Stonewall Festival Recalls Struggle for Civil Rights

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Miss and Mr. Stonewall. Photo: J.R. Davis.

Bob Spratt walked up and down Wilton Drive on Saturday afternoon dressed in a rainbow colored tank top and flirted with other men.

A gay man, Spratt has lived in Wilton Manors since 1999, moving down from Ohio to “come out to myself.” And yet despite all the advances in society for the LGBT community, Spratt, 64, is still reluctant to reveal his employer. He told SFGN all he felt comfortable saying is he works for a “local grocery store.”

Wilton Manors’ annual Stonewall event was a reminder of gay America’s painful history and current dilemma. In a country where gays can marry and serve in the military in many places there remains a pressure to stay in the closet as companies and even states offer little to no protections.

As Spratt walked the Drive, Democrats met in Hollywood to plan the party’s next move. Florida still refuses to include LGBT people in a statewide non-discrimination policy. David Richardson, a gay state representative from Miami, is proposing to remedy the problem with bills addressing housing, employment and public accommodations.

Last Saturday on Wilton Drive was about as public as it gets.

“This is the one day we can walk up and down the streets and celebrate that we can be open and gay,” said Brian Peterson, a festival vendor. Peterson sold hot dogs and bottled water to festivalgoers on a hot summer afternoon in South Florida. Produced by the Wilton Manors Entertainment Group, the festival and parade honor the events around the historic Stonewall Inn.

On June 28, 1969 New York City cops raided the Stonewall Inn sparking the gay liberation movement. More than 40 years later, the Stonewall Inn is now a National Monument; there is an LGBT library in Fort Lauderdale and a parade in Wilton Manors.

Broward Judge Robert Lee uses the library often for research and writing purposes. In a recently published piece for Florida Supreme Court Historical Society Magazine, Lee notes Fort Lauderdale’s Stonewall National Museum and Archives contain “hard-to-locate and rare materials relating to the LGBT experience.”

In the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society Magazine, Judge Lee wrote about the Robert F. Eimers case. “Until 1978, no person could be a member of the Florida Bar who was a known or ‘admitted’ homosexual,” Lee notes. A headline from the March 21, 1978 edition of the New York Times reads “Florida High Court Upholds Right of Homosexuals to Practice Law.”

“It was an ice breaker for the gay community,” said Adam Daniel Guerra, a drag performer and former contestant on the television program “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Guerra, who transformed into his Madonna character inside a room at the Ramada Fort Lauderdale Oakland Park Inn, said when he thinks about Stonewall the word “change” comes to mind.

“When I think about Stonewall I think of a small group of people taking a stand and really mobilizing for change,” Guerra said in a poolside interview at the Ramada before his appearance at Rumors Bar & Grill later that night.

Saturday’s parade was led by Golden Globe award-winning actress Sharon Gless. Wilton Manors Commissioner Justin Flippen remembers Gless fondly from her work on the hit Showtime series “Queer As Folk.”

“I told her she was my favorite mom on TV,” Flippen said.

Initial estimates place Saturday’s crowd at between 25,000 to 30,000 people. Jeff Sterling, Chief Executive Officer of Wilton Manors Entertainment Group, said the event raised $300,000 and balanced its books.

“We were revenue neutral this year,” Sterling said. “This is the third year now we’ve put it in the black.”

Prior to WMEG managing the Stonewall production, the event lost upwards of $40,000 annually, Sterling said. In a non-election year, the 2017 event had 126 vendors and 85 parade entries.

For the parade Flippen stood in the bed of a pick-up truck holding the rainbow flag.

“Stonewall commemorates real civil rights activism,” Flippen said. “It’s when drag queens marched out of a bar to stand up to police harassment, racism, sexism and homophobia.”

Fast forward to present day and many of the parade entries are police agencies.

“We’re now joined by law enforcement who march side-by-side with us,” Flippen said.

Police, firefighters, clergy, social groups, bars, businesses, health care agencies, banks and even airlines were represented in Saturday’s parade. 

But not Bob Spratt’s employer.

“They told us not to wear our uniforms out here,” Spratt said.

 


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