Gays leave unfriendly South Beach for Fort Lauderdale

The makeup artist does not look happy. A bloody gash on his forehead is fastened with black stitches, scrapes cover his cheeks, and his eyes — once lined with mascara — are badly swollen. Tony Lopez hides behind a pair of sunglasses and explains why he looks so rough: "I got jumped for being gay."

Three days earlier, everything had been fine. Lopez, a 29-year-old employee of MAC Cosmetics, was celebrating the White Party — the world's largest fundraiser for AIDS — in South Beach. He dressed up, watched a drag show with two friends, and ordered a vodka cranberry cocktail at Twist nightclub.

It was 4 a.m. November 29 when he wandered by himself to the take-out window of David's Cuban Café on Meridian Avenue near Lincoln Road. As he approached the line for food, an aggressive 20-something staggered up to him.

"Got a cigarette?" he asked. Tony shook a Marlboro Mild from the pack and handed him one.

Right then, a gang — Tony remembers four men — "appeared out of the woodwork." They shoved him into the alley behind the restaurant, yelled "Fucking faggot!" and began to punch him. He fell to the ground and tried to shield his head as they kicked him in the face.

"It crossed my mind to play dead," Tony recalls. "I felt completely helpless and degraded." Afterward, he stumbled a couple of blocks and passed out on the sidewalk.

When he awoke, nursing a concussion in a dreary hospital room, he realized his attackers hadn't bothered to steal his jewelry, wallet, or cell phone. They were more interested, he believes, in beating up a queer.

In the span of two months — inside a small South Beach radius — at least three violent attacks against gay men have taken place. One victim was a European tourist who walked away with bruises. Another was a popular club owner's boyfriend, who was told, "Get out of here, fag" before an attack.

The violence is a symbol of what the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) circle has felt for years: South Beach isn't the free-spirited haven of gayness it once was. According to state records, 75 percent of countywide gay hate crime in the past year occurred in Miami Beach, a place the rest of the world sees as a big, happy gay rainbow. In a five-year span, the State Attorney's Office reported 26 incidents, half of which were in Miami Beach. Victims include a lounge singer who was stripped naked and hogtied and a magazine publisher who was viciously beaten.

It's surprising when you consider South Beach's heyday as a sparkling gay playground, where oiled-up boys frolicked between wild foam parties and the hub of hedonism that was the Versace mansion. Nobody thought twice about casual sex in Flamingo Park or flamboyant public fashion shoots, and — at its peak — MTV was even there to glamorize it all.

Gay transplants morphed Miami Beach from a sleepy little island into Rio de Janeiro with an edge. There was a sense of easy living and infinite possibility. But most of that has vanished. Rents spiked, gays moved out, and tourists flocked in. Clubs that once hosted thousands of gay men per night closed, and hip-hop venues began to sprout. It's the nightlife equivalent of erecting a mosque next to a temple.

Meanwhile, a bigger scene has emerged 25 miles north. In Fort Lauderdale, gay entertainers find work more easily, queer yuppies can afford spacious homes, and transgender ladies feel safer walking to the corner store. South Beach, they explain, has grown tense.

Says former Miami Beach Commissioner Victor Diaz, who's gay: "I don't think police realize the degree to which there has been an alarming increase of these types of incidents on South Beach."

Shelley Novak, a cross-dresser who has performed in Miami Beach since 1989, is more blunt. "I won't walk alone in drag anymore," she says. "You can't go out at night without some thug yelling, 'Show me your pussy!'"

After midnight on a February night in 1999, two young women follow a 25-year-old gay waiter named James Gentry home as he leaves Twist nightclub. The long-haired brunettes taunt him before clawing his chest and stabbing him twice in the back with a knife. Cops call it "a random hate crime," and 21-year-old Besaida Cubias is eventually convicted of attempted murder.

Four months later, managers of the Publix on West Avenue find "kill fags" and "die fags" scrawled in the store elevator.

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The Office Depot worker is bored until Shelley Novak struts in. It's 4 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, and the queen — who describes herself as "Barney Rubble in a dress" — wears a blond wig and black heels. A few chest hairs escape from her red blouse.

She puts a large hand on her hip and points to a set of fax machines in the corner of the store. "That's where the bar used to be!" she declares and then turns to a stiff-looking employee. "You guys know this used to be a gay club, right?"

Welcome to Shelley's trip down memory lane. If she's feeling a tad defiant, it's because the place is her old stomping ground, one of dozens of gay clubs that have been replaced by corporate chains, expensive restaurants, and designer boutiques since the 1990s. The little tour, however, won't last long: She will soon be escorted out.

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