The first “gay” bar opened in Broward county in 1935. Located near the Hollywood Race track on Federal, “Club Ha-Ha” was the South Florida version of the type of club opening in New York during the 1930s in what noted gay historian George Chauncey described as the “pansy craze” in New York City nightlife.
Featuring female impersonators, effeminate wait staff, and “sophisticated entertainment,” it was a venue, according to its ad where “gayety knows no restraint.” It was the first in a long line of clubs in South Florida, advertising themselves as “gay, gay, gay,” that used female impersonators and raunchy entertainment to attract those whose sexuality and gender were outside the mainstream. It garnered rave reviews but also, as can be expected, vehement condemnations. During World War II, the military banned the many soldiers stationed in South Florida from the club. The Miami Herald condemned the bar as “a gathering place for perverts” and the editor of The Fort Lauderdale News described the club as “synonymous with filth.” Finally, in 1948, after a legal battle involving two trips to the Florida State Supreme Court, the club was closed.
This and other stories of the LGBT History of Fort Lauderdale and Broward county will be part of the talk “Queer by the Beach: The History of the Fort Lauderdale LGBT Community," given by Fred Fejes, on Dec. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the FAU downtown campus. Fejes, a professor emeritus in the FAU School of Communication and Media, taught courses LGBT studies courses since the late 1980s and has done extensive research on the LGBT experience in South Florida. He is the author of the book “Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The Origins of America’s Debate on Homosexuality,” an account of the 1977 Anita Bryant campaign against gay rights in Miami-Dade County and its aftermath.
“Doing research on Fort Lauderdale LGBT history is a fascinating experience,” said Fejes at his home in Victoria Park. “It’s like finding thousands of little pieces of information about various people, places and events and fitting them together like a jigsaw puzzle. Slowly a big, fascinating picture of queer life emerges.”
Although overshadowed in the beginning by Miami, Fort Lauderdale emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s as one of the major LGBT communities in the nation. “‘Where the Boys Are’ was more than the name of a 1960s movie,” said Fejes. “Like all of the major LGBT communities in America, it had its own distinctive characteristics. The sun, warm weather and most of all the beach, both as a physical place but more importantly, as a part of the collective imagination, shaped the queer experience in Broward.”
He continued, “We may not be as intellectual as the queers in Boston, as artsy as those in New York or as political as those in San Francisco, but we knew how to relax and party.”
Tourism, of course, was a big driver of life in South Florida. Over the years out of the many people coming and going, a community was created with its own organizations, groups, identity and energy.
Of course, the progress was not smooth. At various times efforts arose to shut the community down by stigmatizing and isolating LGBT people. In the 1960s the last echoes of the “Lavender Scare” - the 1950s government campaign against homosexuals - were heard in Broward. In the 1980s and 1990s, AIDS made gay men lepers. LGBT people were the constant targets of self-righteous preachers and opportunistic politicians. But the community not only survived but flourished.