The road to forgiveness: LGBT activist speaks at UNF

Nick Blank

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Dr. Ronni Sanlo and her partner Dr. Kelly Watson held a Q&A after the documentary. Photo by Kimberley Appleby

Dr. Ronni Sanlo realized that she could only find peace by forgiving the woman at the forefront of the Christian Right’s anti-LGBT crusade who pushed discriminatory laws that resulted in the removal of Sanlo’s children.

“Letter to Anita” recounts  the familial struggles of LGBT activist and UNF alum Dr. Ronni Sanlo and the struggles that still pervade the LGBT rights movement.

The documentary, which was publicly screened at UNF Jan. 11,  covered Sanlo’s life-story and her attempt to forgive Anita Bryant, the woman who led the anti-LGBT campaign.

Anita Bryant, the 1959 Miss America runner-up and former spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission, spearheaded the “Save our Children” campaign in 1977 six weeks after the Dade County Commission passed a gay-rights ordinance.

Bryant based her campaign on the notion that homosexuals with children would lead to the “deterioration of the family.”

The “gay-rights ordinance” was a law that outlawed the discrimination of gays and lesbians in the workplace and the housing markets. When Bryant started campaigning to repeal this ordinance six weeks later, she gathered enough signatures to put the repeal on a referendum. Voters overwhelmingly supported the repeal, which took took place in June 1977.

The success of the Bryant campaign deeply affected Sanlo and her family life. After coming out as a lesbian and divorcing her husband, Sanlo lost custody of her children due to a Florida law that dictated homosexuals unfit to be parents.

Sanlo’s ex-husband denied her all contact with her children for 13 years.

After sporadic visitation, her ex-husband’s family spread rumors about Sanlo to her children, saying that they would get AIDS if they touched their mother.

“My children were brought up basically to hate in the name of Christian love and especially to hate me,” Sanlo said in the documentary.

“Letter to Anita” also displays Sanlo’s efforts to combat Florida’s institutionalized discrimination against the LGBT community, such as the Bush-Trask amendment.

In 1981, Florida senators Tom Bush and Alan Trask proposed a bill that would withhold state funding from colleges that acknowledged gay groups. Sanlo personally led the fight against the Bush-Trask Amendment. She recounted the instance when she delivered ten boxes of flea collars to Bush’s office after he compared gays to dogs with fleas by on the Phil Donahue show.

Sanlo’s 40-year career of LGBT activism runs parallel with the LGBT rights movements. She worked with AIDS patients in Miami and Key West in the 1980’s. She was a counselor at the University of Michigan and UCLA with young members of the LGBT community.

At Michigan, Sanlo created the “Lavender Graduation,” a nationally-renowned graduation ceremony specifically tailored to LGBT students.

During the discussion portion of the “Letter to Anita” screening, Sanlo said there is still more to accomplish at the state and federal level. Sanlo and her partner, Dr. Kelly Watson, support the expansion of Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance that would protect the LGBT community from discrimination.

Sanlo discussed her story and current state of LGBT rights to the crowd after the screening. Photo by Kimberley Appleby

“Things still aren’t fixed,” Jake Moore said, the Program Coordinator for the UNF LGBT Resource Center who organized the documentary screening.

Moore warned against complacency in LGBT activism and agreed that the work for equality in the LGBT community was far from over.

Audience member Chris Smith, who experienced discrimination based on her sexual orientation, said she can relate to Sanlo’s journey of forgiveness.

“Forgiveness takes time,” Smith said about Bryant. “You have to get past it, when something  terrible like that happens, you can let it go because you moved on.”

At age 67, Sanlo has a healthy relationship with her children, including her son Erik who came out as gay.

“Letter to Anita” is about a woman who chose forgiveness over anger, and became a prominent academic leader in the LGBT community.

“It’s a spiritual journey from anger and forgiveness, and how to move forward with love,” Watson said.

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