Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 14 July, 1997

BOB KUNST
From Anita to AIDS

By Jack Nichols

 

On July 8, a Miami police officer, at a 1,000-strong rally protesting the fourth failure of the Magic City's gay rights ordinance, arrested and handcuffed Bob Kunst. This officer was undoubtedly in the wrong, but it seems altogether fitting somehow that Kunst, for 25 years a colorful social justice activist, has once again received international publicity after standing up in 1977 to fundamentalist hate-monger Anita Bryant. Then he'd faced her on national TV and, with ease, had turned her, in front of millions, into a nincompoop par excellence.

Anita Bryant herself, 12 years later, admitted to the Orlando Sentinel that Bob Kunst had represented "a very painful part of (her) life." This admission, perhaps, is vindication enough for Bob Kunst, though his political enemies, past and present, are attempting a re-writing of Anita-era history, aided and abetted by homophobic Miami Herald editorialists. They do this, says Kunst, to shift the blame from themselves for their late '70s failure when Dade County's gay rights ordinance was voter-repealed.

This year's attempt to re-introduce a Miami gay rights ordinance was doomed from the start, and this time Kunst had nothing to do with ineptly re-introducing or championing it, except that after its failure, he became the singular person unfairly arrested in a downtown post-failure rally. His old political opponents, under a new acronym, SAVE ("Safeguarding American Values for Everyone") are using his arrest to once more shift criticism away from their own bungling strategies, he says, while they repeat the very mistakes that were made on the ordinance's first round, twenty years ago.

In 1977, it was Bob Kunst and Dr. Alan Rockway, who introduced the original ordinance and saw it--unlike today's-- unanimously passed on first reading 9-0 by the Metro Commission. Following the ordinance's passage, an early strategy debate erupted between more conservative gay activists and the Rockway-Kunst Miami Victory Campaign at the same time Anita entered the arena calling for voter repeal.

Kunst and the now-deceased Dr. Rockway wanted to expand the perimeters of the debate, and since Kunst is an accomplished publicist, Anita's crusade and Kunst's responses became a long season's world-wide news. Historian John D'Emilio says that the Anita Bryant feud "was the first time there was sustained national interest in the gay rights story. The battle lines were clearly drawn between the new gay movement and the forces reacting against it."

I met Bob Kunst in late 1976, just before the Anita feud broke into headlines. Appreciative of a regular column I contributed to Florida's then-barguide, David, he made a trip to the Hollywood apartment I shared with entertainer, Logan Carter, to say so. He also invited us to a meeting of heterosexual swingers for which he was acting as a moderator from his government-funded organization, The Transperience Center in Coconut Grove, an organization he and psychologist Rockway had used to spread enlightened sexual/psychological messages. Transperience stood for empathy, he explained, "It's the 'I am You' consciousness." This sane organization's funding was one of the first casualties of Anita's controversial "Save the Children" crusade against all things sexually free or gay-related.

I next time I saw Kunst briefly was in Manhattan, right after his triumphant debate with Anita. He was on his way across the country appearing everywhere in media. Twelve years later it was clear--in interviews with the press-- that he held no bitterness toward Anita. This ability to laugh and forgive has always been one of Kunst's great strengths. "She singlehandedly galvanized gays," he told the Sentinel, "We loved her. She has such potential. She's got such a powerful voice--but she always sings the wrong tunes. I always said, she was my best friend..." At the time Kunst made these remarks Bryant, divorced and destitute, was singing for her supper in Florida trailer parks.

"Tell her this," he petitioned the Sentinel reporter, "I'd love to manage her career. I'll make her a new folk hero. We could fill the Orange Bowl. Shea Stadium. I'll give the money to AIDS, she can give it to her church. I'll come with her to mobile homes and pass out condoms. I'll make her a star. Tell her."

Bryant reacted with dismay, according to the Sentinel. Her expression was horrified. Her eyes opened wide. Her lipstick mouth slackened. "She barked a few short laughs:

"The Orange Bowl! Ha! I don't find him funny. At all!"

