By 1980, the Dade County Coalition for Human Rights (DCCHR) was clearly in decline. It reached its peak in the spring of 1977, after the (Miami) Dade County Commission added affectional and sexual orientation to the county’s human rights ordinance.
The electoral repeal of the “gay rights ordinance” on June 7 sent much of Miami’s LGBT community back into the closet and the Coalition into a downward spin from which it would never recover. The DCCHR’s most enduring creations - Pride South Florida and the weekly news (twn) - were now independent entities, and the Coalition’s work on behalf of the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights (October 14, 1979) did not help the group’s standing back home.
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A twn editorial attributed the DCCHR’s decline to a “leadership void” and to an “epidemic of gay apathy that has permeated our community since 1977.” Gay businessman Jack Campbell, who led the DCCHR through the 1977 debacle, ended his second term as president, and was succeeded in April 1980 by his vice president, Staci Aker. Though I have been living in Fort Lauderdale since 1978, I was still on the Board, from where I witnessed the group’s decline.
Then the Mariel Boatlift came along, and the Dade County Coalition for Human Rights had another reason for existing. In retrospect, the Mariel Boatlift was one of several events that rocked Miami in 1980. The Boatlift happened at the same time as the police shooting of Black businessman Arthur McDuffie; the cops’ acquittal; and the ensuing riots. (Some things have not changed.)
Even so, the Boatlift had an impact on Miami’s Cuban community, LGBT or otherwise. The attempt by almost 10,000 Cubans to gain freedom by taking refuge at the Peruvian embassy in Havana led to an April 20 decision by President Fidel Castro to open the port of Mariel to anyone wishing to leave the island, as long as someone came to pick them up. Soon almost 2,000 boats sailed from Florida to Mariel, most of them owned or rented by Cuban-Americans eager to free their loved ones. By the time the Cuban government closed Mariel 125,000 “Marielitos” had left Cuba, including many criminals or mentally ill people foisted on the boat owners by the Cuban government. Once they arrived in the U.S. many of the newly “free” Marielitos were placed in refugee camps or in federal prisons.
Among the 125,000 or so Cubans who left Cuba by way of Mariel were many LGBT people. The Castro government viewed gays as “scum;” persecuted them; and placed them in detention camps. “To escape the repressive regime,” Miami Herald reporter Daniel Shoer-Roth wrote in 2015, “thousands of gay men and lesbians - plus some heterosexuals who lied about their orientation in order to be expelled from the country - left Cuba on the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.” The presence of so many queer Cuban refugees, including effeminate “locas,” shocked native Americans who shared the Cuban government’s homophobia. Even so, as Susana Pena wrote in her book “Oye Loca: From the Mariel Boatlift to Gay Cuban Miami,” queer Marielitos had a big impact on South Florida’s LGBT community; and their presence might have led to the gay revival in South Beach later that decade.
Native Americans, including some Cubans, blamed the Marielitos for the rising crime rate and other ills. When AIDS arrived shortly after the Boatlift, queer Marielitos were accused of spreading the epidemic. To this day there is controversy as to the extent of HIV and AIDS among LGBT Marielitos.
Herald reporter Elinor Burkett, author of “The Gravest Show on Earth: America In the Age of AIDS,” speculated that many if not most gay Marielitos contracted HIV when they came to the U.S. and experienced this country’s freer sexual culture. I do not agree. Though HIV contributed to the deaths of many gay Marielitos, it did the same to members of other groups, in Miami-Dade County and elsewhere.
It is true that the two best-known gay Marielitos, writer Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) and activist Pedro Zamora (1972-1994) were HIV positive, though Zamora died from AIDS complications and Arenas killed himself. On the other hand, other gay Marielitos successfully survived both AIDS and homophobia, becoming valuable members of South Florida’s LGBT and mainstream communities.
Meanwhile, what was the Dade County Coalition for Human Rights doing during the Mariel Boatlift? Though many gay Marielitos were in detention camps or in federal prisons, the U.S. government agreed to release them if they had sponsors who would take them in and vouch for their good behavior. Led by Cuban-American activist Joe Fragga, the DCCHR worked hard to find sponsors for those gay Marielitos who did not have family members who were willing or able to do so.
Thanks to the efforts of Fragga and of the DCCHR, many gay Miamians stepped up to the plate to help their Cuban brothers. Not surprisingly, good-looking Marielitos were quick to find sponsors, while the homely ones languished in refugee camps. But it was the Coalition’s finest hour, after the 1977 referendum campaign.
The Mariel Boatlift was the Last Hurrah of the Dade County Coalition for Human Rights. Dade County was not ready for an LGBT rights organization. Broward County soon replaced Dade County as LGBT South Florida’s center of gravity; and South Beach’s Art Deco heyday was still in the future.
By then I was no longer active in the Coalition. I lost my bid for re-election to the Board in 1980 and transferred my activist activities to the Broward County Coalition for Human Rights (soon to be superseded by the Tuesday Night Group). Though the DCCHR tried to stem the tide by electing local bar owners into their board, the group disbanded in 1983. Still, the Dade County Coalition should be remembered for its achievements, even in defeat, and deserves a place of honor in the history of the struggle for LGBT equality, in South Florida and elsewhere.