Dade County, USA, 1977
This appeared as two essays in the Windy City Times, November 26, 2008, under the headline: "Chicago Gay History: Dade County, USA," and December 3, 2008, under the headline "Chicago Gay History: Every Kick is a Boost." Copyright (c) by John D'Emilio 2008. All rights reserved.
It's a winter evening in 1977 and I'm clad only in a towel. I'm prowling the corridors of the Everard Baths in New York. The Everard is not one of those new bathhouses in tune with the spirit of gay liberation. It has no amenities. There are no pleasant lounges for sitting around and socializing; there's no entertainment to bring men together in easy camaraderie. The place is grungy, and its patrons get right to the point—which, of course, is sex.
The Everard does have an old portable television. It's plopped on a table in a corner of the large basement space where there's also a swimming pool so uninviting that, in all my visits to the Everard, I've never seen someone take a dip in it. Tonight, when I wander through, I notice a crowd standing around the TV, raptly attentive to, of all things, a news report. As I walk over to see what the attraction is, I overhear a series of sharp, angry comments. These guys are pissed. A reporter is describing events in Dade County, Fla., where someone named Anita Bryant is waging a campaign against a gay-rights ordinance. Whenever her smiling face and coiffed hair flash across the screen, a new round of curses spews from the mouths of these towel-wrapped men.
The scene arouses my activist sensibilities. I remember thinking: If politics has entered the basement of The Everard, gay liberation has reached much farther than I thought!
No event in queer history enjoys a higher reputation than Stonewall. The 1969 riots are celebrated every year with scores of parades and marches in dozens of nations across the globe. “Stonewall” has become shorthand for militancy, resistance, and pride. Yet its power has been as a symbol. We commemorate Stonewall after the fact. Not many people experienced it directly, and not many more read about it as news.
By contrast, the 1977 campaign to repeal the gay rights statute in Dade County, Florida involved huge numbers of people. It was a local event with a national reach, a story with legs. Newspapers and television covered it for months, the first time this was true for a “gay rights” story. The battle in Dade County, home to the city of Miami, did more to build a national lesbian and gay movement than any other single event. It reached deep into cities and towns around the United States, leaving local communities stronger and better organized. It created a vibrant sense of participating in a common project, a feeling of shared danger.
The Dade County saga began simply enough. In January 1977 the county's board of commissioners voted to add sexual orientation to its civil rights statutes. The story might have ended there, as it had in a couple of dozen other cities that had passed non-discrimination ordinances, except for one resident of the county who attended the final hearing. Bryant, a popular singer who had once been a runner up in the Miss America pageant, was outraged by the county board's action. A born-again Christian, she testified with Bible in hand, and afterward she vowed to fight the ordinance. She and her husband, Bob Green, founded an organization, Save Our Children, to lead a campaign for a ballot initiative to repeal the gay rights law.
Bryant's celebrity status—she'd had gold records; she toured with Bob Hope and performed at military bases; and she was under contract with the Florida Citrus Commission to promote the sale of the state's orange juice—guaranteed media attention for this county commotion. She gave journalists plenty of good quotes. The sentiments that poured from her mouth were inflammatory. At the county commission hearing on the anti-discrimination statute, Bryant declared, “I'm on fire ... Homosexuality is an abomination ... Homosexuals will recruit our children ... They will use money, drugs, alcohol, any means to get what they want.”
Bryant sounded this theme of recruitment again and again. On a trip to Chicago to appear on the nationally televised The Phil Donahue Show, she told the Tribune: “Children are very easily persuaded ... a homosexual is not born, they are made. So there has to be some recruitment.”
By the time voters in South Florida headed to the polls in June, Bryant's statements had become apocalyptic. “We will prevail,” she informed a roomful of supporters and journalists, “against a life style that is both perverse and dangerous to the sanctity of the family, dangerous to our children, dangerous to our freedom of religion and freedom of choice, dangerous to our survival as one nation, under God.”
Rhetoric like this—at one point she referred to gays and lesbians as “garbage”—did more than mobilize people to vote for repeal. It provoked homophobic violence. In Miami, the Roman Catholic archdiocese was also campaigning against the gay-rights ordinance. Priests delivered Sunday sermons on the topic and read to their parishioners letters from the archbishop instructing them to vote for repeal.
