New Documentary Chronicles Gay Civil Rights Movement in South Florida

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A decade after the Stonewall riots and a generation before marriage equality began to take hold in Massachusetts, the epicenter of the gay civil rights movement was right here in South Florida.

The documentary, “The Day It Snowed in Miami,” which premiered on WPBT2 on Monday, June 13, explores the battles, set off in 1977 by a groundbreaking human rights ordinance passed by the Miami-Dade county commission.

At the time, opponents promised it would never pass until “hell froze over.” The next day, Jan. 19, South Florida received its first and only recorded snowfall.

Independent filmmaker Joe Cardona was just a boy, but he vividly remembers the controversy the anti-discrimination bill stoked.

“I was not very old, but I was old enough to know what was going on and the commotion really stuck with me,” Cardona recalled.

Evangelical activist Anita Bryant, the spokesperson for the state’s citrus industry, took up the cause, rallying voters to overturn the ordinance, a victory that would hold for 21 years. But, the history doesn’t end there, as just two years later President Ronald Reagan was elected and the AIDS crisis began to take hold in South Florida. Within a decade, South Beach emerged as a leading destination for LGBT residents and tourists.

In 1997, another initiative lost by just two votes, only to pass in 1998 and be affirmed by county voters in 2002.

“Obviously Stonewall has its place, but we’re talking apples and oranges,” said Cardona. “The revolution was fought here. It was very heated—personal—within families.”

The film project got its start two years ago, just as the marriage equality movement began to gain momentum.

Cardona, who is also an op-ed columnist for the “Miami Herald,” has many close LGBT friends and colleagues, and had considered the topic after collaborating with the newspaper and WPBT2 on an Emmy-winning documentary about the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake.

“It’s an amazing Miami story,” he explained, “that certainly has national ramifications. This is the civil rights movement of the day.”

Because of the transient community in South Florida, he realized many of his friends didn’t realize the historic role the region played.

“There was this amazing disconnect,” Cardona said.

The filmmaker turned to “Herald” LGBT beat reporter Steve Rothaus, his “walking encyclopedia, pillar of the community and producer,” as well as executive producers Shed Boren and Nancy San Martin, to get the project completed while simultaneously juggling two other films.

“They are the best team in the business,” he said.

The film premieres this week on a local PBS affiliate, but by summer, Cardona expects it to be picked up by other stations across the country.

“It’s a story of perseverance and the struggle for equality and it resonates,” he added.

“The Day It Snowed in Miami” will air Monday, June 20 at 10 p.m.


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