Ralph Heyndels is sipping an espresso outside the Miami Beach Books & Books on Lincoln Road, trying to explain the unlikely phenomenon occurring at the nearby Alliance Cinema. Largely at Heyndels's behest, intellectuals from four continents have gathered to debate, discuss, and dissect the idea of gay desire.
They have been summoned by Espacio Cultural Triangular, a loose-knit group of mostly gay academics, founded by Heyndels and a handful of colleagues and friends. A professor of French and comparative literature at the University of Miami, Heyndels was one of the organizers of the five-day multicultural, multilingual conference called "Gay Desire: An International Event." The schedule includes theater performances, nightclub parties, art exhibits, poetry readings, and two days of symposiums A all at various Miami Beach venues.
"We started speaking about organizing a conference of great intellectual density but open to the public and held in nonscholarly places," Heyndels is saying. "It could be in a church, it could be in a club or an art gallery A and it should be."
Since its being founded three years ago, the Miami-based group has sponsored similar gatherings in South Africa, Colombia, and Costa Rica. The South Beach gathering, which took place Wednesday through Sunday this past week, is the first local event. The idea, Heyndels says, is "to bring intellectual thought closer to creative people in the sense of getting out of the intellectual ghetto."
Dressed in black and wearing small, tinted spectacles, the Belgian-born Heyndels is a passionate advocate of most things South Beach, though he is the first to admit that the area is not commonly considered to be a mecca for the erudite. But Heyndels maintains that far more cerebral activities are happening than meet the eye. "These people who came [for the conference] all love South Beach," he points out. "They have no contempt or disdain for it."
The attendees include U.S. scholars from Brown, Yale, Emory, and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as foreigners representing institutions in Bern, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Amsterdam, Madrid, and Cape Town, South Africa. Lecture topics range from "Photography and Homoerotic Desire" to "Roland Barthes's Erotics," "Marky Mark: Looking at the Male Body," and "Cruising and Spirituality."
A panel discussion on Friday afternoon has been scheduled to address the theme of gay desire in the Nineties, but it quickly permutates into an analysis of local sociological dynamics, specifically the place of religion and the presence of racism and AIDs in the gay community. Never before has the South Beach party scene been taken so seriously.
Rev. Louis F. Kavar of South Beach's Metropolitan Community Church rises to address the redemptive aspects of cruising. Short, pudgy, and intense, the pastor, whose congregants are predominantly gay, admits that cruising is about sex. "But it is also about something more than sex," he asserts.
"Cruising is looking beyond oneself with the hope of finding something," he continues. "That search is what philosophers refer to as transcendence. It is looking beyond oneself to find something more than what life's immediate situation has to offer. Cruising is looking for something that will stimulate us and bring fulfillment, even for a moment."
Seen from Kavar's perspective, the South Beach obsession with appearance, beauty, and fashion is more than shallow self-indulgence. "The search for things that are beautiful, good, fulfilling, and meaningful is the basis for spirituality," he declares.
Not everyone at the symposium is buying his theory, however. One participant points out that gay life in South Florida is hardly represented by the club scene. Another brings up an article published last year in Out magazine that describes South Beach as the destination of choice for young, HIV-infected gay men who have resolved to party until they drop -- drop dead, that is.
These observers describe South Beach as an escapist's paradise, a playpen where gays come to avoid the reality of AIDS. "The first time I walked into [the nightclub] Paragon, it reminded me of New York in the Seventies," recalls actor Tony Sanchez. "I felt a spontaneity, almost an innocence. The feeling of 'Let's just have a great time!'"
In fact, some local health professionals estimate that as many as 50 percent of homosexuals on South Beach may be infected with HIV, an issue that some complain has not been adequately addressed at the symposium or by the community at large. "Why can't a hedonistic, hot, sexy scene coexist with a responsible view toward AIDS?" Sanchez asks wistfully.
One after another, the 60-odd people in the cinema comment on the contradictions of the South Beach gay scene. They revel in the celebration of physical beauty, but criticize the objectification and fetishization of the gay male body.
Darren Beck, publisher of the gay-oriented magazine Pride, brings up the ticklish topic of race, which leads to a discussion of the Latin-Anglo divide within the gay community. Part of what he loves about South Beach, Beck confesses, is the Latin cultural influence: "It blows my mind. It intrigues me beyond belief. I am so attracted to [Latins], but by the same token, I don't understand them. I can go out on one date and have a great time, but by the second, third, or fourth date, I'm lost in space. I don't know what they want from me."
Indeed, Latins are seen as a novelty by many of the gay Anglo tourists who flock to the South Beach scene, says Alex Garcia, a 23-year-old student who jokes about being the center of attention: "It's like, 'Oh, where are you from?' 'I'm Cuban,' [and they say,] 'Wow! We don't have any Cubans in Oklahoma.'
"You inevitably meet some blond Adonis from somewhere and he's fascinated because you're Hispanic," Garcia says. "Of course, nobody in Miami cares."
The initial celebration of cultural differences has a downside, though, Garcia adds. It can quickly turn into cultural condescension. "I do feel that there is a hint of a very sensual kind of racism in the appreciation of Latinos in Miami, especially gay Latinos," he says. "For whatever reason, we don't get taken seriously on an intellectual level, and that really concerns me."
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A professor from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, suggests that much of the discourse about Latins he has heard at the symposium reflects a colonialist mindset. "I think what you have described to me today as South Beach is a colonial situation and nothing more than that," comments Philippe Salazar. "I hear the old argument of the expatriate communities of the French in Algeria or the English in India who have sex with the natives. The difference here happens to be that the natives are from Latin America."
A rumble of protest greets Salazar's remark, and a Cuban member of the audience announces proudly that "Cubans refuse to be colonized A we are not like the six million Mexicans who walk with their heads down in Los Angeles."
The discussion then drifts away from racism and toward immigration and the challenge of community-building. "I think that any generalizations about Miami are spoken prematurely and are inappropriate," says Sidney Brien of the Dade Human Rights Foundation. "This is one of the most complex cities in the world. The wonderful thing about being here now is that this is a community that's constantly changing and trying to find its own identity. That's what's really exciting."
The conversation continues until early evening, when participants break for cocktails at Heyndels's beachfront condominium, where "Laura," a Colombian diva, is expected to attend and add a touch of flamboyance. As he winds up this section of the conference, Heyndels is in a reflective mood. He admits he enjoys playing the role of permanent tourist, and he doesn't want South Beach to lose its sense of possibility and promise, to be deconstructed into a numbing set of academic problems. "When we first started the Espacio Cultural Triangular, we were not thinking of organizing something here," he admits. "It did not cross my mind. I still don't know if I want this to become a symposium kind of place, you know what I mean?