Throughout South Florida, scattered outposts of gay civilization have always dotted the landscape: Cheers and Cherry Grove in Miami; The Copa, Cathode Ray, and the Marlin Beach Hotel in Fort Lauderdale; the dance club Heartbreaker and cruise bar Man's Land in West Palm Beach. But lately an entire culture has begun to gel around South Beach. Depending on your perspective, the area is about to become a glorious new reincarnation of ancient sun-drenched Athens, where boys who walk between prose and poetry frolic like gods, or has already turned into an unfortunate little pissy-ass charm central neighborhood with all the signs of creeping Key West-ization.

Whatever, something is definitely happening. City officials scrambling to appear politically sensitive. The Alliance Film/Video Project on Lincoln Road slowly evolving into an art house with a heavy dose of well-attended gay-film programming, featuring movies like Urinal, Gus Van Sant's Diary, Poison, and Seduction: The Cruel Woman. As Don Chauncey of the Alliance optimistically puts it: "The audience is here. South Beach is almost like the Castro now, and it's all happened in the last two or three years."

And there are more subtle signs. Spectacularly overreaching cuisine. The elevation of male models and transvestites to celebrity status. Bold displays of affection, a la Provincetown. Muscles. Short, excessively cultivated hair. Rampant irony.

In the clubs, people are beginning to issue pronouncements on the subject (Merle ["I speak gay"] Weiss, of Merle's Closet, delivered one of the better proclamations at the farewell party for Club Nu: "This is the beginning of Gay South Beach. The last real straight bar on the Beach has closed. But what do I care?") and take sides. There seem to be lots of new straight clubs on the Beach, but somehow, even more new gay clubs and one-night specials, despite claims that gay establishments are being unduly targeted by police. Hombre. Garage South Beach, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at The Institute. Fetish, Fridays at the Cameo. Bend...Over at Boomerang on Tuesdays. The new after-hours once-a-week club AM/PM, which debuted last Saturday night in the old Club Nu space.

It is, of course, in the clubs - sacred bastions of gay life, handy barometers of class identification in straight life - where the battles of taste are played out. Straight bars, places where average walking-around guys can make themselves sloppy drunk, pick a fight, and maybe get lucky, will no doubt always be around on South Beach. But the tone of things, as in the case of The Deuce (a bit cuter lately and a lot less authentically squalid) might be changing real soon.

A recent and completely random tour of The New and Improved Gay South Beach begins at Bend...Over, where the tone seems just about right. Promoter Bill Mayer is in full glory, both as himself, a young recently transplanted New Yorker ("My background? I used to do Saturday night at The Roxy and Blackgama night at The Pyramid for Hispanic and black gays.") and as a very campy drag creation, Pepper Tomatoe: "I don't care what you say, as long as you tell everybody it's the gay A-crowd."

Mayer was formerly associated with Trouble, the erstwhile after-hours underground gay club put together by Mike Davis, Doug Dmitrzak, Willi Thomas, and Mayer. Trouble began in an apartment on South Beach, moved briefly to Torpedo, then to the Art-Act space on Espanola Way (an alternative theater raising money through hosting an illegal club would seem a quintessentially Miami situation) and eventually, the Lord Balfour Hotel, where it closed last week. But as Mayer points out, "Trouble has to keep moving."

Bend...Over moves along pretty well, and as befitting the general let's-everybody-play-nice atmosphere of Boomerang, the overtly sexual edge that many gay bars project is softened somewhat. Still, the love that dare not speak its name fairly screams, talking of other people, other places, and everyone else's bad taste.

The Pee-wee Herman doll on the bar, with a hand down his pants, attracts a few ugly chuckles. Karla Lewis, who had come with Rafael Pozo, reminisces about the July 23rd opening-night party: "It was great, but Varla [artist Craig Coleman] was a little too star-oriented. I think he's got his own line of perfume now." Troy -or is it Kenneth? - whispers ruefully: "These places are great if you're single, but I'm married." In a more serious vein, someone insists that the police are homophobic, while a young woman outlines another problem: "One of those real dykey cops hit on one of my girlfriends - it was too much."

A barbecue at Torpedo that same night feels positively neighborly, although someone else describes it as "political." Regardless, the crowd - people like Israel Sands of Flowers & Flowers, Betty Too-Much, and a renowned he-she-it, trailing glamour, envy, and spite in her wake - is fairly interesting. And, in the great-visuals category, there is a Nancy Reagan look-alike and South Beach's reigning drag queen, Miss Henrietta Robinson:

"Honey, I've been doing this for 30 years. We used to have great old places back in the early Sixties. The Mayflower, where the A-House is now. Frenchie's Pub. Basin Street. And up on 21st Street, three places side by side: The Pinup, The Middle Room - all the straight boys went there to get picked up - and The Night Owl.

"Dressing up was illegal back then. If you so much as wore eye make-up or even a woman's scarf in a club it was right to jail. Then in '67 they legalized it, and things got a little better. This town used to be good and fast, and now it's good again. The Beach is coming back better than ever."

The Gay South Beach tour draws to a close at Hombre, the small cruise bar on Washington Avenue owned by Bobby Guilmartin and Diane Iannucci. Open since July 12th, it is a slick, intimate, and oddly confrontational kind of place: well lighted, lots of whorehouse-red accents, endless hard-core sex videos. Guilmartin is alternately political ("Seven out of ten men moving to South Beach are gay and there's nothing - nothing - here. There's no sense of community, just political infighting among the bars. I'm putting together a rollerblade club just to get people to work together.") and a relentless promoter of his operation. He describes Hombre as a "nice clean atmosphere, where men meet men and are forced to talk. It's real big, bold, masculine, very 1979 East Side New York. I give them all this, and then we hit 'em with the sex stuff. It's what the business calls D&D, dicks and drinks."

Walking past the old men lurking outside ("maricones...take them out, blow them away.") and thinking about all those dicks, all those drinks, Miss Henrietta's summation of the New Beach suddenly comes rushing back:

"Honey, let me tell you something: This town is swinging again.

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