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.
Gays in South Beach
"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.
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.
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.
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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."
Leiva, age 31, was an employee of Miami Beach restaurant the Forge and a singer at Jamboree Lounge on Biscayne Boulevard. He volunteered at local homeless shelter Camillus House and did research for Radio Cadena Univision.
Cops soon arrested Derrick Lamar Evans and Eric Johnson, both of whom fingered the other for Leiva's death. They choked him from behind, near his bedroom, and robbed him of a stereo, according to court documents. They were sentenced to 20 and 12 years, respectively.
Inside Jamboree Lounge, Leiva's boss, Juan Vayas, gestures to a small black stage where Leiva once crooned in Spanish. "Everybody here was so depressed after he died," the businessman recalls in a soft voice. "He was down-to-earth, never drank or smoked... he was so kind."
Although it was obvious to friends and activists that the killers were homophobic, the murder was never classified as a hate crime. The reason: The language of hate crime law is vague, and officers aren't adequately trained to notice and document the signs. (The charge is determined by the State Attorney's Office based on police reports.)
"Unless someone is spray-painting the word fag on your body, they don't consider it a hate crime," says Herb Sosa, president of Unity Coalition of Miami-Dade. In three recent police reports obtained by New Times, little or no reference is made to victims' sexual orientation or to anti-gay slurs.
The state's definition of a hate crime is "intentionally selecting a victim based on... race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation..." Guilty parties are punished more harshly, and the classification sends a strong message: You won't get away with intolerance here. But it's often difficult to prove.
Sosa shakes his head and adds, "Police numbers don't match our numbers, and that's a problem."
In Miami Beach, before 1990, gay bashing was rare. If it happened, few spoke up. One of the first well-publicized cases came in October 1991, when a motorist attacked a gay off-duty Miami Beach Police officer named Ambrose Simms. The officer was on his way to the gay club Sugar's when two men in a late-model car shouted a slur and chucked a beer bottle at his leg. He explained to newspapers he was targeted because of his sexual orientation.
The following year, Miami Beach Police appointed Simms to serve as a liaison for the town's growing gay population. By 1996, officers received sensitivity training they dubbed "a gay-specific lesson in diversity." The department later announced a hate crime hot line was ready to combat the behavior.
It didn't always work. This past fall, a string of gay-bashing incidents began in South Beach. On October 11, a chubby mechanic targeted a gay 31-year-old named Peter Morales on Washington Avenue. According to police reports, Diego Molina-Caceres "began to harass him, touching his hair and calling him names." He punched him in the head, knocked him over, and was then arrested.
Morales, whose boyfriend co-owns Twist nightclub, called the Miami Beach Police Department hot line twice. He got an answering machine. According to Commissioner Victor Diaz, Morales heard nothing back from officers for several days. (Morales did not return New Times' calls seeking comment.)
Others were more outspoken. Says Babak Movahedi, who owns Halo Lounge near Lincoln Road: "It's ridiculous to have a hot line if nobody's going to respond for five days."
Miami Beach Police spokesman Juan Sanchez contends he personally returned the call promptly. The phone "system notifies [me] immediately each time a victim leaves a message," Sanchez says. "He didn't call me back."
Three weeks later, in early November, a gay European tourist was attacked on Collins Avenue and left badly bruised, according to activists. (He did not call police.)
Then, on November 29, passersby found Tony Lopez, the gay makeup artist, lying unconscious on the sidewalk. He has since moved out of his apartment. "South Beach has gotten too ghetto," he says.
Spokesman Sanchez explains Lopez might have provoked the beating by kicking one of the attackers' cars. "A derogatory term does not necessarily constitute a hate crime," he says. "If it smells like one and looks like one, we're gonna report it."
On a warm night this past December, Herb Sosa is giving a speech at a vigil on Lincoln Road. The activist, whose brown locks tend to fall over his face, looks out at the audience, where about 30 people hold glowsticks in memory of murdered victims. "These things shouldn't happen anywhere," he says. "And they certainly shouldn't happen in South Beach."
As the clubs close on a September night in 2005, a man is seen jumping out of a car at the corner of Washington Avenue and Third Street and hurling a bottle of booze at a gay couple. Normally, the incident would go unnoticed. But the witness stands seven feet one inch tall and weighs more than 300 pounds. Shaquille O'Neal — who is training to be a reserve police officer — follows the car until he can flag down a cop, who charges the aggressor with assault. The incident makes national news when it is picked up by the Associated Press and ESPN.
