Miami has had a gay nightlife scene as early as the 1930s. From then on, it would be a rollercoaster of ups and downs, filled with progress, failure, celebrations, and heartbreak in Miami LGBT history, leading to our current status as a gay mecca that attracts more than 1 million LGBT visitors a year. A place with its own chamber of commerce dedicated to the queer community since 1997, and where Art Smith hosted and officiated a mass gay wedding for more than two dozen couples this past February.
Of course, it didn’t happen right away, and the early gay nightlife scene of the 1930s was not long-lived. Raids would shut down queer establishments on an almost nightly basis, but they kept popping right back up again. This silent film shows a police raid on a Miami gay bar in 1957.
This mistreatment continued until the end of the 1960s, escalating to targeted murders, harassment, and public shaming via stories in local newspapers.
In 1964, a Florida legislative committee led by Senator Charley Johns published Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida, also known as the Purple Pamphlet, as part of a witch hunt to seek out gays and bisexuals working in schools, universities, and government jobs, who they believed were determined to “subvert the American way of life by controlling academic institutions and by corrupting the nation’s moral fiber,” according to Carryin’ on in the Lesbian and Gay South. Filled with pornographic pictures, it attempted to portray queer people as degenerate disease carriers worse than child molesters. The backlash against the Johns committee was swift, with Dade County officials threatening legal action and the Florida Attorney General demanding that distribution of the Purple Pamphlet cease immediately.
Fighting for rights
Despite the persecution, Miami’s LGBT community remained tenacious in their fight for equal rights. Activism prevailed, and things began looking up in the 1970s. According to The Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures, “The first organized gay pride week was celebrated in Miami Beach in early 1972 with a march on Lincoln Road protesting a city law banning cross-dressing. Two weeks later, the law was struck down by a federal court. In August of that year, hundreds of gays and lesbians joined thousands of protestors at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach.”
Establishments where queers could congregate reached an all-time high, becoming even more prevalent than they are today. Most were located in Miami, but there were plenty of Miami Beach spots such as Club Benni on Alton Road and Club Echo and Circus Bar on Ocean Drive, as well as the Mayflower Lounge and Basin Street.
In January 1977, an ordinance passed banning discrimination against gays and lesbians. However, Anita Bryant led a campaign against the pioneering antidiscrimination law, and it was repealed in June of that year.
But that didn’t slow down the LGBT community. By the 1980s, Miami Beach was becoming known as a bohemian mecca for queers around the country, a place where everyone could live freely and openly. This further boosted the economic development and the rise of Miami Beach throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with the latter best referred to as the Versace Era, known its extravagant parties, glamour, and celebrities.
South Beach fabulous
The LGBT community proved absolutely instrumental in transforming Miami Beach from a town known for criminals and retirees to the glittering gem of all things fabulous it would become. This was further propelled by the famous relocation of Gianni Versace to Casa Casuarina in 1992, and then the premiere of The Real World: Miami in 1996. Two years earlier in 1994, the cast of The Real World: San Francisco included Pedro Zamora, a Miami gay man fighting AIDS.
People flocked in masses. “Everything was pastel and glitter,” Shelley Novak, one of the grandmothers of Miami Beach drag, told World Red Eye. “You were tripping over gays. There was a smaller group of lesbians, too.”
Most popular during this decade were Warsaw, located in the former Jerry’s Famous Deli spot, and Paragon on Washington Avenue, along with Salvation, a warehouse space on West Avenue. Dozens of stores, restaurants, and gyms catered specifically to the LGBT community.
However, it wasn’t only about the party. Leonard Horowitz, the openly gay cofounder of the Miami Design Preservation League, was propelled into the public spotlight in the 1980s for his dedicated efforts to promote and preserve Miami’s Art Deco architecture, alongside cofounder Barbara Capitman. We have him to thank for South Beach’s iconic visual look, recognized the world over.
The 1990s also saw great strides in the government and civic activism. Save Dade, which continues to promote equality for LGBT members of the community, was founded in 1993, and in 1998, equal rights for gays and lesbians became county law.
