PORT ANGELES — Not so very long ago, singer Anita Bryant led a crusade called Save Our Children. Pushing for repeal of the Dade County, Fla., ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, she mounted a campaign against gay rights: one that spread across the United States.
Ronni Sanlo, a playwright who now lives in Sequim, was an early target. Forty-one years ago, she went to court and lost custody of her two young children. As a lesbian, she was deemed unfit to care for them.
In the ensuing years, Sanlo endured everything anti-gay activists could throw at her. Yet she transcended the fight — which is ultimately the subject of “Dear Anita Bryant,” the autobiographical play to be live-streamed this week.
The Port Angeles Community Players, with director Carol Swarbrick Dries of Sequim and a six-member cast including Kathleen Balducci as Sanlo, will perform “Dear Anita” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday via the Zoom platform. Tickets are $7 plus a $1.10 service charge at PACommunityPlayers.org, and include a talkback following the show.
Sanlo considers Bryant a key figure in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people — in the past and today.
“Bryant was the catalyst that truly jump-started the LGBTQ civil rights movement in 1977,” she said. “Her anti-gay crusade touched every state.”
Sanlo suffered, personally and mightily, at the start of the movement, added Swarbrick Dries.
“She not only lost her children. She lost her job and her home,” after divorcing her kids’ father.
“She rose like a phoenix,” the director said, “went back to college to get her Ph.D.,” and became an HIV epidemiologist, educator and director of the LGBT centers at the University of Michigan and then at UCLA.
Along with her many accomplishments, there is another, said Swarbrick Dries, that is as important as any other point in the play.
Sanlo forgave Anita Bryant.
“It’s a fascinating, very real story,” Swarbrick Dries said, “and I’m so grateful to be involved.”
Sanlo’s wife Kelly Watson is the producer of “Dear Anita” while Sequim composer and arranger Linda Dowdell has orchestrated the music.
Swarbrick Dries, a veteran Broadway performer, adds a song, recorded at ToolShed Soundlab in Port Townsend.
Alongside Balducci, the cast includes Sequim actors Jim Dries and Debbie Leach, and Mindy Gelder, Pat Owens and Anna Andersen of Port Angeles.
“I cannot believe what Ronni went through, at the hands of careless prejudice,” Andersen said. She marvels too at the way Sanlo overcame adversity — and emerged with her heart open.
“She is very good at her craft,” Andersen noted.
“The script is well told, very touching, and inspires in us the urge to fight against injustice, which is of course very timely.”
Andersen added that Swarbrick Dries manages to make the Zoom rehearsal process not only work, but also bring out each actor’s strengths. This, she said, is a delight to witness.
Sanlo, for her part, believes this country has come far on the path to LGBTQ rights.
“People are coming out at younger ages. Marriage equality is the law of the land. Yet there are some areas in which tremendous work is still needed: aging LGBTQ people are feeling forced to go back into the closet for fear of discrimination in assisted living situations,” she said.
Sanlo and her wife fear for their own safety at times. But she emphasized: “We teach people how to treat us. If we act frightened and secretive and not at all authentic, that’s exactly how we’ll be treated. So we two old lesbians – moms, grandmas, stepmoms both – move through the world with pride in spite of our fear. We must, so that we’re modeling self-love.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.