“An Italian businessman and a Jewish lawyer walk into a restaurant…” sounds like the start of a joke, but in 2009 that is exactly what happened when Piero Guidugli and Norm Kent agreed over dinner at Café Vico to start a gay newspaper.
Their enduring and endearing partnership has since produced 400 issues of South Florida Gay News (SFGN). As they prepare to celebrate the paper’s eighth anniversary, the two men shared with me their motivations and memories.
2009 was not a good year for gay media.
Local and regional gay papers around the country had been gobbled up by a conglomerate called “Unite Media.” That juggernaut had begun to collapse. Norm was suspicious.
“I started Express Gay News in 1999. I sold it to Unite Media in 2003. When I was invited in 2009 to their lavish cocktail part on the roof of the fabulous Delano Hotel in Miami Beach, I knew something was wrong. I knew what it cost to run a newspaper. I knew they couldn’t afford a bash like that. Four days later Unite Media filed for bankruptcy in federal court. Luckily, I had sold them my newspaper for cash, but many people lost a lot of money.”
Knowing that publishing a gay newspaper is never lucrative, why did Norm and Piero start SFGN? They credit an inability to stifle their innate and passionate activism.
For Piero, his activism is traced back to Anita Bryant. In 1976, he left his native Italy to escape religious oppression and to seek tolerance and acceptance.
“At that time, the United States was to me a beacon of freedom. I didn’t know the United States, but I had a conceptual feeling about it. I was convinced that it would be better than Europe for me as a gay man. I came for college, combining my escape with my education. I was very deeply in the closet at that time, even in this new country.”
In 1978, the antigay persecutions of Anita Bryant obliterated Piero’s starry-eyed perception of America, and spurred his own need to come out of the closet.
“I couldn’t understand how it could be happening. I felt panic and danger. I woke up one morning with a sudden resolve. I sat down at my typewriter and started writing my coming out letters to family and friends. I remember the great relief I felt when I put those letters in the mailbox and knew there was no turning back.”
Piero then joined a number of small collegiate activist clubs. He obsessively collected anything he could find in print about gay issues, focusing on the injustice of how they were reported.
“I had six or seven scrapbooks of those clippings. In those days, there was no internet and no Google. That effort helped me come to terms with myself. What Anita Bryant did pissed me off! She was an affront to what I believed about America. If not for her, I might have remained in the closet. In 1992, I moved to Florida where I met my first partner who introduced me to Wilton Manors. There, I joined a gay business network involved in social issues including AIDS.”
“Vietnam,” was Norm’s one-word answer when asked about the ignition of his activism. “There was transparent injustice everywhere. That is when I learned that no good citizens ever trust their government. The song Stand Up To The Man in the show School Of Rock pretty much sums it up. When I started the Express Gay News, my objective was to record the gay and lesbian history of South Florida. It was not being accurately reported, especially with Broward County emerging as the epicenter of the LGBT community. Ten years later, with the collapse of Unite Media, gay history and culture were once again in danger of becoming invisible.”
Remembering the injustice that brought him and Norm together, Piero said, “Norm had written about a case of police entrapment. In those days it was not uncommon for police to deliberately persecute gay men in public parks. I contacted Norm who was representing the victim, and said I would like to get involved. Norm invited me to meet him in court. I got so upset that I offered to pay the legal expenses of the guy who was entrapped. A few months later, Norm was looking for investors to start a gay newspaper. I said I was interested, but with one stipulation. I wanted to write an occasional column about gay history. We met at Café Vico Thanksgiving weekend in 2009, and he laid out the plans for SFGN. I liked it and accepted.”
Norm added, “Piero underwrote the cost of the prosecution in that case of entrapment. We won the case, got a judgment and a settlement. Piero gave the settlement to the men who had been victimized. I made the observation to him that this case won’t get the attention it deserves in the mainstream papers, and that if I could find the money, I’d start up another newspaper because we needed a voice. With my experience, I knew what it would cost in dollars and time.”
Piero compares their partnership to those of Lennon and McCartney or Simon and Garfunkel, saying, “We both brought individual strengths to the table, but together we were even better. Of course, there were arguments, but we always agreed on priorities.”
At this point in their recollections, both Norm and Piero seemed to forget that there was anyone else in the room as they spoke about the early years of SFGN and the amazing people who came their way with a need to have their mistreatment exposed. In telling the stories of those first issues, Norm and Piero are clearly men whose satisfaction with SFGN is entirely derived from rectifying injustice.
In SFGN, they exposed a five-year long program of entrapment by two West Palm Beach policemen who had entrapped more than 300 men.
They championed a Hollywood police officer, Mikey Verdugo, who had clashed with his superiors over gay issues. Hollywood found a way to fire him, citing the fact that he had not disclosed his past in gay porn.
They investigated financial mismanagement by the developers of the condominiums at Wilton Station, helping to get a conviction.
They protested the firing of drag queen Tiny Tina (Ray Fetcho) whose thirty years of social work included performing at facilities for the elderly. A change in employment laws brought to light an old lewd act conviction. Decades earlier, Tiny Tina ran a wet jockey shorts contest at a gay club in which she would throw a pitcher of water at the performers. The police did not like the transparency of wet white cotton. A plea of no contest to the charges against her had come back to haunt her. Ultimately, Florida’s Board of Nursing granted an exemption and a return to work as a licensed practical nurse.
Back in the moment, Piero said, “It is amazing that we are producing a print newspaper in this digital age. We’ve managed to have some profitable years, but neither of us will ever recoup our investment. We do this for our community.”
Norm has the final word, saying, “Exposing the truth is all I ever wanted to do.”