This message of intolerance saturated the heavily Catholic Cuban population of Miami. When Ovidio Ramos, a spokesperson for the Latin Committee for the Human Rights of Gays, took part in a call-in program on Spanish-language radio, the calls were so hateful and threatening that a depressed Ramos committed suicide a few days later. When another activist, Manuel Gomez, appeared on a Spanish-language television show, his car was firebombed. Later, after Gomez addressed a rally in the heart of the Cuban community, he was assaulted and left for dead in an alley. So many angry calls came to the Dade County gay coalition that police began to provide its offices with round-the-clock protection.
But the campaign didn't just mobilize the homophobes. It galvanized gay men and lesbians around the country. After gay bars in Miami posted signs announcing “we do not serve Florida orange juice,” The Advocate issued a call for a national boycott of Florida citrus products. By March, the boycott had spread not only to big cities like Boston and Dallas, but to Idaho's only gay bar. Just like what I'd observed at the Everard that winter night, politics was becoming part of the evening conversation in gay and lesbian bars across America.
The growing network of lesbian and gay organizations also took up the cause. The national council of the Metropolitan Community Church passed a resolution encouraging its congregants to support the fight for gay rights in south Florida. Contributions from almost every state arrived at the office of the Dade County gay coalition. Activists traveled to Florida to help in voter education campaigns. Assessing the work that was being done, Jean O'Leary of the National Gay Task Force contended that “the national debate provoked by the Dade County referendum has united and strengthened us as a national movement.”
The Dade County campaign energized the Chicago queer community too. Gay Life, the main community paper in 1977, carried articles about it in every issue that winter and spring. A local coalition formed to support Florida's gays. Community leaders planned a major fundraiser, the “Orange Ball,” for Uptown's Aragon Ballroom in May.
Just a few days before the fundraiser took place, the anti-gay onslaught struck close to home. “EXTRA! EXTRA! EXTRA!,” a special edition of Gay Life announced. “Anita Bryant invited to Chicago.” The Chicago Tribune had just run a four-part series on child pornography, and the series pointed its finger straight at gay men. The series sparked a panic in the city. A Chicago alderman, Edward Burke, hastily scheduled city council hearings on the problem, and asked Bryant to testify. Waves from the “Save Our Children” crusade were crashing against the Windy City's shores.
As the campaign to repeal Dade County's gay rights law headed into its final weeks, Chicago unexpectedly faced its own “Save Our Children” campaign. In mid-May, the Tribune began a four-part, front-page series on child pornography. The headlines seemed designed to agitate readers. “Child Pornography: Sickness for Sale,” the Sunday paper announced to homes and families across Chicagoland. “Chicago is center of national child porno ring,” it told readers heading to work on Monday morning.
The reporters, Michael Sneed and George Bliss, painted a terrifying picture of the dangers facing children. Up to 100,000 were involved, they claimed. The industry not only photographed and filmed children, but also sold their sexual services to adult men. The menace was near at hand. “Chicago is the headquarters of a nationwide ring trafficking in young boys,” they wrote. “A nationwide homosexual ring with headquarters in Chicago has been trafficking in young boys, sending them across the nation to serve clients willing to pay hundreds of dollars for their services.”
Law enforcement officials used extreme language to portray the danger. The Cook County state attorney called the industry “one of the most sordid rackets I've ever encountered.” A detective compared it to “spider webs strung out all over the nation.” Another described what happened as “a crime worse than murder.”
The series put the gay community in a difficult spot. To attack the Tribune risked sounding like a defender of child sex abuse. Yet the reporting was irresponsible and unbalanced, and the claims stretched credibility. The paper purported to expose the sexual exploitation of children, yet in the whole series only five short paragraphs mentioned young girls. The writers claimed to have spent three months investigating an industry that exploited tens of thousands; they said Chicago was a major center of it; and they cooperated closely with police. Why then could the police only find two fourteen year old “victims”?
Over and over, the series fingered the city's gay men as the source of the danger. Major evidence for the existence of the ring of child abusers came from “an informant in the area of Clark and Diversey,” which was then identified as “a center of homosexual activities in Chicago.” The commander of the youth division of the Chicago Police charged that the north side office of Children and Family Services was “a center of homosexuality,” colluding with the sexual abuse of its young clients.
