What a Difference a Bay Makes

On the Beach side gay life flourishes, but on the Miami side it's Anita Bryant déjà vu

"These people need to stop working my nerves," Marilyn says sharply, with a dramatic toss of her long blond hair. "I'm serious," she stresses, taking in Kulchur's smirk. "Unlike some I could mention" -- she motions offhandedly to the Lincoln Road strollers swirling past her sidewalk table outside Score -- "I am a kind and patient woman. But honey, you donot want to test me."

This may not be the most sophisticated analysis of the controversy surrounding Take Back Miami-Dade's effort to repeal the county's gay anti-discrimination amendment. And Marilyn, whose unwaxed chest and prominent Adam's apple are, to Kulchur's discerning eye, not well served by her present choice of evening gown, isn't exactly the best poster child for SAVE Dade's ongoing campaign to fight that repeal effort, now set for the September 10 ballot.

Still, for anyone living in Miami Beach and gazing across the bay at county hall, Marilyn's sentiments seem entirely appropriate. After all, Beach gay life long ago ceased being a novelty, let alone an issue. In what other American city would the mayor deem pressing the flesh amid the shirtless throngs of the White Party as de rigueur as a swing by the chamber of commerce? It's 2002. Are we really still debating gay rights?

Take Back Miami-Dade's petition drive (below) may have placed the county's anti-discrimination amendment on the ballot, but SAVE Dade volunteers (top) intend to keep it in place
Take Back Miami-Dade's petition drive (below) may have placed the county's anti-discrimination amendment on the ballot, but SAVE Dade volunteers (top) intend to keep it in place

By way of contrast there's Take Back Miami-Dade, an ad-hoc group assembled by the local chapter of the Christian Coalition, whose leadership appears to have been plucked from a John Waters film. How else to describe the over-the-top antics of Miami-Dade Christian Coalition chairman and Take Back principal Anthony Verdugo? With his neat black mustache, fleshy jowls, and balding pate, Verdugo strikes a pose for the cameras that seems straight out of central casting: "The Boy Scouts is our Matthew Shepard," he gleefully declared of Take Back's recruiting prospects during the brouhaha over the Boy Scouts' exclusion of gays, a ghoulish comparison that had even Scout officials wincing.

Verdugo's pronouncement, however, was restrained when compared with his performance during December's Take Back meeting with Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer. As reported in the Herald, Verdugo wagged his finger and joined in lambasting the mayors as "merchants of death" doing the bidding of "homosexualist interests."

On the Beach the reaction to all this was simple incredulity, mixed with a few inquiries as to the whereabouts of this "homosexualist" cabal and just how one went about joining it. There had been no public outcry only a month earlier, when Beach voters handily passed health benefits for the domestic partners of city employees. In fact after first being proposed by Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez, it was then-Commissioner Dermer's zeal in claiming the law as his own idea that led SAVE Dade to deny him its mayoral endorsement. In a public statement the organization charged Dermer with being "inconsistent in the sincerity of some of his political actions," a more tactful version of the language being used in private conversations by several SAVE Dade board members.

Elaine Bloom eventually landed that coveted stamp of approval -- over howls of protest from Dermer and mayoral contender Nancy Liebman -- though it seemed to do her more harm than good, becoming the only true point of contention between three Jewish Anglos who pledged unanimous fealty to historic preservation, controlled growth, arts boosterism, and gay rights.

Despite SAVE Dade's endorsement of Bloom, many Beach residents had difficulty squaring the former state representative's 1977 vote banning gays from adopting children and her 1997 vote prohibiting same-sex marriages with her newfound support for the gay community. Given that Bloom's own son is openly gay (his adopted child quickly became a campaign photo-op fixture), these past positions seemed all the more incongruous. (A source close to the Bloom campaign cited her religious beliefs as an Orthodox Jew as the cause of her tortured evolution on the issue.)

Much of the Herald's postelection analysis repeated Dermer advisor and political strategist Armando Gutierrez's self-serving line that Hispanic voters had decisively swung the mayoral race to his man. But a look at the actual voting results suggests a bigger factor was liberal apprehension toward Bloom on the part of Anglos. In several predominantly Anglo and Democratic precincts where support for Liebman was high in the November 6 race, virtually all those votes went to Dermer in the following week's runoff. In the first round, 1782 voters supported Liebman, not enough for her to make the runoff. One week later Bloom managed to increase her vote tally by a grand total of three, while Dermer picked up 1600 votes.

Considering that Liebman had spent the previous four years tarring Dermer as perhaps the single greatest threat to the Beach's long-term welfare, it was a striking turnabout, one explained only by a visceral anti-Bloom reaction. (Liebman herself endorsed Dermer for the runoff, but this reversal seemed borne more out of pique with Bloom's backers -- whose support she had been counting on -- than any sudden change of beliefs.)

Yet whether it was heartfelt or merely an acknowledgement of Beach demographics, the sight of all these Beach mayoral hopefuls dueling for gay support was telling, particularly when measured against the campaign trail in Miami proper. There mayoral contender Maurice Ferréquietly attended gay community functions and schmoozed his way through a SAVE Dade dinner, portraying himself as the choice of progressives. Yet unlike eight of his opponents, he refused to fill out SAVE Dade's written questionnaire, well aware this would disqualify him from any formal endorsement.

It would seem that in Ferré's political calculation, gay votes are good, gay fundraising dollars are even better, but a gay endorsement? Gracias, pero no gracias. With conservative Cuban exiles remaining mayoral kingmakers, so the thinking goes, best to play it safe and keep gays -- at least in public -- at arm's length.

"He's old school, and maybe he thought he'd lose votes," explains SAVE Dade chairwoman Heddy Peña of Ferré's slippery maneuver. Pointing to her group's endorsement of Manny Diaz and his subsequent victory, Peña adds, "It just goes to show you: Manny Diaz, a different generation, took the risk and it didn't hurt him. There's a lesson to be learned there."

In Ferré's mind, however, the only enduring lesson is that, in Miami, race rules politics. While agreeing with Peña's assessment of his motives, he remains unapologetic about dodging SAVE Dade's questionnaire. "I was trying to be pragmatic," he says. "In the dirty campaigning of Miami, my [questionnaire] answers would have been used somewhere. It doesn't matter what Manny Diaz says about gay adoption -- he's Cuban!" Addressing his own Puerto Rican heritage, he quips, "Me? My answer becomes important."

Peña insists anti-gay discrimination transcends identity politics. "This can't be just the gay community or SAVE Dade against Take Back Miami-Dade," she says. "The only way we're going to win is if the whole community says we're not going to be defined as divisive and intolerant, if all the people who are against discrimination band together."

Accordingly SAVE Dade is likely to heed the Herald's editorial advice to "create an upbeat campaign" with "a positive explanation for keeping this ban against discrimination in place." And given the necessity of convincing 51 percent of the electorate to say no to just such a proposition come September 10, the Herald's milquetoast strategy is, unfortunately, the right one.

Back on Lincoln Road, Marilyn is willing to work partly within that spirit. "You want a SAVE Dade campaign slogan?" she asks Kulchur. "You can have this one for free: Pleasestop working my nerves -- bitch!"

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