Until the 1980s, Miami Beach was a peculiar mix of criminals, Cubans, and little old ladies. Then the beautiful people moved in.
Jerry Powers, founder of the Miami Beach-based magazine Ocean Drive, remembers it began with German fashion photographers in the mid-'80s. "Europeans thought, Holy moly, this place is cheap," he says.
Designers, stylists, and models were largely gay, and as the fashion industry grew, so did the boy culture. They fell in love with vacant beaches and mouthwash-blue waters that looked yanked from a postcard. Adds legendary local publicist Charlie Cinnamon: "All the hotties came to town."
Gay people felt welcome in a city that was — at least geographically — cut off from the rest of America. "It was a secret," says Desi, a stylist who moved to Miami Beach from Boston in 1989. "If you were gay in the middle of the country and you didn't feel accepted, the word was South Beach." He lived a bohemian lifestyle, working a few photo gigs per week to pay $250 in rent.
No agency tracked how much the GLBT population increased in the following years, but the transformation was evident. Gay storefronts — from leather shops to cafés — began to emerge, and so did nightclubs. "Everything was pastel and glitter," recalls Shelley Novak. "You were tripping over gays." There was a smaller group of lesbians too.
In 1992, fashion designer Gianni Versace announced plans to transform an old rent-controlled apartment building into a bright white ocean-side mansion. For models and photographers, it would soon become what Andy Warhol's Factory was to aspiring New York artists: an epicenter for all things erotic and creative.
When Powers was with Ocean Drive, he befriended the gay fashion genius. "I don't want to say he was a loner, but he loved to go to the beach by himself," Powers remembers, "and then you'd see him a few days later surrounded by celebrities."
By 1996 — thanks to The Real World: Miami — even suburban housewives in Nebraska had a taste of what it meant to be gay in Miami Beach. Dan Renzi, the student-turned-model on the show, felt a tinge of guilt. "People were rolling their eyes at us," he says. "The show was a great success for the city, but it really changed things."
It was true: The Beach had grown more commercial. Even a Gap now loomed on Collins Avenue. Following the national attention, the New York Times reported another phenomenon: "Many men with AIDS have come to South Beach to spend their last years." The warm climate made coping with the virus easier, and there was a sense of family.
Then, on July 15, 1997, as Versace strolled home from News Café, a spree killer shot him execution-style near the front gate of his Ocean Drive mansion. One of the bullets struck "the center of his face," according to police reports. He dropped the Italian magazines he was carrying and fell to the concrete.
Versace was the fifth murder victim on a list compiled by a delusional pharmacist named Andrew Cunanan, who several days later, while holed up on a Miami Beach houseboat, killed himself using the same 40-caliber handgun. National media was all over the story. If you were a gay man walking the streets of South Beach that week, chances are a TV reporter thrust a microphone in your direction.
To some degree, the murder changed Miami Beach. Part of the city's appeal was its easy, carefree lifestyle. Afterward, people were on edge. Some theorized the fashion designer was killed because of his sexual orientation or promiscuity. For a while, gay men stopped cruising Flamingo Park at night.
Says Shelley: "We were all looking over our shoulders." On July 23, Miami Beach Police determined, "No motive or direct connection was found between Cunanan and Versace," according to the report.
Eventually, the fashion industry moved on. So did many gay tourists. The following year, the City of Miami Beach amped its efforts to court them back. City officials placed a glossy $15,000 ad in the Los Angeles-based Genre magazine featuring two men arm-in-arm. It wasn't enough. Gay businesses were beginning to close.
Like storekeepers, gay renters sensed the community had scattered. Some of them felt they no longer belonged in Miami Beach. Others wanted to settle down but couldn't in Florida, where adoption and partnership legislation makes alternative families feel like outlaws.
Even South Beach wasn't immune. In November 2007, a man named William Charles Smatt hung a banner outside his Alton Road home that read, "God created Adam + Eve, NOT Adam + Steve." The following week, the 76-year-old ran for mayor and lost.
"The gay community no longer feels welcome," Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower observed the following year. She proposed that officials "see what other cities are doing and identify what opportunities are being missed."
Today, tourism director Michael Aller — who is credited for attracting gay travelers — is reluctant to talk about how South Beach has changed. On three occasions, he set up interviews with New Times but canceled or was not available at each of the scheduled times. During a fourth call, he explained, "I'm actually getting in the shower," before hanging up.
Desi, the stylist, sums it up this way: "It's like our private party got crashed."
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.