By Michael E. Miller
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By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
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By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
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On the Fourth of July 2005, two large, dapper men brutally assault the publisher of Miami Beach gay weekly magazine Wire, Carl Zablotny, as he leaves the Palace Bar and Restaurant on Ocean Drive. He hears an attacker say, "He's one of them. He's a fag. We can do anything and he won't fight back." Zablotny later told New Times they were "well dressed, not thugs."
Backstage at Voodoo Lounge in Fort Lauderdale, a manager with a clipboard yells, "Five minutes!" and the drag performers begin to scurry. They are readying themselves — applying eye shadow, taping body parts — for a packed Sunday-night audience. The walls are candy red, and the smell of smoke hangs in the air.
Daisy Deadpetals is the shortest queen in the room, but she stands out. She makes eye contact instead of checking her makeup in the mirror and wears tennis shoes instead of high heels. One of the most sought-after drag performers in South Florida, she has hosted the TV show Deco Drive and works six gigs per week, ranging from standup comedy to record spinning.
Although she got her big break in South Beach, Daisy has since done something drastic: She packed up her possessions, signed mortgage papers, and moved into a three-bedroom home in Pompano Beach. "There's just more work up here," she says with a shrug. "There has definitely been a shift."
Call it the great gay migration north. The epicenter — and the future — of the South Florida gay community might just lie in Fort Lauderdale.
"You just have a larger gay nucleus," says Steve Adkins of the Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
The exodus to Broward County began in the late '90s, when aging gay men noticed a family-oriented town of 11,800 called Wilton Manors. The vice mayor was openly gay, people smiled at each other on the street, and living was cheap: A two-bedroom bungalow sold for about $70, 000. Eventually, rainbow flags emerged in storefront windows, and more than 15 gay-owned businesses opened in a span of 18 months.
Between 1995 and 2000, property values in South Beach tripled. Renters could live in a one-bedroom Wilton Manors apartment for about half of what it cost on the Beach.
As Fort Lauderdale moved away from its raucous spring break image, city officials took note of the new demographic. Gays and lesbians — most of whom are childless — had extra money to spend. So the town began to court gay club owners with this offer: Set up shop where parking is easier, leases are cheaper, and tourists are everywhere.
By 2006, Fort Lauderdale ranked number six nationally for gay travelers, according to the city's tourism board, surpassing Miami. The following year, gay vacationers accounted for about $800 million in tourist dollars — 11 percent of the city's annual tourism-based income.
Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manors now claim 150 gay-owned shops and establishments. The area also hosts the largest PrideFest in the state, with more than 40,000 attendees and 250 vendors, many of them corporations. (Miami Beach had no such parade until 2009.)
Gays and lesbians who fled north sought one thing: a place that feels more like a home than a discotheque. Elsa Austrich — a 46-year-old Venezuelan-born office administrator — moved from Miami to Fort Lauderdale a few years ago. A small and friendly woman, she holds hands with her partner, Veronica, outside Halo Lounge on a recent Thursday. "You come to South Beach to party," she explains. "But in Fort Lauderdale, there is a strong feeling of community. It's like San Francisco."
Kai Garcia, a 39-year-old flight attendant, traded the clubs for gay bingo nights and queer flea markets in Broward. "I didn't see South Beach as a place to settle down," he says. "There is no sense of intimacy." Although Garcia spent his 20s and 30s living in a one-bedroom South Beach apartment and rollerblading to the ocean, he bought a spacious two-bedroom condo overlooking a golf course for $78,000 in Hollywood last year.
Adds longtime gay club promoter Edison Farrow: "We're not just living in a three-block radius anymore."
For gay performers, too, it's easier to pay the bills in Fort Lauderdale. Shelley Novak, for example, once afforded rent with just tips from her South Beach show. After the scene dried up, she began waiting tables — minus the wig. Daisy Deadpetals doesn't have that problem. She pays the mortgage on her Pompano Beach home using money earned from drag gigs in Broward.
Backstage at Voodoo Lounge, it's minutes before call time. Daisy finishes applying her red lipstick and says, "I don't want to offend anyone, but I just make more money up here." Then she walks out of the cramped room and hops onstage in front of a full house. She lip-syncs, cracks a joke about Nancy Reagan, and pulls a plastic baby from her faux-uterus.
Later, she teases a couple of lesbian out-of-towners. "Welcome to Fort Lauderdale!" she grins.