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."

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."

Relations between Cox and Caroline Clone initially were cordial. The younger woman decided that rather than battle her more experienced competitor, she would try to cooperate with her. According to several women who knew Clone in Los Angeles, that was a mistake.

Two L.A. lesbian promoters, Robin Ganz and Sandy Sachs, say that although they competed with Clone, they never personally had any trouble with her. "That's because we stayed away from her," explains Sachs, who with her partner promotes "Girl Bar," a Friday-night party in West Hollywood. "She has a reputation for being vicious, and we didn't want to get in a cat fight. She didn't bother us."

But others were bothered by her, Rita Boyadjian among them. Earlier this year Clone sold Boyadjian a coffeehouse called Little Frida's, a West Hollywood establishment catering to lesbians. Though the sale went smoothly, Boyadjian says she couldn't resist throwing a party to celebrate Clone's decision to leave Los Angeles in April. "Speaking of goodbye Ms. Clone," reads a report of the party in Female 411, a Los Angeles lesbian newsletter edited by Boyadjian, who recently changed its name to Female FYI, "Little Frida's hosted a 'Ding Dong the Cappuccino Queen is Gone' party a few Sundays back to celebrate its hip new owners and the long overdue riddance of Caroline Clone. Two hundred lesbians from all over town came by. We celebrated Ms. Clone's departure by beating open a wicked witch pinata, signifying her wicked ten years in L.A."

Boyadjian confirms she did throw the party, but offers only a vague explanation for why 200 people showed up. "I can't really comment," she says, "except to say that [Clone] wasn't very well liked in Los Angeles."

One source of conflict derived from a business dispute between Clone and a woman named Shelley Spevikow, a promoter with whom she worked. At issue was disbursement of the proceeds from a successful March 26 event they organized at the Palm Springs Convention Center, which featured comediennes Ellen DeGeneres and Kate Clinton.

Spevikow did not return several phone calls to her Los Angeles office, and her attorney, Jacqueline Mangum, says she cannot comment on the affair except to say that Spevikow is no longer contemplating a lawsuit.

Clone admits she had a contractual dispute with Spevikow but says it has been resolved. As for Boyadjian, Clone contends that the woman still owes her $10,000 and that she improperly took control of Female 411, which Clone claims she backed as a silent investor.

Her success in Los Angeles, she adds, was bound to fuel the jealousy of upstarts like Boyadjian, Sachs, and Ganz. And in fact her former competitors all admit that Clone was the queen of L.A.'s lesbian promotion scene almost until the day she left. Among other accomplishments, Clone had owned Palette, a posh West Hollywood club, which Ganz calls the most successful lesbian nightspot the Los Angeles area has ever seen.

Whatever problems she may have had in Los Angeles, Clone asserts, they had nothing to do with her decision to leave. Today she resides in a clean, white-tiled Miami Beach apartment, which seems to hang in the air over the sunlit sand.

Clone has furnished the rectangular living room with curved and oval objects -- a bowl filled with large marble eggs, a wooden console with a bowed faaade, an amoeba-shaped coffee table. Clone's words are as soft-edged as her decor. She recounts how she first visited Miami at the invitation of a friend. "I was overwhelmed by South Beach," she recalls, adding that she almost immediately decided to stay. "It's so different from any other place in America. The different cultures make it very exciting. And I've got a girlfriend here with whom I'm madly in love."

But love was not the only, nor even the prime, motivation for Clone's decision to move to Miami in early May. "Naturally I saw an opportunity here," she confides. "I felt there was the possibility of doing more for the women here. The 'Girls in the Night' parties were irregular. So I decided to test the market with a regular Friday-night party. And the response was amazing."

Clone insists, however, she did not intend to pick a fight with Lisa Cox. "I didn't come here to take away anybody's business," she says, arguing that the club-going lesbian population, though limited, is large enough to support her and Cox. "I'm not greedy," she insists. "If I were interested only in making money, I would have stayed in Los Angeles. I'm crazy about South Beach. I'm here to stay." That statement pleases some women in Los Angeles. "We're very, very happy that Caroline likes Miami so much," Robin Ganz laughs.

In the weeks before the June opening of "W.O.W. Bar II," Cox helped Clone promote the planned Friday-night parties. Both Ganz and Sandy Sachs flew to Miami from Los Angeles to check out the Miami lesbian scene and attend the opening. "We saw Lisa doing things like giving Caroline her mailing list, and we said, 'Oh my God, this is bound to turn ugly,'" Sachs remarks. "We wanted to warn Lisa but didn't feel it would be appropriate. And besides, whenever we spoke to her, Caroline was always hovering."

True to Sach's prediction, the situation did turn ugly about two months later. On August 7, Climax, a gay club in South Miami, premiered what would become a regular Saturday-night party for women called "Venus Rising." Clone, who was involved in planning the debut, claims her rival was furious at the Saturday-night competition. Though Clone says she was contracted to do only the ad campaign for the Climax party, she admits she continues to work closely with the club's manager, Gaye Levine.