Some details were downright bizarre. A detective claimed he had seized from a national ringleader 30,000 index cards with the names of clients, but the State Department was said to have destroyed all the cards! The mastermind of the biggest network of child porn lovers was supposed to be a convict in an Illinois state prison. How did he manage all this, one wondered?
But sex panics don't require believability. The Tribune had set hysteria in motion. Alderman Ed Burke conducted public hearings. Governor Thompson appointed a state task force on child pornography. The U.S. Attorney opened an investigation and the Cook County state attorney convened a grand jury. Police and building inspectors descended on 34 adult bookstores and shut them down. Legislators in Springfield introduced eight bills to control the menace. Police stepped up their harassment of gay male cruising areas. And the Tribuneeditorialized about “the plague” that was thriving right here in Chicago.
The expose provoked a rapid response from gay and lesbian activists. Even before the series ended, representatives from several organizations held a press conference to denounce the reporting as an “indictment by insinuation of the entire gay community.” Demonstrators chanted “Stop the witch hunt now!” as they picketed City Hall. Bill Kelley and Paul Goldman spoke at Alderman Burke's city council hearings. At a march in New Town, according to one report, “the gay community's anger at the Tribune series boiled over.”
A week after the series began, over 4,000 men and women arrived at Uptown's Aragon for the Orange Ball, a fundraiser to help fight the referendum in Dade County, Fla. The one-two punch of antigay crusades in Florida and Chicago made the event the largest queer benefit in the city's history. Businesses displayed posters; bars contributed door prizes; and organizations provided volunteers.
Even the harassing presence of police failed to dampen the crowd's enthusiasm. Chuck Renslow, who produced the event, told the audience they were living through “a time of war”; he called for “unity of purpose ... as one family.” Bob Basker, from the Dade County gay coalition, worked the crowd up by reading from ads that “Save Our Children” had placed in the Miami Herald. Bryant had allegedly recently declared that “God hates homosexuals because they eat sperm.”
On June 7, as nearly everyone predicted, an overwhelming majority of voters in Dade County cast ballots to repeal the anti-discrimination statute. Anita Bryant danced a jig when she heard the news, and announced that she was preparing to transform “Save Our Children” into a national campaign to repeal ordinances in other cities. Chicago's editorial pages added to the pain of the vote. “Miami sends a message,” said the Daily News. “The people simply aren't ready to accept homosexuality as a constitutional or human ‘right,'” in defiance of “moral codes in effect for millennia.” The Tribune editorial board told readers that “we share the concern of parents ... who see [homosexuality] as a latent threat to society.” It advised gays and lesbians to practice “discretion.”
For Chicagoans, however, the story wasn't over. Bryant was coming to Chicago the following week to perform at a Flag Day benefit concert for the Shriner's Children's Hospital. Gay men and lesbians descended on the Medinah Temple, located at Wabash and Ohio, to protest the singer's appearance. Marchers six abreast circled the building, as a large contingent of police looked on. “Anita is McCarthy in drag,” one placard proclaimed. “God drinks wine, not orange juice,” said another. Afterward, a large contingent marched over to Pioneer Court and the Tribune building, to chants of “Boycott the Tribune.”
Claims about the size of the demonstration varied, from a conservative police count of 2,000 to one participant's estimate of ten to fifteen thousand. But no one disputed that it was a unique event in the city's queer history. “Exhilarating,” recalled Linda Rodgers, a bartender who was there. “One of the biggest things that ever hit Chicago for the gay community,” Grant Ford, the publisher of Gay Life, remembered. “There was just this feeling in the air that we could accomplish something,” said Rich Pfeiffer, who organized Chicago's annual Pride parade. “It was an incredible feeling ... a feeling of empowerment.”
Gays and lesbians in Dade County in 1977 lost an anti-discrimination law, but the months of headlines, fundraisers, rallies, and demonstrations—across the nation and here in Chicago—had accomplished something profound. Renee Hanover, an activist lawyer in Chicago who had participated in movements for social justice for decades, expressed it well. Bryant and Dade County had “unified and strengthened us as a national movement. Never before has one fight stirred the national gay and lesbian community to such fervor.” Or, as one anonymous demonstrator told a Tribune reporter after the Dade County votes were tallied: “I don't think people should be disheartened ... Every kick is a boost.”