Jesse's Journal: Broward’s Gay History - Gay Political Life before the Dolphin Democrats

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This is the second of a two-part article first published in 1994 as part of a series about South Florida LGBT history written for Miami’s The Weekly News (TWN). Part one was about Broward County’s queer social life. Part two looks at the rise of the LGBT rights movement at a time when most of us were still in our closets.

Gay politics in Broward dragged behind the bar scene. There were individual acts of resistance. The late Jerry Mitchell recalled being part of a short-lived group, the “Purple Panthers,” that fought antigay harassment on Dania Beach in the summer of 1962. Broward County’s oldest LGBT political entity was the Gay Community Services of Broward County, which flourished in 1973. Though the GCS did not live to be a year old, it led, through the efforts of member Mark Silber, to the creation of the Stonewall Library.

The next chapter in Broward’s gay history began in January of 1977, and the catalyst was E. Clay Shaw, then Mayor of Fort Lauderdale. The late Tom Bradshaw, speaking before the Stonewall Library, noted that Shaw “wanted a grand jury investigation of the relationship between the Marlin Beach Hotel and hustlers on the Strip, on A1A and on Birch Road. And he went further than that. He said, I don’t just want the Marlin Beach closed, as a public nuisance, but I want all gays out of Fort Lauderdale. We want this to be a family community!”

“All of a sudden (recalled Bradshaw), an incredible burst of energy occurred, seemingly out of nowhere. Gay and lesbian people began to organize. And there was born the Broward County Coalition for the Humanistic Rights of Gays.” Richard Sedlak, who served as president of the Broward County Coalition for Human Rights (BCCHR) from 1979 to its demise, remembered at the time. “a lot of people began to flex their muscles. These people were gay and proud and willing to stand up for their rights.” Broward activists were inspired by the Dade County Coalition for Human Rights, which was then fighting to preserve that county’s “gay rights” ordinance.

According to Josephine Williamson, an early member of the BCCHR, the group “started out as a bar owners’ group.” Silber, one of the founding members, credited Dade County activist Bob Kunst for the creation of the BCCHR. Kunst, Silber recalled, “got a lot of support from Bill Hovan” who, as owner of the Marlin Beach Hotel, had some stake in the matter. Mitchell, another founder, recalled that the BCCHR “met the first time at Tangerine’s in Fort Lauderdale. Then we started meeting at the Marlin and then we moved away from meeting at bars.” For a while (1977-78) the BCCHR rented office space at the Las Olas Building before moving its meetings, in Mitchell’s words, to “the place Buddy Markwell had.”

“Markwell’s place” was Common Ground, itself a landmark in Broward gay history. The late Buddy Markwell, whose Den of Antiquity shared space with Common Ground, called it “a meeting place for people.” “It wasn’t religious, Markwell told me in 1994. “It wasn’t a bar. It was a common ground where people could get together and share ideas. Out of there we got the Hotline, which started in 1978 and ran until two years ago. There were several things that got started from that concept and developed into other things.” A predecessor of the Pride Center, Common Ground, located on the south side of the railroad track at Andrews, was, in Williamson’s words, “the first attempt to create something that was remotely a community center” in Broward County.

I became involved with the BCCHR shortly after I moved to Broward in 1978, and served as secretary from 1979 until that group’s demise. Meetings at Common Ground drew a small number of people, mostly young, white, male and economically challenged. “On the average,” Williamson said, there were “about 15 people, about 90% men." “Buddy Markwell had a few people,” recalled activist “Joe Bell,” who went over a few times. “But they didn’t seem to have too many people there. Buddy tried hard but it wasn’t a big membership and to do anything you have to have a big membership.”

What the BCCHR lacked in money and numbers it tried to make up with enthusiasm. According to Williamson, “the Coalition at the time was the only really out organization so it attracted people who could afford to be out and who didn’t have any money. The Coalition never had any money and was always beholden to any bars that would hold fundraisers. When I joined the Coalition it had this huge, unwieldy Steering Committee that consisted mostly of bar and business owners. I was at the meeting when we sacked the Steering Committee.” I was also present at that meeting and, innocent of politics, I supported the “sack.” Now I realize it was the beginning of the end. Having lost its base of support, the BCCHR limped along before it faded away in the early 80’s.

The BCCHR was not without its achievements. Mitchell remembered that “we were instrumental in getting the first few gay pride parades down here and getting people to go and march in the parades. One of the things we did one year (1979) was make what we called a ‘Drag-a-pillar.’ It was made on the order of a Chinese dragon so that closeted people could march under it and not be seen.” Though Pride South Florida began in 1979 as an arm of the DCCHR, by the early 80’s it had effectively become a Broward organization.

“The BCCHR’s biggest accomplishment,” Markwell recalled, “was the education that we did at the time. A lot of people were educated as to the contributions of the gay community.” In addition to the Broward Hotline, the BCCHR, in Mitchell’s words, “was a spawning ground for the Florida Task Force,” which held its annual conference in Broward under BCCHR auspices (1979). Finally, Williamson noted, “the people there had a good time. The fellowship in the organization was more important than we realize. If you can’t find a way to get on with your life and have some fun while you are trying to change things, you burn out.”

