Gay or straight, the majority of young Americans today see same-sex marriage as no big deal. They have also probably never heard of Anita Bryant.
But if you are old enough to remember a time when “Saturday Night Fever” was in the theaters, when Son of Sam was in the headlines, or when an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence, you probably remember how Miami became one of the early battlegrounds in the gay rights movement. The struggle in South Florida changed the city, its gay community and, ultimately, the way most Americans see themselves and those around them. Though that journey did not start very well, it has already taken us to a better place, even if the journey is not yet complete.
“The Day It Snowed In Miami” is a powerful new documentary that tells the story of how the city’s deeply closeted gays and lesbians stepped into the bright Florida sunshine, and in the process helped Miami become the tolerant, cosmopolitan, multicultural mecca that it is today. The film premiered last week in Miami Beach and aired on local public television; it will be broadcast nationwide on PBS stations later this year.
The film begins by setting the scene of persecution and misery for gays in Florida. Banned by law from holding any public or private teaching jobs, as well as several other professions, and hounded by a state Senate committee headed by a former governor, Florida’s homosexual population lived in fear and solitude. Police “morals” squads regularly raided gay bars, especially at election time. Those arrested were perp-walked and publicly shamed. In a weird forerunner of later drug education programs, speakers told middle-school assemblies that homosexuals were out to recruit them. The anti-gay Florida Legislative Investigative Committee - nicknamed the “Johns committee” after its chairman, Sen. Charley Johns - published a pamphlet entitled “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida” as a warning to the state's youth. Its photos of homosexual sex were so graphic that the Legislature scrapped the committee, sealing its records for 72 years. Homosexual sex itself was a criminal offense in Florida until the Supreme Court decided Lawrence v. Texas in 2003.
As promotion of civil rights for African Americans, women and other disadvantaged groups expanded, a handful of gay communities, notably in New York and San Francisco, started to speak out. None of those communities, however, were in the South. It was not a gay public official who brought the issue to Miami; there were virtually no openly gay public officials in those days save for San Francisco’s supervisor Harvey Milk. It was a Metro Dade County commissioner, Ruth Shack, who proposed an ordinance to protect county residents against employment and housing discrimination on the basis of “affectional or sexual preference.” She just thought it was the right thing to do.
The measure passed on the frigid night of Jan. 18, 1977. The next morning, it snowed for the only time in Miami’s recorded history.
A backlash quickly ensued, led by Bryant. She was a 1959 Miss America runner-up who went on to a moderately successful singing career. By 1977 her main gig was as a TV spokeswoman for Florida orange juice. Bryant and her husband at the time, Bob Green, were evangelical Christians. (Ruth Shack’s husband happened to be Bryant’s booking agent, until he resigned amid the gay-rights battle.) Backed by an assortment of church groups, Bryant's organization, Save the Children, Inc., quickly gathered far more than the necessary 10,000 signatures to put the new ordinance to a referendum. A few months later, with a heavy turnout, voters repealed the law by a 2-1 margin.
“They're not asking for human rights,” Bryant declared at one Miami rally. “They're asking for human rot.”
Milk was part of the unsuccessful campaign to defend the Miami ordinance. The next year, Milk and San Francisco’s mayor, George Moscone, were assassinated by Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor who was at odds with the city’s gay community. (White, who said his judgment was clouded by overconsumption of junk food in what became known as the “Twinkie defense,” served five years for manslaughter and later committed suicide.)
Many today see the Dade County repeal referendum as the start of the social conservative movement in U.S. politics, though I believe that this underestimates the political impact of abortion following Roe v. Wade. Nevertheless, dozens of U.S. cities that had just recently passed gay-rights protections prior to the referendum in Florida saw those protections challenged, and in many cases overturned, by voter initiatives. The gay community reeled.
And then, in the early 1980s, came AIDS. First observed among gay men in New York and San Francisco, it was initially labeled the “gay plague.” The Reagan administration showed an acute lack of interest in the growing crisis until it started to affect other groups, such as blood transfusion recipients. Left without support, gay men and their sympathizers organized to fight the disease and to comfort the afflicted.
This effort, according to “The Day It Snowed In Miami,” is what turned the tide. With improved organization and more research, effective treatment eventually followed. With treatment came longer survival times. With longer survival came a renewed need to focus on a future, and that future increasingly meant demanding acceptance as equals in society.
The documentary pays surprisingly little attention to the question of gay marriage. The issue first came before the Hawaii Supreme Court in the early 1990s; voters in that state amended their Constitution in 1993 to prevent same-sex marriage. President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Both events fall within the film’s time period, but neither are extensively addressed. I suppose the film's creators, including director Joe Cardona and writer-researchers from the Miami Herald Media Company and WPBT2, wanted to keep the focus on Miami, but the omission is glaring nonetheless.
By the late 1990s, metropolitan Miami was changing rapidly. The city of Miami emerged as a business hub for all of Latin America and the Caribbean, a process that was accelerated by new waves of refugees from Cuba and Haiti. Miami Beach, which was long past its glory days in the 1970s, saw a renaissance in the 1990s amid the restoration of its many historic Art Deco buildings - with the gay community leading the way, especially in South Beach. In 1997 the city of Miami Beach enacted its own gay rights law.
The next year, in the film’s climactic sequence, the issue returned to the Miami-Dade County Commission. The question was whether to overturn the verdict that voters had rendered two decades earlier and reinstate the county’s human rights ordinance. It passed, 6-5.
And so the story ends, except that it has not really ended. Bryant, who suffered a failed marriage and multiple business reversals, retreated to her native Oklahoma. She declined to be interviewed for the documentary. Her son Bill Green, who witnessed the 1970s controversy as a child, spoke to the producers with compassion to those on both sides. He still lives in Miami.
The film notes that most of the existing antidiscrimination laws do not specifically address transgender individuals, whose cause has often been merged into that of the broader LGBT coalition. This, it says, is unfinished business. Another item of unfinished business affecting far more Americans is same-sex marriage, which is still unrecognized in more than half the country, including Florida.
Maybe there will be a sequel someday that, perhaps, features Anita Bryant singing at a gay couple’s wedding. I know it isn’t likely, but then again, neither is snow in Miami.