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.

Michele Pasta, a regular at "Girls in the Night" events, says the gathering of gay women on South Beach has provided a wide support network that simply did not exist before the late Eighties and she credits Cox with helping to strengthen it. "Nobody before Lisa," she offers, "had ever focused on building community among lesbians."

The promoter has also managed to draw more Hispanic lesbians into the night. "Lisa Cox has not only hired a number of Latinas, she has tapped into a young, marketable, pretty crowd of Latina customers," observes Tatiana de la Tierra, publisher of Esto no tiene nombre, a trimestral women's magazine based in Miami and distributed throughout the United States and Latin America. "She's produced a miracle, and I respect her for it."

What makes the feat so impressive are the cultural and religious barriers faced by Hispanic lesbians in Dade County. "Miami is very conservative, and the [Hispanic lesbian] community here is invisible, almost like a cult," says Angie, a 39-year-old member of Las Salamandras del Ambiente, a Hispanic lesbian support group. "One of the reasons we formed Las Salamandras is that Latina lesbians have more problems than Anglos. The typical Latina is more in the closet than an American because gay women in Latin families don't have a say. They will often hide their sexual preference. They may be with a partner for ten years, but in the family the other woman will be described as merely a friend." Such a climate generates fear of being seen with another woman in public. "There are a lot of lesbians who enter a little group and spend their lifetime with that group of friends," Angie points out. "It's good to see the change among the younger crowd."

Cox has fought against such fear with an aggressive style she says she learned in New York, where she lived for several years before moving to South Florida. "When I came here, I realized that there was nothing going on for lesbians," she says while scanning a crowd of about 100 or so early arrivals at her Labor Day weekend "She-Tea," a "Girls in the Night" version of the Beach's Sunday afternoon tea dances. "I decided to help the women help themselves. 'Girls in the Night' belongs to the women."

She speaks almost absentmindedly, her attention centered on the women and the few gay men working their way into the electronic rhythm of the techno music blaring from speakers in the parking lot behind the Eleventh Street Diner at Washington Avenue and Eleventh Street in Miami Beach. On a portable stage, one of Cox's dancers, a shapely woman named Natasha, is helping draw sweat from the crowd by nearly writhing her body out of a fringed leather bikini and biker cap. Moments later, when the DJ makes the ill-fated decision to switch to salsa music, Cox abruptly interrupts her history of "Girls in the Night," shuffling off in her white T-shirt and baggy yellow dungarees toward a table of sound equipment. "I got to go talk to the DJ," she snaps. "This music is awful." She explains later that she has nothing against salsa -- she just wants to make sure the music is tailored to the crowd, which at this moment is much too lively to sink comfortably into a slower rhythm.

Cox's intuition about parties would be worthless without her success in persuading women to attend. She says she began "Girls in the Night" with only about $10,000 in savings. When working with a club, she usually pays for promotion, dancers, and a DJ, and in return receives a percentage of the money collected in cover charges, usually between five and eight dollars per person. She refuses to say how much she makes from a typical event, but her original investment has paid off.

What Cox didn't have in capital she made up for with chutzpah that sometimes offended older, more established club owners. One of those owners, Louise Boivin, bitterly recalls the days when Lisa and several followers would invade Club 21, a traditional gathering place for lesbians in Hallandale, and blanket it with promotional flyers. "These flyers would be all over the floor by the end of the night," complains Boivin. "After you've spent all this money on advertising to get women into your club, somebody like that comes along and takes advantage of the quick access. I've been around for years and I've never seen business conducted like that."

Carol, a bartender working for Caroline Clone, maintains that Cox wants nothing less than a monopoly on the lesbian nightclub business. She recounts her own experience two years ago when, fresh out of the University of Miami, she decided to promote a lesbian party called "The Hunger" at the Great Barrier Reef on Virginia Key. Carol blames Lisa Cox for the failure of the experiment, which lasted less than a month. "Here I was just a naive kid trying to have a good time, and suddenly this woman is out to destroy me and my party," Carol fumes. She claims that Cox bad-mouthed the party in conversations and in her newsletter, where it was referred to as "The Thirst" to indicate a lack of business. "She even spread a rumor that I tried to hit her with my white Jeep," Carol remembers. "Damn it, I didn't even have a Jeep. Lisa Cox talks a lot about unifying the lesbian community, but that's such bullshit. She's just another gay profiteer -- except she's a lot meaner than most."

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