Stephen Wayne Foster: Gay Activist and Scholar

Stephen Wayne Foster

Stephen Wayne Foster is almost a Native Floridian.

Though he was born in Virginia in 1943, he moved with his family to Miami a year later and grew up in Miami Shores.  Foster studied at Miami-Dade College and the University of Miami, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in History.

 

When Foster was 17 years old and in high school, he discovered gay history.  “I came across Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights from 1880, which included a very long article about the history of homosexuality.

Years later, in D.C., I discovered a copy of ‘GAY’ on a newsstand, by Jack Nichols,” he commented, indicating  that turned him on to an article about the NY Mattachine Society, and “an awareness that nobody was writing about gay history and that there was a need for this. So I felt that if anybody was going to do it I should do it.”

Now retired, Foster lives in an apartment in Coral Gables that he first occupied in 1975, having witnessed over a half-century of South Florida gay history and culture.

His scholarly journey began as student in the UM Library, where, he says, “I took a notebook and a pen and went saw thousands of books before me… starting with The History and Development of the Moral Ideas by Edward Westermarck, which contained a long essay about gay history. It formed the structure for all of my research after that.” Making exhaustive trips to the on-campus libraries, Foster estimates he gathered notes from at least “5,000 books.”

Though Foster says that he realized that he was gay when he was 13, he did not ‘come out’ until he was 26, encountering other gays at the popular corner of 21st Street and Collins Avenue, near the gay beach.  But he notes it was no easy going back then, “That was a time when the Miami Beach police were real bastards and used the laws as excuses to raid gay bars and make gay folks miserable in so many ways.”

Gays did not immediately organize in Miami. In 1972, though, Foster, along with Barry Spawn, Bob Barry, Bob Basker, and Frank Arango, helped create ‘Gay Activists Alliance of Miami.’ Foster was the treasurer. “They trusted me,” he said. “I had to keep the money in my own account. We did not have a corporation or anything.”

One of Foster’s achievements during his GAA-Miami days was the creation of South Florida’s first LGBT library.  Foster approached the Rev. Don Olson, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, and asked him if he could use an empty room on the second floor of their facility. He got the go ahead and added some shelves, his private collection of books and publications, and opened the ‘Center for Dialog.’ It was short lived, he said. “Rev. Olson said that he was embarrassed because straight people might walk past the open door of the library and see that it contained gay material- so he wanted me to keep the door shut.  I felt very insulted by that and I gathered up all the material and took it home.  So our first gay library lasted maybe three weeks.” About a year later before Mark Silber founded the Stonewall Library.

GAA-Miami and Foster remained active, filing a class action suit against Miami Beach in 1972, challenging its laws against cross-dressing in public.  In the same year, GAA-Miami members joined other activists to protest both the Democratic and Republican conventions which were being held on Miami Beach. Many gays gathered in Flamingo Park, the protest site. The respected Dr. Franklin Kameny of Washington, D.C. was amongst the protesters.

Unfortunately, GAA-Miami did not long survive the 1972 conventions.  As Foster recalls, “that when the conventions went away and the antiwar demonstrators went away the whole thing died down and people lost interest.” Foster himself lost interest and says he resigned “over internal feuding.” He indicated that even though there was over 250 people on the GAA mailing list, that “by the end of 1973, GAA-Miami was history.”

Foster tried to start a gay student group at UM, but says that was also short-lived, at least in part to a case of agoraphobia overcoming him. “It discouraged my ability to take part in Miami’s growing LGBT movement,” adding it is no longer an issue in his life.

By withdrawing from political activism, Foster says he was able to return to his “firstlove, gay history.” He was becoming a major contributor, authoring anthologies on Sir Francis Burton, and assisting Jonathan Katz with his groundbreaking Gay American History.

Through the years, Foster helped many other gay scholars write their books.  Proudly, he notes that “my name is mentioned in at least thirty books, usually in the form of footnotes saying, ‘I wish to thank Steven Foster for his help’”.

Separately, Foster also contributed original essays and translations to the pioneer gay journal Gay Sunshine. He has also contributed articles on gay communities for the 1990 publication of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and later for The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality.

At the time, many of those articles were written by authors who chose to use pseudonyms, to keep their names hidden,” Foster notes, “Not me. I used my real name.”

Stephen Wayne Foster’s cross-section of writings includes a wealth of gay legends, from Oscar Wilde to Charles Fourier. As he notes, they are all in his own name, one that has stood the test of time, endured the days of adversity, and still stands tall today.

Jesse Monteagudo is SFGN’s Senior Feature Correspondent and a South Florida resident since 1964.  Jesse invites other veterans of South Florida’s LGBT community to share their experiences with him.  Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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