Miami Beach is known to gay and lesbian tourists as a friendly destination. Events like White Party Week and the Winter Party attract international gay and lesbian travelers who pump millions into the economy and bolster community fundraising efforts. What's more, the city's human-rights ordinance includes a prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Despite the legal protections and generally hospitable atmosphere, however, homophobia persists in the Beach's cracks and crevices. It may not be blatant, but queer tourists who don't fit the profile of the wealthy gay couples featured on glossy travel brochures continue to experience discrimination. Dana Turner didn't fit the profile.
When she arrived in Miami Beach for the recent National Gay and Lesbian Task Force convention dubbed the "Creating Change Conference," she expected a pleasant stay and networking encounter with 2000 of America's most influential gay activists. But less than 24 hours after she checked into the Normandy Plaza Hotel (6979 Collins Ave., where Andrew Cunanan stayed before killing Gianni Versace in 1997), she was evicted by hotel staff as a Miami Beach police officer looked on.
The reason for the unceremonious expulsion, according to Turner: She had trashed her room. "They told me that there was blood all over the sheets and in the bathroom and on the walls," Turner says from her home in Manhattan. "'That's impossible,' I told them. I was not bleeding. I'd only slept there the night before."
When she asked to examine the alleged damage, she says the hotel manager told her the housekeeping staff had already cleaned up the mess. She was to take her luggage, which was now at the front desk, and get out. Miami Beach police Ofcr. George Varon was there, apparently to see that the eviction went smoothly. (Earlier this year Varon accidentally ran over two French tourists who were sunbathing on the beach, killing one of them.)
Turner insists the hotel room was clean and intact the morning of Thursday, November 6, when she headed out to attend the convention at the nearby Radisson Deauville Hotel. She says she even joked with the maids as she departed that there was no need for them to clean her room.
But the housekeepers may have noticed in the light of day what the manager might have missed when she checked in the night before. Though she is a woman today, 49-year-old Dana Turner was once a man. She believes her appearance as a transsexual, and the fact that she is African American, prompted her eviction. In addition the marks on her forearms and legs, from a skin disorder known as EF (eosinophilic folliculitis), may have been mistaken for Kaposi's sarcoma, skin lesions associated with AIDS. Turner drew this conclusion from the questions put to her by Officer Varon. "He asked me: 'What are those spots on your arms from?'" she recalls. "I said it's a skin disease. The two women behind the counter were saying sangre and peligroso."
(Since the incident, the hotel has come under new management.)
Distraught and without a place to stay, Turner carried her luggage to a friend's room at a nearby hotel. She then went to the convention and sought help from her peers, who were attending seminars such as "Personal Strategies for Queer Activists," "Transgender Victories and Challenges: The Policy Arena," and "Taking Action Against Racism." A more resolute group of social activists would be hard to find, and when word of Turner's eviction spread through the hallways and conference rooms, they rallied behind her.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, met with Turner, who holds a law degree from Georgetown University, and other transgender delegates. They believed the eviction was a clear act of discrimination and demanded action. Some began making plans for a public demonstration. When Foreman met Thursday night with Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer, prior to the conference's opening dinner, he explained what had happened to Turner. While the mayor did not mention the incident during his welcoming speech that evening, he did instigate an investigation. He also made hasty arrangements for a meeting the next day, Friday, between police officials and Turner, Foreman, and other task force members. At that meeting, Turner says, police Lt. Richard Weissman apologized for Officer Varon's actions and said the force would institute sensitivity training regarding transgender issues and HIV. (Police did not return calls for comment. )
"It was clear the city didn't want to have a big demonstration," Turner recounts. "That's the only reason they met with us. If I were by myself, without the convention, I wouldn't have met with anybody except maybe a corrections officer."
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On Saturday the city's tourism and convention director, Michael Aller, who also functions as a liaison to the gay community, was dispatched by the mayor to meet with convention officials and do some damage control regarding Turner's eviction. Aller confirmed the meeting but would not comment further; those who attended say Aller apologized on behalf of the city. Later that Saturday, Hedy Peña, executive director of SAVE Dade, Miami's most prominent gay and lesbian political lobby, addressed the conference during a luncheon. She outlined the ongoing negotiations between SAVE Dade and the city to add transgender people to the human-rights ordinance and to expand the city's domestic-partnership plan to include all Beach residents (it now applies only to municipal employees). While neither issue has yet been discussed by the city commission, Peña expressed confidence that progress was being made.
By the convention's closing brunch the next day, Peña's cautious optimism had somehow morphed. The gay-friendly legislation was now described by speakers as a done deal. The city was hailed for its swift response and Dana Turner received a rousing ovation. Task force executive director Matt Foreman was pleased, even though Dermer had only expressed support for new laws, not enacted them. "The commitments that were made by the city would normally take three to four years in another community," Foreman says, "but on Miami Beach it happened overnight."
Turner returned to her job advocating for transgender prisoners with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in Manhattan. She says she's working with lawyers from the National Center for Lesbian Rights to consider filing suit against the hotel and perhaps the city. "We haven't decided exactly what action we're going to take," she says. Her experience in Miami Beach may have been absurd, but she thinks it could lead to something productive. "A lot came out of this silly, senseless situation," she says. "To this day I think of it as hurtful and rude and it didn't make any sense. But I do see it as a victory."