If a special place in heaven exists for LGBT activists, Tony Ramos deserves a seat at the head table.
Ramos fought vigorously for equality, justice and fairness as President of South Florida GUARD (Gays United to Attack Repression and Discrimination) from 1996 to 2003. He lost his battle with lung cancer and died March 3.He was 47.
Since then, farewell messages of love and gratitude flood Facebook.
“Good-bye Tony! Glad I knew you and I’m so sorry you had to move on. I’ll always remember the fights you staged for our community,” noted Dan Pryor. And from Brad Casey, “Tony was a tireless fighter, like a bull in the ring.”
Of Italian and Puerto Rican roots and raised from the age of two by his aunt and grandmother after his mother died of leukemia, his activism began at 15 in his Bronx, NYC hometown. There he spearheaded a massive campaign to persuade President Ronald Reagan to rebuild the South Bronx. The undertaking earned him the New York Attorney General’s CCCI (Courage, Commitment and Community Involvement) Award.
Ramos also helped create Asbury Park’s (New Jersey) LGBT community center and organized the region’s first pride parade.
After moving to South Florida in 1994 Ramos became involved with GUARD. The organization originally formed in reaction to the rise in hate crimes, attacks and discrimination directed toward LGBT people.
Ramos also carried out protests against many, most notably Reverend James Kennedy and his Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, the Christian Coalition, and Rev. Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church.
Under Ramos’s watch, GUARD flexed its muscles and affected change without the radical militancy, the antagonism and unruliness that epitomized other LGBT activist groups throughout the country. The mild-mannered, polite and unflappable Ramos favored a more low-keyed and cooperative diplomacy to confrontation and problem-solving.
“Look, there’s a place and time for in-your-face, direct action protest, a more forceful course only to be used as a last resort, but an option nonetheless.” Ramos said. He loved quoting Winston Churchill’s line: “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”
After a police raid on the bar Chaps for back-room sex, Ramos met with high ranking Wilton Manors and FLPD officials with concerns that the LGBT community was being unfairly targeted, which led to an investigation by GUARD and resulted in less hostile interactions, more transparency and accountability of police agencies.
While GUARD president, Ramos forged strong bonds with all the area PDs. Most of the officers he knew on a first name basis and would often ride alongside them in their patrol cars. Ramos won them over with his genuine respect for law enforcement along with his genteel nature and disarming smile.
“Many laws in the state of Florida need to be repealed, but instead of wondering what others are doing about them every member of our community should be calling, faxing and writing to our city, county and state elected officials and demand these unjust laws be removed,” he said. “Only when we come together and stand up for what is right will change ever come. Our community has become complacent in its way of life and this can be very dangerous.”
During the final year of his presidency and for three years thereafter, Ramos took over as head of security at the Ramrod Bar in Fort Lauderdale, and according to owners Zak Enterline and Steve Whitney, he was a “model employee.”
“Tony was a take charge-guy. He never bothered us about anything, always handled things professionally and never got upset,” Enterline noted. “Tony had a way about him that drew people in. You couldn’t help but like him. Cops would ride up to the club after an incident with their lights flashing about, making a fuss and Tony would greet them with a warm, welcoming grin and say, ‘Is that really necessary?’ and they would chuckle and turn their lights out.”
In 2004, Ramos retired from public life, but continued to take on individual cases involving injustice as needed. He regularly spoke out on LGBT issues, “always willing to help anyone in need, almost to a fault,” friends would point out.
In addition to being GUARD president, Ramos was co-founder, past president and co-chairman of Pride of Greater Fort Lauderdale (PGFL) and co-founder of the summer Stonewall Street festival in 2000.
He also played a key role at the Marie Wansiki Foundation as director of public relations and development. Founded in 1989, the clinic provided testing, treatment and counseling for thousands of people with HIV/AIDS and without adequate resources.
At the age of 18 Ramos joined the Navy, later earning his GED and becoming an EMT paramedic and dispatcher with Broward County Fire and Rescue. He also volunteered for the Red Cross during Hurricane Wilma and joined the Coconut Creek CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) in 2008. Besides that Ramos also worked as a photographer at Photography by Tony Ramos and became an ordained minister.
Because of his declining health his final years were difficult yet his outlook on life remained “cheerful, hopeful and uplifting,” according to his partner of 13 years, Dennis Shroeder.
An Instagram message from Ramos read, “Living life the best I can with the people I love. But now with only one lung….ouch!…lol.”
The two married on January 31 of this year.
“We finally made it "official" by taking a road trip to Maryland with my parents,” Shroeder announced on Facebook. “This was one of the highlights of the past few months for Tony!”
A memorial will be held Friday, March 21 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the main auditorium at The Pride Center located at 2040 N Dixie Hwy, Wilton Manors, FL 33305.