by Steve Desroches
The new documentary Letter to Anita tells the extraordinary story of an extraordinary person. No, not Anita Bryant, but rather Dr. Ronni Sanlo, whose personal journey features heartbreaking and cruel examples of anti-gay discrimination as well as the grace, dignity, and forgiveness with which she overcame it.
In 1979 Sanlo was a married mother of two children, ages 6 and 3, in Florida. After living in fear for years Sanlo summoned up the courage to come out as a lesbian and live life as her authentic self. Just two years prior Anita Bryant led the movement to repeal Miami’s gay rights ordinance with her so-called “Save Our Children” campaign, successfully turning back the law and beginning a frenzy of anti-gay activity in the Florida legislature. One of those homophobic pieces of legislation outlawed gays and lesbians from being parents. When Sanlo and her husband divorced she lost custody of her children, seeing them occasionally, and eventually not at all. Her ex-husband’s family told her children that since she was gay she most likely had AIDS. Her children were afraid of her.
She also lost several jobs. She was devastated, angry, and hurt. And much of that emotion was focused on Bryant, the singer, former Miss Oklahoma (and ironically enough Miss Congeniality at the 1959 Miss America Pageant), and spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission who became the face of the Religious Right’s attacks against LGBT Americans. Over 30 years later Sanlo is a respected and accomplished LGBT rights activist and she was ready to let go of the resentment she felt toward Bryant. She wrote her a letter. She didn’t initially send the letter, but rather read it at speaking engagements. When filmmaker Andrea Meyerson heard it she knew she had found the subject for her next documentary project.
“She was the first person I met that was so directly impacted by someone like Anita Bryant and anti-gay hate legislation,” says Meyerson, director and producer of Letter to Anita. “I met [Sanlo] not long after she moved here to UCLA in the late 90s. I learned her story, but when I read the letter to Anita I thought, ‘Oh my God! That’s the story I was looking for!’ I decided this needed to be the focus of the film.”
For many LGBT people, even those too young to remember her anti-gay crusade, there is still significant anger toward Bryant. And perhaps just as many credit Bryant’s actions to be the most significant galvanizing force for the modern LGBT movement, even more so than Stonewall, a point with which Sanlo agrees. But what may be most striking about Sanlo’s and Bryant’s stories is in the portrait of two people, one who followed a path of fear and hate, and one who embraced love and compassion. All these years later we get to see the dividends of those choices and they are stark in comparison. For those who do hold that anger inside for Bryant it can be hard to watch the documentary, as at times you feel the push and pull between resentment and sympathy for her as ultimately the hate she peddled came back at her, in some cases from gays and lesbians, but most destructively from the very Christian community she represented.
This story creates a complicated stew of feelings. Meyerson herself struggled with a variety of emotions while making the film.
“As a filmmaker it’s my job to honor my subject,” says Meyerson from her home in Los Angeles as she prepares to travel to the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival for the documentary’s Florida premiere. “I had to wrap my head around that. There were times I was so angry and I didn’t understand how Ronni could forgive someone as awful as Anita Bryant. Over the course of filming I learned the depths of her hate. I didn’t realize how bad it was. I just couldn’t understand Ronni’s ability to forgive. I came full circle with that. It was hard for me. It was hard for me to get there. She is a freer woman for forgiving. She is happy and free to be fully herself.”
The film, narrated by actress Meredith Baxter, is full of surprises–some that drop jaws in what is a compelling story on its own. The addition of Baxter as narrator helped both to drive home the gravitas of Sanlo’s letter, but also adds to the maternal energy in the film, as like Sanlo and Bryant, Baxter is a mother. That element was important to Meyerson.
“It needed to be a woman and a mother,” says Meyerson of casting the narrator. “And here’s Meredith who played one of America’s most beloved television mothers on Family Ties. It changed the film. It made the story deeper. It started to be about three mothers.”
Digging through a variety of archives and private collections around the country Meyerson was able to not only include lots of primary footage and photos from the 1970s, but also from the decades prior in Florida where, starting in the 1950s, there was a hysterical witch hunt for gays and lesbians, providing context for Bryant’s actions, which really were the fevered pinnacle of a hate-filled movement well in progress in that state.
The film also paints a picture of redemption and reconciliation and the undying love of a mother for her children, and happily vice versa. But what of Anita? Has she read the letter? Has her heart healed from all the hate that so famously consumed it? Meyerson had a meeting with Bryant planned and flew out to Oklahoma to meet with her. But her current husband Charlie Dry found out about the meeting and cancelled it.
“For two days he verbally abused me on the phone,” says Meyerson. “He’s a nasty man.”
Meyerson and Sanlo will be in Provincetown for Women’s Week to participate in discussions at the screenings. Despite the difficult subject matter and tragic story, Letter to Anita is an ultimately uplifting story and through Sanlo’s own words we’re reminded that choosing love over fear might not always be the easy choice, but ultimately the most rewarding and beneficial for not only the individual but for society at large.
Letter to Anita screens daily at Water’s Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., 2nd floor, Monday, October 13 through Sunday, October 19 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $12. A special meet the filmmakers reception will be held on Wednesday, October 15, which will feature a Q and A with irector Andrea Meyerson and the film’s subject Dr. Ronni Sanlo. A private reception will follow. Tickets to this event are $25, which also includes admission to the 8 p.m. screening of Tru Love (director Kate Johnston will also be in attendance.) Tickets are available at the box office or online at watersedgecinema.org. For more information call 508.413.9369.