Longtime LGBT advocate, author, speaker and educator Ronni Sanlo spoke on campus Oct. 6, 2016, at the annual LGBT Forum and played her documentary “Letter to Anita” for those in attendance.
Sanlo has been a part of the LGBT rights movement since she came out as lesbian in 1979, only to lose custody of her children to her ex-husband due to the anti-gay parenting laws created by Anita Bryant in her home state of Florida.
Sanlo says she knew she was lesbian since the age of 11 and only married out of fear of people finding out. Although she was a lesbian married to a man, she said she did enjoy being a mother.
After coming out in 1979 and deciding to divorce her husband, the separation between her and her children began. Eventually her children would be taught that because she was lesbian, that she had HIV and soon became afraid of her, and eventually stopped seeing her in 1985.
While the laws took her children from her, this would turn Sanlo into an advocate for LGBT rights.
Sanlo helped fight against the passing of laws such as the Bush-Trask Amendment, which would have cut funds to LGBT groups on Florida campuses, as well as cut financial aid to any persons disobeying the law.
She then became an AIDS epidemiologist and helped victims in Jacksonville, FL.
“The hardest part about that work was that everyday someone died,” Sanlo said.
While doing this work, she would go on to get her master’s and doctoral degree at the University of North Florida, and would eventually become the director of the University of Michigan & University of California Los Angeles’s LGBT Centers, pioneering these on campus resources for students and inventing the Lavender Graduation which honors LGBT students upon graduation.
Her daughter reached out to her on Christmas of 1994 and her son in 1998, which is when she found out that her son had come out as a gay man.
Despite Sanlo feeling that Anita Bryant was responsible for taking away her children, the activist felt that not only did Bryant’s actions give fuel to the gay rights movement, she feels Bryant was only doing what she thought was right. This allowed her to eventually let go of the anger she had inside of her.
“If I remained angry, it would hold me back,” Sanlo said, “when I finally let go of that anger it felt like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders.”
While Sanlo has managed to reclaim her family, there are still 29 states that uphold religious liberty laws that allow LGBT people to be fired, have their children taken from them and be discriminated against.
“If you’re not straight, male and Christian, you are setup to be a victim of religious liberty laws,” Sanlo said, “that’s going to be a problem if Trump is elected.”
She believes that the only way to fight the religious liberty laws is to vote but that students can still make a difference every day on campus by just being open about their sexuality.
“I think the best difference someone can make is to be open and honest, and proud because change can happen when you know someone is different from yourself,” Sanlo said, “so if I’m a lesbian on campus, my responsibility is to be open, to be willing to talk about it, to not think that everyone who does a micro aggression is homophobic and to treat others with respect.”