Next I saw Kunst in Atlanta. We spent a full evening discussing his Oral Majority crusade, one he began on the heels of Jerry Falwell's defunct Moral Majority effort. Kunst was off, like a media pied piper, traveling across the country to enlighten Americans in nearly every state between the two coasts. He appeared on TV and in newspapers wherever he went. I saw him next in San Francisco, still crusading, he appeared undaunted. The year was 1981. Again, he spent an evening at my apartment discussing his strategies.

But it wasn't until 1985, when Bob Kunst founded Florida's CURE AIDS NOW, which Peter Jennings' AIDS Quarterly called "the most effective grass roots AIDS organization in the state third hardest hit" that I joined forces with Kunst, becoming his AIDS organization's editorial consultant. Kunst had always been a brilliant speaker, but his press release compositions had been critiqued as having an "Alice in Wonderland" style by one reporter. My compositions helped him jump this hurdle.

When he flew to the Space Coast to found a chapter of CURE AIDS NOW in 1986, I saw first hand what kinds of strategy problems Kunst has always had when dealing with more conservative, closety gays. The Space Coast AIDS-helper wannabees were horrified by any mention of politics or public demonstrations. They wanted to be of service, but to do things sub-rosa, like delivering groceries to the sick. I recognized the division between Kunst's in-the-politician's faces approach and the social service, behind-the-scenes small-towners as one that had manifested itself as early as 1961.

Then, Frank Kameny, myself and a few others had defined our new militancy as representing to the public a direct action approach that included political maneuvering, and increased media coverage. We initiated picketing, much to the dismay of conservative movement gays. Kameny hammered home a point which, 25 years later in 1986, had still not been understood by conservative wanna-be movement types, namely that while social service is commendable, it isn't ever enough. We could have continued ministering to the needs of long lines of distraught gay men and lesbians, helping them find jobs when they lost their jobs, giving them good books to read, etc. But until we approached the Established powers, publicly damning as foolish their stances, the status quo would find us ministering only to longer and longer discriminated against gay and lesbian complaint lines.

Bob Kunst applied this same approach to AIDS. He called AIDS "World War III". He knew that groceries could be delivered to endless lines of people with AIDS, but that until social service providers became willing to make politicians suffer for 1980s inattention to the pandemic, little would change and the lines would only grow longer. He attempted, in 1986, to make this clear to Space Coast residents, but local conservative gays could accept none of such a direct action plan. They feared exposure, either as having AIDS themselves or as being gay.

It was during this period that Kunst ran against Senator Bob Graham in the Democratic Senate primary. He had a shoestring budget ($5,000, a single Miami Beach resident's donation) and a borrowed, pink Mary Kay Cadillac boasting a CURE AIDS NOW sticker on its bumper. He trekked everywhere across the sunshine state, his activism encompassing one-on-one talks with rednecks in the Florida panhandle and with Mid-westerners living in Tampa and Orlando. He thought up one gimmick after another that showcased the AIDS crisis in thousands of newspaper articles, and ended by getting 150,000 Floridians to vote with him on his emergency CURE AIDS NOW platform. Conservative Florida's gay activists--social service enthusiasts-- continued to eschew Kunst's company, and, as a result, had nowhere near these kinds of successes.

CURE AIDS NOW--thanks to Kunst's perseverance-- became not only the most effective grass roots organization in Florida, but by the time conservative gays were invited on its board, Kunst had already set up C.A.N.'s social service dimension. C.A.N. became capable of feeding as many as 30,000 Meals on Wheels daily, meals that reached Haitians, Hispanics, Blacks and Anglos, all provided their own ethnic foods. Kunst raised nearly five million and C.A.N. food vans criss-crossed Miami and Miami Beach delivering. In 1991, Kunst's own conservative board, in collusion with the homophobic Herald, had him ousted because of his radical strategies. Today, diminished under a new name and quiet conservative control, nobody knows that there was a CURE AIDS NOW.

In the meantime, just prior to 1991, Kunst mobilized support and critiqued politicians and the pope in major publications, including Time magazine and The New York Times. Therein, after attending the Vatican's AIDS conference he was quoted in both publications saying: "This is the worst AIDS conference I ever attended, its been three long days of gay bashing." I congratulated him at the time for shooting a flaming arrow into a major citadel of darkness.