By the late seventies, the Tuesday Night Group (TNG) had emerged as Broward’s leading LGBT rights group. “Joe Bell,” the businessman who founded the Group, dated its beginnings back to 1973-74. “A friend of mine who came down from New York was entrapped and as a result was put in jail and treated very badly. A week later he hanged himself. Because of that I was really shocked and that’s when I started the group.”

The Tuesday Night Group soon attracted an affluent, professional membership that wouldn’t be caught dead at BCCHR meetings. “In the early days,” Bell told me, “we used to meet on Tuesday nights (of course) in apartments and had 65 people over. Then when it got so big we went to the old Unitarian Church located across from the Courthouse on S.E. 3 Avenue. And when we had our cocktail parties we had over 800.”

Those of us who ran the more upfront BCCHR thought that the TNG, also known as “Closet Clusters,” was too timid for its own good. Edmund White, in his book States of Desire (1980), described “Closet Clusters” as “a fundraising chain of groups for prominent gays who do not want to be publicly identified.” “The Tuesday Night Group at that time was fairly closeted,” admitted the late Karl Clark, who joined the group in 1979. “They only knew people by their first names and they didn’t publish a newsletter. The only time you would know about a meeting is when they would announce it.”

“The BCCHR was a kind of ‘in your face,’ right in front of the papers kind of thing, kind of like ACT-UP,” recalled Markwell. “The Tuesday Night Group was a behind the scenes, pseudo-closeted thing.” “To me it was a little bit too closeted,” Silber told me, while nonetheless admitted that he “liked the concept of meeting at upscale places.” I remember attending a posh TNG reception in which Bell never used the “G word,” opting instead for the more discrete “community person.”

Bell defended his use of language. “I felt it was derogatory the way they were using it and I did not want to use it. I did not want any names attached to the TNG.” I suspect Bell knew what he was talking about. Unlike the BCCHR, the TNG was able to reach, in Sedlak’s words, “the powers that be, the moneyed, influential people.” “The Tuesday Night Group was considerably more funded and polished than the BCCHR,” Williamson admitted. “It took a long time but we got the bar owners together and we got the business people together for the first time,” Bell proudly agreed.

According to Joe Bell, the TNG avoided the pitfalls that doomed many a group. ”The TNG was informal. We had no board, so to speak. Everyone had free speech. There were no egos and we all worked very hard together.” Unlike other groups, the TNG drew a large number of women. “The men used to avoid the women and the women felt badly about it. We were the first to get the women involved with the men. We encouraged the women and that broke the ice.”

Finally, TNG avoided the financial controversies that destroyed other organizations. “We had an attorney put our money in escrow and we accounted for every penny that the TNG had. We had no problem with any kind of finances because we had complete and full disclosure.”

Thanks to the Tuesday Night Group, Broward’s LGBT community became a political force. The Group, Joe Bell said, “broke the ground to educate the politicians and the police as to what the community was really like and not what they thought they were like. According to TNG member Andy Eddy, “stealth” candidates from the Group got themselves appointed to both the Democratic and Republican Executive Committees. (Being in the closet has its advantages.) During the Briggs Initiative of 1978, Fort Lauderdale, through the Tuesday Night Group, raised more money than any other city outside California. The TNG was also the first group in Broward to address the AIDS issue, long before Center One.

In 1982 Karl Clark, D. Lynn Mattingly and other TNG members formed United Citizens for Human Rights (UCHR). The UCHR, Clark noted, was “the open political arm of the Tuesday Night Group. We were out of the closets and our names could be used in the paper and so on. We met with the politicians on a one to one basis.” In 1982, which Clark called a “watershed year” in Broward politics, “Anne MacKenzie, Peter Deutsch, and Peter Weinstein accredited the UCHR and the gay community for their victories.”

One of the losing candidates that year was Dennis Foley, who ran for the Florida House of Representatives against Debby Sanderson. According to Clark, “Dennis was the president of what was then the Democratic Club of Wilton Manors. After the election was over Dennis asked me to take the charter and revitalize the Club. In November of 1982 we held an election and I was elected president. Then we went to John Lomelo, who was the chair of the Democratic Executive Committee, and told him we wanted to change the name to the Dolphin Democratic Club of Broward County. He had no problem with that and so we became a county-wide club.” Lomelo also persuaded Clark and other Dolphin Club members to run for and serve in the Democratic Executive Committee - as openly lesbian or gay people.

Though the Tuesday Night Group broke up in the mid-eighties, its influence on our community is still felt today. Meanwhile the Dolphin Democratic Club, now 35 years old, continues to represent Broward’s LGBT Democrats. The emergence of LGBT people as a force in Broward County politics in the early 1980’s was a turning point in our community’s life, and not even the AIDS epidemic could keep us from moving forward.

 

This is a part of our LGBT History Month special package. Check out sfgn.com/2017historymonth daily for new stories. 

 


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