It’s been almost 26 years since the last major gay bar raid occurred in South Florida.
That story is still very well known by those around today. Then Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro orchestrated a raid of two well known LGBT establishments, The Copa in Fort Lauderdale and Club 21 in Pembroke Park. Dozens of gay men were rounded up and humiliated in front of live television. It was an act Navarro defended stating he was only attempting to crack down on South Florida’s drug problem in night clubs, but the effort is very clearly seen in history as a move based on bigotry by a publicity-seeking individual.
South Florida Gay News Publisher, Norm Kent, was the attorney that defended many of the gay men arrested that night.
That raid may have been the last big anti-gay bust, but it certainly wasn't the first. Gay bars and clubs have existed as far back as the 1930s in Miami, For Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach areas. And, for a while they existed in obscurity featuring what media at the time innocently called “female impersonators” and even male dancers.
That all changed in the summer of 1954 as described by Fred Fejes' book, “Gay Rights and Moral Panic.” A national “moral panic” over homosexuality that began to spur around the country, and the 1954 Miami murder of William T. Simpson, a gay Eastern Airlines flight attendant, began to entice local progressive leaders in South Florida to crack down on this “issue.”
That in turn spread awareness throughout the South Florida community that there were gay people amongst them, maybe even as many as 5,000 of them according to a Miami Herald article from the time. As a result, the City of Miami among others quickly passed laws outlawing cross-dressing as well as bars and clubs catering to the gay community.
Concerned about gays congregating in bars or clubs then Dade County Sheriff, Thomas Kelly, organized the first “pervert round up” as the Miami Herald called it. This targeted known gay establishments that existed in the northeastern part of downtown. The pervert round up consisted of locating and arresting any people “looking” gay or “acting” gay around the county, usually with a vagrancy charge.
The following is a concise list of some notorious gay club/bar raiding that took place throughout South Florida.
It is impossible to know the true extent as to how many were raided and unreported:
March 9, 1947 - Police raided Club Jewel Box, located in Miami, and arrested owner Danny Brown for allowing consumption of alcohol after hours even though this was by no means regular practice to do at the time. The Miami News even reported this act as unusual by the police department. Two other Miami area clubs known at the time to cater towards gay men and have drag shows; Clover Club and Zissen’s were also raided that night for similar faults.
August 12, 1954 - At 2 p.m., then Miami Beach Police Chief RJ Shepard, organized a raid of the 12th Street beach (which is still a gay beach today) in South Beach. With a sharp eye and a team of officers they harassed 35 gay men on the beach with questions and ultimately arrested some of them for wearing what they considered effeminate bathing attire.
August 14, 1954 - This evening in particular was sure to live in infamy for many gay men in South Florida at the time. Circus, Charles Hotel Bar, DeMarco, Alibi (unrelated to today's Georgie’s Alibi), Leon and Eddies, and Singapore Lounge were all small operating bars catering to men and were all raided by Dade County Sheriff’s officers that evening. The officers reported seeing men dressed as women and one officer was quoted by the Miami News stating “we don’t want perverts setting up house keeping in this county. We want them to know they’re not welcome.” Another sheriff’s officer even stated he learned of a recent syphilis outbreak amongst homosexuals and considered it “alarming.” About 79 were arrested in total for vagrancy.
March 2, 1957 - The “Dive,” a bar on NW 79th Street was raided by the Dade County Sheriff’s office and broadcast live on TV. According to the Miami News, 75 people were charged with “vagrancy and drunkiness.” One Dade County deputy was even quoted as stating "I don't know how they managed to pack 'so many' into the place…"
April 6, 1957 - Patrons of the Red Carpet Lounge on Alton Road in Miami beach found the rug pulled out from under them when, under the direction of Miami Beach deputy Joe Gorman, 35 men were arrested for vagrancy. Local TV stations were present filming the raid.
April 17, 1966 - About 150 patrons of a small private Oakland Park nightclub called Val’s Caterer’s Inc. scrambled as 15 Broward Sheriff’s deputies stormed the club at 2 a.m. Neighboring businesses had been complaining of “all male” parties frequently taking place at the business whose front was catering. Because so many scrambled so quickly, only four people were arrested for “being drunk,” one of which shamefully admitted he was a Broward County school teacher, a fact that did not go unnoticed by local media at the time.
March 19, 1972 - A Miami police officer, Bill DuPriest, who was off duty, was with his wife at Bachelors II, a small gay establishment on Coral Way in Miami. He described to the Miami News how in minutes police swarmed the bar and harassed patrons because “they were suspected of being homosexuals.” He described how men were making out in the bar and some were holding hands. Disagreeing with his department’s actions in this effort, DuPriest quit his job.
August 1, 1979 - West Palm Beach police claiming to be doing a “routine check” happened to find themselves in Man’s Land on 25th street around 2:30 a.m. Police found that obscene films were being projected onto the walls of the club and arrested the bar’s manager as well as several patrons of the bar. They were charged for lewd and lascivious conduct even though the police report doesn't actually state they were physically doing anything.
June 9, 1992 - Now this raid was driven by fierce competition in West Palm Beach at the time. At 11:30 p.m., West Palm Beach Police, acting on a tip from a competing bar owner, entered H.G. Roosters on Belvedere Road and arrested 2 dancers and several bar patrons for lewd and lascivious behavior. The dancers were caught exposing themselves to the bar patrons and, for a time, Roosters was shut down.
Fortunately due to local human rights groups and activists, the idea of a bar being raided simply because it is gay or has gay-themed programming is now a thing of the past.
To view more LGBT History Month stories, visit sfgn.com/history2021.