When the pope went to Miami in 1989, "his Holiness" evaded a reporter's question: "Is AIDS God's judgment against homosexuals?" by replying, "It is not easy to know God's intentions." The pope could, in a compassionate and civilized fashion, have laid the entire matter to rest by saying, "No, such an idea runs contrary to the kind of God I worship." But such was not the case. The same day the Vatican newspaper called AIDS "nature's sanction," against immorality, CNN showed Bob Kunst suggesting that the pope "shape up or ship out" of Miami. In fact, nature hastened "his Holiness's" departure, flooding his outdoor mass with an unparalleled downpour.

While Kunst had long been Florida's most irascible critic of federal and HRS inaction on AIDS, he emphasized that what he calls "the gay conspiracy to placate these powers" is just as much a factor in gay losses.

Seven years ago, when Broward County's first rights referendum lost, Dade County's Kunst had taken to the Ft. Lauderdale streets with placards, the campaign's only direct action protest against fears of AIDS contagion, a Catholic archbishop's sinister intrusion.

Because mainstream activists asked him not to go, there were Town Hall opportunities for rebuttals missed, he felt, because the "AIDS issue was used to scare the public and the response was totally inadequate. They were trying to slip the referendum quietly under the door, but they didn't need to. They had lots of good fertilizer, issues like sexism, racism, and the right wing idiocy of the main opposition speaker, but they didn't know how to use it. They wanted low voter turnout. I felt that was wrong. Everybody should get aroused so that everybody comes out to vote."

In the wake of the latest South Florida ordinance failure, much the same scenerio has been played out. A singular commission member introduced the ordinance without first assuring gay community awareness and backing. When the commission voted on the ordinance, there were only a few "Save" gay and lesbian activists present at its meeting, in contrast to hordes of well-organized fundamentalist loonies. This time the commission voted 7-6 against even bringing the ordinance up on first reading, in contrast to December 1976's 9-0 pro-ordinance vote. And this time, at the July 8 rally, Kunst alone was arrested. As of this date, no SAVE members have rallied to his side, to protect his violated civil rights. It is my belief that he is entirely innocent of police-activated charges leveled against him, namely that he scratched the arresting officer and used an untoward epithet.

Kunst has been organizing pickets and demonstrations for over a quarter century. He has always prided himself on good relations wit the police, often telling them in advance of his arrivals, conducting himself properly by their standards, to say the least. "I may be opinionated," he told GayToday, "but I'm not stupid."

Standing alone by a fountain wall with fundamentalist Christian activists surrounding him, Kunst held a sign that read, "Christian Reich." He also wore a tee-shirt that said, "Throw the Bigots Out." Standing next to him was a police officer who seemed to share the fervor of the Christians and who told him to leave the vicinity of the fountain. "Why, he asked, if these others can stay?" The officer, he explains, "was infuriated by my picket sign," and when Kunst questioned his being singled out for abuse, pushed him and then arrested him.

"I said talk to me, but don't push," he recalls, at which point the officer grabbed and ripped his shirt. Three other officers joined in, also ripping his pants and poster.

"The handcuffs were on so tight that I still have marks on my wrists days later."

Some of the most hurtful abuse, however, has come from members of SAVE who, says Kunst, are spreading rumors that he got arrested on purpose to upstage them. Once again, he believes, he is being singled out by timid middle-roaders to serve as a scapegoat for the failures of their own strategies.

"Would I jeopardize my name and all I've struggled with, let alone the vital efforts I'm now doing in order to scratch a police officer?" he asks. "Officer Addines' charges are blatantly false," he says.

While this drama plays itself out Bob Kunst remains as he always has, seeing himself as beyond a narrow focus of either the left or the right. He revises his approaches to politicians too and is ever ready to be conciliatory when they become so. He believes that Dade County gay activists, pilloried even for klutziness by editor George Ferencz in Hotspots, South Florida's largest barguide, always lose their battles because they are married to an US verses THEM mentality, a right or left perspective.

Bob Kunst has always believed that support for gay rights comes from everywhere, especially heterosexuals and bisexuals who know that old-fashioned sodomy laws affect them as well as gay men and lesbians.

Bob Kunst can be reached at (305) 866-8558.

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