At the same time, Miami has always had a gritty side, and in the gay community it involved bathhouses and anonymous sex in Flamingo Park, at the same time as the AIDS epidemic swept through the country. AIDS in particular is a problem we’re still struggling with, and Miami remains the No. 1 city for HIV transmission in the U.S.
Then, in 1997, Andrew Cunanan shot Gianni Versace in front of his mansion. While police never provided any connection between his death and his sexual orientation, locals got nervous and things became tense.
There was a new wave hitting the Beach, one that included more commercialism and homogeny. The economy was good, in part due to the queer community, but the rent spikes eventually priced many out. The days of Robyn and dance music were replaced by hip-hop. This began a pilgrimage to Broward, especially to Fort Lauderdale and its neighbor Wilton Manors, which has become a gay mecca in its own right, ranked as the city with the second highest percentage of LGBT residents in the country as of the 2010 census, making up 14 percent of its population of just over 11,000.
To this day, Miami Beach and Wilton Manors continue to flourish, with both offering very different experiences. Miami Beach may be glitz and glamour, but Wilton Manors is a family town, and the two are close enough that there’s plenty of overlap between the two famous gayborhoods.
One thing they both have in common is a thriving drag community. The concept of drag is not a new one by any means. It’s been alive since before the days of Shakespeare, and its traditional etymology notes that the word was originally theater slang. The word morphed throughout the centuries, and the way we use it today originated in the 1950s.
Drag queen performers can be men or transgender women, queer or straight, and Miami Beach is historically famous for its local talent, including Elaine Lancaster, Noel Leon, TP Lords, Latrice Royale, Tiffany Taylor Fantasia, Kitty Meow, Chyna Girl, and Daisy Deadpetals. The drag queen phenomenon in Miami Beach became especially prevalent during the Versace Era, bringing even more fame to Ocean Drive with its inclusion of The Carlyle in The Birdcage.
The Palace, located on 12th and Ocean, is exceptionally famous for its drag performances, with their famous tagline is “Every Queen Needs A Palace.” However, it wasn’t always a drag queen haven. Opened in 1988, it was originally a fruit bar called The Fruit Palace. According to the prevailing story, the original owners put the word fruit in the name in an effort to not offend anyone, since the beach right across the street was known as a popular gay haunt. It instantly became popular with the gay community, and the shop began adding liquor to its juices, eventually offering drag shows. Over the years, it has changed owners, incorporated a full-service food menu, and become world famous for its extravagant drag performances.
As rents priced out other gay businesses, the Palace persevered, and it’s now the only gay bar on Ocean Drive. They offer drag shows every night, but the main event occurs on Sundays, which is the drag brunch that started it all.
In 2014, the Human Rights Campaign ranked Miami Beach No. 1 in its Municipal Equality Index, which measures the inclusivity of LGBT people in city laws, policies, and services. The city has been a pioneer for cities all over the country, with openly gay elected officials and services for LGBT youth, seniors, and the homeless. Miami Beach officials actually spoke out in court against Florida’s same-sex marriage ban. Miami-Dade County, too, has been ahead of its peers, passing an ordinance in December to protect transgender people from discrimination based on gender identity.
Political battles aren’t over for Miami’s LGBT community, though. Florida Representative Frank Artiles, R-Miami, launched a bill this year that would have banned transgender people from using bathrooms that reflect their gender identity. That bill would have overridden Miami-Dade’s ordinance, but it died in Tallahassee amid staunch opposition from human rights advocates, LGBT activist groups, and civil liberties organizations.
From Twist, Score, and the bevy of themed queer nights at local bars, to Hotel Gaythering, Miami Beach’s only gay hotel, opportunities to celebrate LGBT culture abound. Annual events like White Party, Miami Beach Gay Pride, the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and Aqua Girl welcome thousands of LGBT tourists and locals alike. Publications like Palette Magazine, South Florida Gay News and Wire Magazine keep the community informed. We’ve even got bowling leagues, softball teams, and, really, all types of groups for everybody of any age, from The Alliance for GLBTQ youth to Safe Schools South Florida. The LGBT community has become an inextricable and vital part of daily life in Miami, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.