Gay South Florida in 1979

In its June 14, 1979 issue the Advocate (then a tabloid) published three articles by its house reporters about “The Florida Triangle.” Joe Baker wrote about “Fort Lauderdale: Gay Enclave on the Condo Coast.” Lenny Giteck wrote about “Miami: Dade, But Not Dead” and Robert I. McQueen wrote about “Key West: Verdant and Violent - A Troubled Paradise.”

The articles detailed the condition of each community, listed local bars and other gathering places, and featured photos of those few gays or lesbians then willing to appear in a national queer paper, including Staci Aker, Harry Losleben, Pat Tong, Stephen Jerome and Jesse Monteagudo.

1979 was a year of transition, for myself and for South Florida’s LGBT community. Though I already moved to Fort Lauderdale, to live with my then-partner, I was still on the board of the Dade County Coalition for Human Rights in 1979, led by Club Baths mogul Jack Campbell.

The DCCHR had declined since its golden age, when it tried in vain to defend Dade County’s “human rights” ordinance (1977). Attempting to reach out to the bar crowd, the Coalition held some of its meetings in local watering holes, including the notorious Mine Shaft.

In 1979 the DCCHR led South Florida’s involvement in the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (October 14); organized Miami’s own Gay Pride March (June 24); and published The Weekly News Bulletin. I was involved in all three endeavors; as a participant, organizer and contributor, respectively.

Both Pride South Florida and The Weekly News Bulletin later became independent entities and long survived the group that created them. Meanwhile, the future pointed to Fort Lauderdale, where the semi-closeted Tuesday Night Group (a.k.a. “Closet Clusters”) united middle class professionals and business leaders on behalf of a love that still dared not speak its name.

According to Lenny Giteck, Miami never recovered from its 1977 debacle. “Despite brave claims that [Anita Bryant] was ‘the best thing that ever happened to gay people,’ many of those who took their first venturesome steps out of the closet during the Dade County campaign have retreated deep into its recesses. Much of the gay community appears demoralized and quiescent, and what promised to become a lively gay political scene in South Florida has lost a great deal of verve - and nerve.” In 1979 most LGBT people stayed in their respective closets, trusting that Miami’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment would keep them safe. “Gays here are more concerned with going to the bars and worrying about where their next Quaalude will come from than in doing anything political,” attorney Stephen Jerome told Giteck. “There must be at least 150,000 gay people in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, yet the Broward County Coalition in Fort Lauderdale is lucky if it gets 15 people at a meeting.”

Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale held on to its reputation as the city “Where the Boys Are.” According to Joe Baker, who was kinder to its subject than his fellow reporter Giteck, in 1975 “Fort Lauderdale had only 7 gay bars, 1 gay bath, 3 gay restaurants and 1 gay hotel. Today [1979] there are 18 bars and discos, 9 restaurants, 8 hotels and motels and 3 baths catering to the homosexual community. It is a “B” city: bars, beaches, boys, broads, beer, boobs, bronze bodies, baths and boogying.” Baker’s article listed Broward County’s gay commercial outlets, including the then-famous Marlin Beach Hotel and a variety of gay pubs and discos, all now gone: The Copa, 13 Buttons, Lefty’s Bar, The Grotto, Tacky’s, the Everglades, Zelda’s Disco, The Tunnel and the lesbian bar Top’s.

Another visitor to South Florida was novelist Edmund White, who wrote about his experiences in “States of Desire: Travels in Gay America” (1980). Having enjoyed New York City’s exciting social and cultural life for years, White could not appreciate South Florida’s more laid-back and closeted lifestyle. According to White, “Fort Lauderdale is a short, angry strip along the ocean, crawling with teens drugged or drunk or both. The two most common ages are sixteen and sixty - the latter buys the former. ... In Fort Lauderdale many gays make the assumption that all older men want adolescents and are willing to pay for them.” White later admitted that “I have not, of course, described Fort Lauderdale as it must seem to those gay men who live there; they, like people everywhere, lead varied lives not subject to generalization. But I have tried to single out the one feature that most strikes the tourist - that, indeed, exists for the tourist [hustlers].” So it was in 1979 South Florida. But not to worry. The best was yet to come.

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