, the first time was all that was to be said, then there would be no need for the, what 500,000 different books written about Abraham Lincoln, or, you know, it just seems so obvious that, including new narratives and new  viewpoints is so essential. And as we grow as a culture and find these hidden stories, it’s so important to bring those to light to give those people a voice and to, you know, just correct the narrative. It’s, sometimes it’s as simple as that. So I’m appreciative of the work you’re doing.

Johnson: Thank you. One of the metaphors that we use in the profession is that when history was a new pursuit, in the early 20th century, they thought about it as bricks in a wall, and you would just like, get your Abraham Lincoln brick, and you’d put in the wall, and you’d be done. And you get your civil war brick and put in the wall, and you’re done. And we now sort of since the 1970s, have coming out of the Black civil rights movement out of the women’s movement, the queer movement, this insight that there are a lot of different perspectives on any one event, that there are a lot of different ways of thinking and looking at it. And I think that’s so much more exciting than just having one brick, I think it’s so cool that we get a rainbow on every single thing.

Beckley: Absolutely. And that’s, you know, one of the things we try to do is tell some of those stories that people might not have heard yet and Indiana’s history. So thanks for helping us with that. I wanted to give you a minute here at the end to plug any upcoming work you have or tell people where they can find more of your work or even the the article we’ve been talking about so much. Sure.

Johnson: Sure, so the article we’ve been talking about is published in The Washington Post’s made by history blog. And this research is all based on my book, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2019 called This is our Message: Women’s Leadership and the New Christian Right, and it looks at Anita Bryant, as well as a number of other prominent Christian women, including Tammy Faye Baker for another queer angle on it. And even though it is published by University Press, I tried to write it in a way that was still fun.

Beckley: Well, thank you. And I think that is all for today. I hope all of our listeners at home have enjoyed this as much as I have come back in a few weeks for our next episode. And thank you for joining us today.

Johnson: Thank you so much.

Show Notes for Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson

Dr. Emily S. Johnson, The Myth that has Shaped the Christian right and the LGBTQ Rights Movement for Four Decades, June 21, 2019.

Dr. Emily S. Johnson, This is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right, Oxford University Press, 2019.