The following week Cox threw a Friday-night party at the South Beach club Warsaw, in direct competition with Clone's "W.O.W. Bar II" just a few blocks away. The change to Friday, Cox insists, was not in retaliation for "Venus Rising." She never agreed to restrict her parties to Saturdays. "'Girls in the Night' has never limited itself to certain nights and never will," she adds defiantly. "Caroline Clone and I are not a coalition."

Cox does admit that her tolerance has its limits and that Clone and Levine exceeded them by placing an advertisement in a weekly gay magazine deriding their competitor. At the top of the ad for the opening of "Venus Rising," in large boldface letters, readers were teased with this: "Gay Girls Don't Need Cox to Have Fun." Grumbles Cox: "It was when I saw that ad that I knew I could not deal with these women."

Levine says the ad was justified given the snide comments in Cox's Girls in the Night News. The July 15 issue, for example, asked women if they had patronized the South Miami club employing Levine and known for its changing name: "And the World...I mean Cheers...I mean Climax...anybody been there lately? Thought not." Clone, in turn, began distributing flyers for "W.O.W. Bar II" that take jabs at Cox, informing women that while "other parties move all around town, W.O.W." is open every Friday night. "Support the club that supports you," the flyers urge.

The spiteful ads, flyers, and gossip increased tensions along the strip of cafes, restaurants, and shops lining the Beach's Lincoln Road mall, where Clone, Levine, and Cox often run into each other. The inevitable confrontation came on August 9 and involved Cox, Levine, and several friends of each. Who started it is a matter of dispute, but everyone agrees it erupted in the Rite Aid drugstore on the corner of Lincoln Road and Meridian Avenue and ended in a flurry of verbal assaults on the street outside. "There were racial slurs and death threats on both sides," says one eyewitness.

Levine, who admits she had been drinking, was determined to reach her car, parked nearby, not in order to drive away but to retrieve a .38 caliber pistol from the glove compartment. "There were three of us and eight of them," Levine recalls. "They were in my face making physical threats against my person. They would not let me back out of the situation. I knew enough about the law not to throw the first punch, but I had to protect myself. The gun was the last resort. What am I supposed to do -- pull out a baby doll?"

One of Levine's friends restrained her, and the mere mention of the gun was enough to convince Cox and her group to back off, according to Levine. Cox refuses to "dignify the incident by discussing it."

Ana Fuentes, editor-in-chief of Fountain, a South Florida magazine targeting professional gay women, happened to be driving by on Meridian Avenue when the confrontation took place. "It was like a junior high school brawl," she remarks. "And what made it worse was that it was in plain sight of everyone."

Fuentes, whose publication sells advertising space to both Cox and Clone, declines to place blame for the dispute, but says she hopes both sides will come to their senses. "This is not a lesbian issue," she reasons. "This is a problem between club promoters. But it is incredibly destructive to efforts to unify the lesbian community. Lesbians are not by nature passive creatures, but that does not mean you have to channel your aggression in such a destructive way. I just hope these women stop this nonsense before they hurt themselves and everyone else."

An immediate resolution of the conflict does not appear likely. On a recent Friday night, Cox and four other women were busy handing out "Girls in the Night" flyers in the parking lot across from Clone's "W.O.W. Bar II" party. Clone warns that she will not be intimidated. "Lisa has got to stop her street tactics because I won't have it," she says sharply, quickly covering her anger with a smile and adding that she would like nothing more than to work out another arrangement with Cox to ensure they don't disrupt each other's business.

Cox denounces Clone for trying to portray herself as a victim when Clone, she claims, is the cause of all the trouble. She points to a letter dated September 9 and signed by Clone's lawyer, Jason Grey, threatening "Girls in the Night" with legal action if its employees do not stop their "guerrilla tactics."

Unfazed, Cox responds by vowing she will continue to do business as she sees fit. "This woman is a Johnny-come-lately who poses no threat whatsoever to 'Girls in the Night,'" she says. "The only person who can drive me out of business is me -- and only if I let myself get caught up in all this negativity."

That negativity, limited so far to Cox and Clone's promotions of parties, could soon become entrenched warfare. Clone states that by November she will own the club she has been renting every Friday night for "W.O.W. Bar II." Cox counters by announcing that funding from a silent partner is helping to construct the Orchid, a "women's complex" that will feature a bar and gallery space at a still-undisclosed location on Lincoln Road.

While such ambitious plans reflect the growing self-confidence of Dade County's lesbians, they also elicit a measure of cynicism from some observers. Says one woman who knows both Cox and Clone: "There is no way either of them is going to stop. Lisa's style is more in-your-face on the street. Caroline is more sly and Teflon-coated. But they are both cut from the same cloth, and neither gives a damn about helping women.

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