Gay and civil rights circles across the globe are noting the 50thanniversary of the June 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City this year. But there was another event in the heart of (then) Dade County, Steve Rothaus recalls, which also had a hugely profound effect on the LGBT community.
Rothaus remembers the time of Anita Bryant and her anti-gay rights crusade of the late 1970s. Bryant sought the repeal of a Dade ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“I believe that Dade County was really ground zero for the modern gay rights movement,” Rothaus said. “We all know Stonewall and mark that date, but there’s a difference to what happened in 1977 in Miami.”
Bryant’s campaign was based on conservative recruiting” children and being molesters. She served as the catalyst for organized opposition to gay rights across the U.S.beliefs about the “sinfulness of homosexuality” and the perceived threat of homosexuals “
Bryant succeeded in her repeal effort, but it was overturned in 1998. Her successes motivated, and still do, those in favor of LGBT rights.
So it’s not that Rothaus thinks Stonewall is insignificant or that it’s a competition. He simply argues that at the time, Stonewall was known to a smaller segment of the national population, while what Bryant did reverberated far and wide in the mainstream.
“It was the first time people across the U.S. of all ages, ethnicities and different socioeconomic backgrounds were confronted with gay rights,” Rothaus said. “People started to think about all the protections LGBTQ people didn’t have. There was a discussion on a wider basis.”
Bryant’s crusade against gays was the top story on the nightly news. Walter Cronkite was talking about it; she was on the cover of Newsweek.
“How many people in Kansas City were talking about Stonewall? But they were talking about whether gays should be allowed to teach,” Rothaus said. “[Antifeminist and Equal Rights Amendment foe] Phyllis Schlafly and all this came from Dade County in 1977.”
It’s the kind of gay rights macro view few have. But Rothaus knows it well from his years living in South Florida and from his work as a reporter at the Miami Herald.
Rothaus, 60, is in the midst of a retirement of sorts. He was one of more than 200 Herald employees who took an early buyout in February.
He’s lived in South Florida since 1974 and joined the Herald in 1985. He was chosen as the reporter for a newly formed LGBT beat in 1997, just a few months after Gianni Versace’s death in Miami Beach.
A look back
Rothaus came to South Florida via New York as many did. His parents opened a monument company that produced and sold gravestones. They divorced in 1979, but his mother kept the business through the mid-1990s.
Rothaus arrived as a bright-eyed teenager who would go on to graduate from North Miami Beach Senior High School.
He’d later attend Miami-Dade College and then Florida International University where he earned his journalism degree.
“I was pretty much repressed, wasn’t out, didn’t date,” Rothaus recalls of those younger years.
Early in the Bryant era, he remembers walking door-to-door, handing out brochures against the repeal effort. He volunteered at the headquarters of the Dade County Coalition for Human Rights.
“I became involved, but I wasn’t out,” Rothaus said. “Certainly my head was there. I knew it was important to me even though I wasn’t out.”
He would come out while at college.
Before the Herald, Rothaus worked in retail. He was a salesman at the first South Florida Macy’s at Aventura Mall.
“Suddenly I was in an environment where all the men were gay. It was the normal,” he said. “You’d go out after work and talk about all the men who went in and out of the store all day.”
He later managed the men’s department at the old Lord & Taylor. It’s where he would meet his future husband Ric Katz.
Katz was a lobbyist in Tallahassee at the time and had taught journalism at FIU.
It was an FIU professor and former editor of the Herald who told Rothaus about a job opening at the paper. It involved monitoring the police scanners and the hours were 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Ready to leave retail, Rothaus got the job and thus his foot in the door.
“I was very assertive and eager and ambitious. It was the golden age of journalism back then. Circulation was 650,000 on Sundays in a town of a little more than 1 million. The Herald had national standing. It was a great place to be,” he said.
Rothaus quickly emerged as one of the best reporters at a publication that was on fire.
AIDS and bar raids
Rothaus covered all the small cities around Miami Beach and also wrote about police and transportation issues in Dade.
“I always said yes to every assignment. I chose stories I knew would do well,” Rothaus said.
Topics varied widely from the seemingly less significant (a new Publix opening or a neighborhood speed bump issue) to coverage of the AIDS epidemic in Key West.
Rothaus moved to Key West in 1988 and spent a year and a half there. He was fully out by then and stayed at the Lighthouse Court — at the time one of the best known gay guest houses.
He connected with the leaders of the Key West Business Guild and learned there was a gay bashing problem on the island.
“There were kids who lived in [the New Town area] who saw gay men as easy pickings — single gay men walking in the dark,” Rothaus said.
Rothaus wrote a story about it and the Guild was upset that it would hurt business. It wasn’t the first time Rothaus would butt heads with those who preferred not to see certain stories published.
Back in Dade he’d written about a police officer who was demoted because a male florist claimed they were in a relationship and had accused him of domestic violence.
“One of the cops took me aside and said he got demoted because he was in a relationship with this man,” Rothaus said.
And then there was the ongoing HIV crisis. Rothaus said that at the time Key West had the highest rate of AIDS per capita than anywhere else in the country. He wrote many stories about it.
“The community didn’t want these stories published. They thought people won’t want to come and swim in the pools,” Rothaus said. “But it’s my job. For every person who was upset and angry, someone would say thank you.”
Rothaus would later cover Broward County, the sheriff’s office and the Fort Lauderdale police. He would write about the biggest gay bar raids to take place in South Florida history — the 1991 raid of the old Copa in Fort Lauderdale and Club 21 in Pembroke Park.
“It was treated as a spectacle. But it was the end of that era and I covered it,” he said.
Rothaus said the stories he’s written about young people are among the most important he’s done.
“Writing about kids who are not old enough to support themselves who may live in homes and keep their [gay] lives secret from their families,” he said.
Rothaus broke barriers at the Herald as an LGBT issues reporter during a time in which the mainstream press didn’t believe it was an essential beat.
In the early 2000s he was on the board of the Association of LGBT Journalists (NLGJA) and got funding for a groundbreaking program that took him across the country to train newsrooms on best practices to cover gay issues.
He trained people in San Francisco, New York, Oklahoma City, Omaha – talked at schools and journalism programs, went on radio, and did TV.
For those reasons and more, the LGBTrights organization SAVE gave Rothaus its “Equality Icon” award June 14 at its annual gala at the Hard Rock Stadium.
Rothaus said he’s humbled, but is also certain someone will pick up the mantle, even in an increasingly challenging industry.