In 1977 an event took place that marked the birth of LGBT political activism in Broward County. Although the LGBT community has been a part of Fort Lauderdale even before it became a place on the map, it was only in the 1970s that it emerged as a visible community. Riverside and Sailboat Bend, with its Key West ambiance were the first neighborhoods with sizable concentrations of lesbians and gay men. Gay owned businesses and bars began to appear and organizations like the Metropolitan Community Church reflected the growing organized community.
For the most part, the larger heterosexual community ignored the emerging gay presence. Compared to Miami’s larger and more visible community, the LGBT community in Fort Lauderdale was fairly quiet.
In 1967 there was a well-publicized grand jury investigation about crime and homosexuality in Broward, along with a Fort Lauderdale news series on homosexuality in Broward. The grand jury report’s major outcome was the indictment of a well-known local crime figure for gambling. Homosexuality was an ignored footnote. Since then, although there were occasional bar raids and arrests for “lewd behavior” in the parks or along the beach, the resort economy and culture of Fort Lauderdale created a relatively relaxed scene.
The warm weather and beautiful beaches made Fort Lauderdale a perfect destination for the growing lesbian and gay tourist trade. While some gay men and lesbians opened up early guesthouses and most hotels did not blink when two men or women rented a single room, it was the opening in the mid-1970s of the renovated Marlin Beach Hotel as America’s first explicitly gay resort hotel that really marked Fort Lauderdale as a gay tourist destination.
Completed in 1952 the Marlin Beach was the jewel of the beach’s hotels. Just across AIA (where Beach Place is today) it had over 105 rooms, a stage and dance area two restaurants, and a courtyard with a large pool. One of the restaurants was downstairs and had a large aquarium type window onto the pool, allowing diners to enjoy their meals while watching the under-water goings-on in the pool. Both the hotel, and the dining room window were featured in the 1960 movie Where the Boys Are and helped establish Fort Lauderdale as the place to lie in the sun in the day and party at night.
However the 1960s were not kind to the Fort Lauderdale Beach and the Marlin. With jet flight becoming popular, tourists began to discover newer fresher places like Las Vegas, the Caribbean and Hawaii. The opening of Orlando’s theme parks stole the family trade. South Florida tourism began to decline. Fort Lauderdale’s beach area became the destination of spring break students and others looking for beaches, warm weather, parties, and cheap hotels. With them came a large population of panhandlers, “street people,” hustlers, drifters, and druggies. Like other hotels on the beach, the Marlin Beach quickly became run down and lost its glamour.
However in 1972 it was rescued when a group of gay entrepreneurs bought it and planned to turn it into a top-class resort catering to the emerging lesbian and gay tourist market. They spent more than $300,000 renovating it and featured it in a 1974 ad campaign in national gay magazines promoting it as “America’s premier gay resort,” making Fort Lauderdale again the place “Where the Boys Are.”
All of this occurred under the Fort Lauderdale establishment’s radar. Neither the city nor business leaders condoned or even knew about it. However in late November 1976, the Fort Lauderdale Beach Improvement Association, the civic group charged with trying to increase the tourist business issued a report on the conditions of the beach. It noted the many problems, particularly the large population of “street people” and drifters. It also highlighted Marlin Beach and its gay clientele, noting the hotel’s national advertising campaign and its reputation as a popular gay resort hotel. It cited the number of arrests of young male hustlers who were drawn to the area by the presence of the hotel.
This news came as a shock to Fort Lauderdale’s mayor E. Clay Shaw, a conservative Republican who had been a member of the city commission since 1971 and was elected mayor in 1975. One of his major goals was to revitalize Fort Lauderdale tourism and, in his view, the presence of an openly gay hotel on the beach ruined any chances of drawing tourist trade.
“If a family from the Midwest comes to Fort Lauderdale and sees men making love on the beach what will they think...they’ll never come back,” he said. The head of the city’s Hotel Resort and Hotel Association agreed and noted that the presence of a gay hotel was “a social stigma and it will drive families away.”
The city’s major newspaper The Fort Lauderdale News headlined the story of the mayor’s disapproval writing: “Mayor Shaw is Adamant-The City’s Gays Must Go.” According to the newspaper, the mayor’s goal was to eliminate every vestige of homosexual activity from the beach. “If he had his way, the Marlin Beach... will go straight.”
Check back next week for part 2 of this story. Have a comment on this story or a memory about Fort Lauderdale to share? Go the Broward County LGBT Community History Project blog: http://Browardmemory.blogspot.com.
Fred Fejes is Director of the Broward County LGBT Community History Project. He is a Professor at Florida Atlantic University and author of Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The Origins of America’s Debate on Homosexuality.