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The warehouse-size store at 1771 West Ave. was once an enormous, throbbing gay club called Salvation. Beginning in 1997, it hosted 1,200 men a night under the glow of laser lights that beamed where stark fluorescent bulbs now illuminate rows of notebooks, printers, and pens. There are only four South Beach gay bars left — compared to more than a dozen in the '90s — and all would fit inside Salvation's cavernous space.
Shelley, whose real name is Tommy Strangie, is the unruly grandmother of Miami Beach drag. In the city's gay glory days, she entertained Gianni Versace and once threw up on Ricky Martin's shoes. With her animated facial expressions, raspy Boston accent, and rapid-fire one-liners, she was perfectly designed for the stage. But today, the 42-year-old seems melancholy.
Her complaint: Gay boys — who put South Beach on the map — feel pushed out of their own turf. It's both a financial and cultural smack in the face.
The first stop on Shelley's tour of forgotten gay hot spots: a Mexican restaurant called Barrio. "We used to pack in here like sardines," she says. Club kids would munch burritos before a night on the town, but it's now a doctor's office, where a sign reads, "Flu Shots." While Shelley leans against the building, two pale tourists stare at her as if she belongs on a novelty T-shirt.
As the leases of businesses such as Barrio ran out, gay owners noticed prices had tripled from the mid- to late '90s. Lincoln Road, for example, was once lined with GLBT bookstores, restaurants, and gyms. But the cost of commercial space on the strip jumped from $12 per square foot to $120 in ten years.
The thought makes Shelley frown, so she hops into her car — there's no walking in those heels — and rolls a few blocks to a venue once dubbed Liquid. Downstairs hosted an exclusive drag show in 1994. "When you were able to perform here," Shelley says, "you knew you'd made it." In the middle of a show, she once gazed into the audience and spotted Madonna.
The nightclub has been replaced by American Apparel, where skinny white mannequins display $40 tees. Explains Steve Adkins, president of the Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce: "[Gay] people just cashed out."
To afford leases in South Beach, nightclubs began relying on income from bottle service and private rooms. Dan Renzi, the gay cast member from The Real World: Miami (and a New Times contributor), describes it this way: "Most gay people won't spend $300 on a bottle every weekend; it's just a cultural thing." So an upscale hip-hop clientele — many of whom were tourists — took over the streets.
"It created an incubator for tension," says CJ Ortuño of the human rights group SAVE Dade.
The landscape didn't scare Shelley away. Next stop on her tour: the grande dame of defunct gay nightclubs, Warsaw Ballroom.
Andrew Delaplaine, an entrepreneur and screenwriter, opened the venue on the corner of 14th Street and Collins Avenue in 1991 and began to throw decadent foam parties where naked men neck-deep in bubbles had anonymous sex. The club soon featured leather-clad go-go dancers, midget performers with pigs, and male strippers who pulled ribbons out of various orifices. "Back then, there was an edginess to South Beach," Delaplaine remembers. "It was a war zone."
There's no sign of grittiness these days. The space is now Jerry's Famous Deli, an upscale all-night diner. Out-of-towners clutch shopping bags and nibble $14 salads where club lines once stretched around the block. The sight seems to awaken Shelley's inner rebel.
Back at Office Depot, she grabs a box from the shelf and poses — with a pouty face — next to a company sign while New Times snaps a photo. A bespectacled manager frowns and points toward the door. "This used to be a sea of shirtless gay men!" Shelley complains on the way out. "Don't ask me where they went."
In the predawn hours of New Year's Day 2003, an effeminate 23-year-old named Earnest Robinson is leaving Twist when two straight clubgoers roll up in a car. They assume he's a woman and make a pass at him. When they realize he is a man, one shouts a slur and the other shoots him in the shoulder. Police later arrest Adrian Miller and Billy Ledan and charge them with attempted murder.
Luis Ortiz was nervous as he arrived at his ex-boyfriend's apartment. Why, he wondered, hadn't his lover-turned-friend answered the phone in three days? This wasn't like him.
It was just after 5 p.m. August 29, 2004, a few blocks from Jackson Memorial Hospital. As he entered the rundown building, something didn't seem right. Outside apartment number seven, stereo cables were strewn about, and there was an eerie quietness.
He knocked loudly on the door, and when nobody answered, he frantically kicked it in. Inside the studio apartment, past a small kitchen, he saw it: the lifeless body of Henser Leiva on the floor.
The gay lounge singer had been stripped naked and bound by his wrists and ankles with shredded bed sheets. Someone had gagged him — friends say with his own underwear — and left him to die. There was "trauma around his neck area," according to court documents, "from his shoulders up."