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social sciences

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Miami and Key West  
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Miami has been the site of contentious battles for glbtq rights, most notably the 1977 campaign, spearheaded by singer Anita Bryant, to repeal an ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. Despite a stinging defeat on that issue, the Miami glbtq community was energized and remains vibrant, as is that in Key West, which has a long tradition of celebrating diversity. This spirit is reflected in the city motto, "One Human Family."


A gay presence has been visible in Miami since at least the 1930s. The bar scene at the time included various drag shows, among the best known of which was the interracial "Jewel Box Revue," which began performing at the bar of the same name in 1939, and then went on to tour nationally in the 1940s. The company did not disband until 1975.

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Miami was the site of the United States Air Force's largest training base during the years of World War II, bringing many young men and women to the area. After the war some returned as visitors and others to become residents as southern Florida grew in popularity as a tourist destination.

In the post-war period Miami had a lively gay bar scene, catering to both locals and visitors. Given the increasing importance of tourism, city officials found it prudent to avoid harassing people who were spending their vacation dollars in the area. Beginning in the mid-1950s, however, glbtq Miamians became the target of several repressive campaigns.

In 1954 the mayor led a move to shut down the city's gay bars, citing them as a threat to children. After a brief but well-publicized drive--aimed at least in part at improving the city's image as a family-friendly travel destination--the bars were able to reopen.

Miamians, like other Floridians, suffered from the harassment and violations of civil liberties undertaken by the infamous "Johns Committee," named for state senator--later Governor--Charley Johns, who attempted to rid Florida universities of homosexuals, in the process ruining the careers and lives of hundreds and gay men and lesbians in the 1950s and 1960s.

By the 1960s Miami had a large gay population, but not an organized community. The cruising habits of gay men became occasional fodder for stories in the news media, and vice squad officers were sent into schools to warn children about the supposed threat.

Post-Stonewall Miami

It was only after Stonewall that glbtq Miamians truly began to organize. In 1972 the Gay Activists' Alliance staged pride events when the national Democratic and Republican conventions came to town. The following year the Transsexual Action Organization was founded in Miami Beach.

Activists made a successful push for a city ordinance outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The passage of the measure--similar to statutes in about three dozen other cities around the nation--in January 1977 drew an outcry of protest from leaders of Christian churches and right-wing organizations.

The repeal effort was spearheaded by a group called Save Our Children, which had support from conservative Christians. The main spokesperson for this coalition was pop singer and former Miss America contestant Anita Bryant, who stirred up homophobia by calling the Miami ordinance "a religious abomination" and issuing dire warnings that homosexuals--schoolteachers in particular--would use it as a license to recruit children and possibly molest them.

Bryant was also the spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission, which featured her in nationally televised commercials promoting Florida orange juice. Her visibility in this position prompted a "Miami Support Committee" in San Francisco to call for a boycott of Florida orange juice. This action was somewhat controversial since some members of the gay community feared that potential allies might be alienated if a boycott cost citrus-industry workers jobs or income. But when the Florida Citrus Commission specifically endorsed Bryant's campaign, momentum for the boycott grew.

Gay activists, including discharged Air Force sergeant Leonard Matlovich, went to Miami to work to defeat the repeal, as did the co-executive directors of the National Gay Task Force--later renamed the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF)--Bruce Voeller and Jean O'Leary.

Pre-election polls offered hope that the ordinance might survive, but proponents of the repeal were able to turn out large numbers of voters, and prevailed by approximately a 2-to-1 margin.

Dade County Commissioner Ruth Shack, who had proposed the ordinance, commented, "They [i.e., opponents of the measure] came out of the woodwork," adding, "It was a huge step backward nationally."

O'Leary also deplored the result, stating, "The defeat for human rights in Dade County is all the evidence anyone could need of the extent and virulence of prejudice against lesbians and gay men in our society, and of the necessity to redouble our efforts to end such prejudice and the discrimination it inspires."

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Top: South Beach, Miami Beach.
Above: An aerial view of Key West.

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