The Great Lesbian Club Wars

Ugly accusations. Cutthroat business dealings. Verbal assaults and handguns. South Florida's lesbian nightlife is beginning to look more and more like a combat zone.

Lisa Cox and Caroline Clone's positions as Miami's top lesbian club promoters make them two of the most well-known members of an increasingly visible community. Gay women's prominence in the media, both nationally and locally, has raised public awareness of lesbianism and, in turn, has prompted in the lesbian community efforts to safeguard its mainstream image. When Newsweek and Vanity Fair feature lesbians on their covers, it's clear there's a new possibility of parlaying heterosexual curiosity into heterosexual acceptance of gay women and their concerns. To further that goal, both Cox and Clone say they are working to unite Miami's lesbian women by offering them places to get together. The task is not easy, given that the community is as diverse as South Florida, with women of all ages and races represented. That diversity is also evident in the personalities of Cox and Clone.

Cox is a 32-year-old black woman who worked as a Coral Springs automobile salesperson until November 1991, when she began "Girls in the Night," a movable lesbian party, complete with its own newsletter. The party jumps from one location to another each week. Past sites have included several Miami Beach nightclubs, South Pointe Park, even an abandoned mansion along Biscayne Bay. Cox has developed a reputation as a street-level organizer with frenetic work habits and a hip-hop look.

The 35-year-old Clone racked up years of experience as a successful promoter and club owner in both her native England and Los Angeles before arriving in Miami five months ago. With her stylish glasses, flared sleeves, and designer jeans, Clone exudes studied sophistication. Obviously a practiced businesswoman, she might appear more comfortable conferring with bigwigs in the back room of a fashionable club than whipping up support among the rank and file.

Both women have won a following. Cox owes her success to two years of dogged promotion of "Girls in the Night." Clone's rise has been quicker. Her "W.O.W. Bar II," short for "World of Women" and named after a similar event she promoted in Los Angeles, takes place every Friday night at Byblos, a nightclub at 323 23rd Street in Miami Beach. The weekly party began drawing hundreds of women as soon as it opened June 11.

Cox claims she was never daunted by the prospect of competition and indeed she initially helped Clone promote "W.O.W. Bar II," allowing the newcomer to distribute promotional leaflets at "Girls in the Night" parties. According to Clone, the camaraderie was helped by a tacit understanding that she would limit her promotions to Friday nights and Cox would host parties on Saturdays. If there was ever such an agreement (Cox denies it), it was broken recently. Now Cox and Clone are competing for what they both admit is a limited number of customers. Though there are thousands of lesbians in greater Miami, only an estimated 1000 frequent nightclubs and public parties.

The two women's rivalry, concentrated in South Beach, has become a dissonant medley of name-calling and threats of violence, at least some of it played out in public -- in the gay press and in the streets of Miami Beach. And while gay political organizers tend to downplay the dispute as a typical promoter brawl with no implications for the wider lesbian community, the spectacle is disconcerting to certain members of that community.

"This conflict is affecting everybody in a big way by poisoning the environment," says Camille, a Puerto Rican who volunteers as a bartender for "Girls in the Night," and who, like many lesbians interviewed for this article, asked that her full name not be used. "A lot of people who were friends don't speak any more. And a lot of girls who were willing to test the waters see this ugliness and decide it's not worth it."

The timing is just as bad as the location. "With all the increased national attention, this is a crucial time for lesbians here in Miami and across the country," says Gaye Levine, who as one of Clone's business collaborators is deeply involved in the conflict. "We need to be bringing the women's community together to focus on political organization and health issues, not having lesbian wars led by party promoters."

When Lisa Cox moved to Miami in early 1991, the lesbian scene here was well established but still largely underground. "It was more closeted," says Nelly Hernandez, who helps Cox edit Girls in the Night News, a bi-monthly hodgepodge of gossip, opinion, and party listings. "There were maybe 100 women who went out, and the number of places was extremely limited." Clubs catering to lesbians included Cheers and Cherry Grove in South Miami, as well as On the Waterfront, east of the airport on South River Drive. But often in such places a hardcore "butch-dyke" atmosphere reigned, and there was little mixing between Hispanics, who preferred Miami, and Anglos, who generally gathered in Fort Lauderdale.

"I and other women were just not into hanging out in seedy bars with the rougher crowd," Hernandez says. "There was a lot of fear. Couples wouldn't go out together. You had a lot of girls sort of roaming the fringes, ducking into this bar or that." Cox, she adds, changed all that. "You look at the scene now, and there are more choices, largely because of Lisa's work. I don't like to use the term 'lipstick lesbian,' but the girls at the parties now are really sexy. Everybody is out having a good time."

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