The City's Gays Must Go


Marlin Beach Hotel postcards, c. 1975. All images courtesy of the Stonewall National Museum & Archives, Fort Lauderdale, FL.


Marlin Beach Hotel postcard, c. 1975


Marlin Beach Hotel postcard (reverse), c. 1975


Marlin Beach Hotel postcard, c. 1975


Marlin Beach Hotel postcard (reverse), c. 1975


Marlin Beach Hotel Disco Party flier, c. 1975

               All of this occurred under the Fort Lauderdale establishment’s radar. Neither the city nor business leaders condoned or even knew about it. In late November 1976, however, the Fort Lauderdale Beach Advisory Board, the civic group charged with trying to increase the tourist business, issued a report on the conditions of the beach. It noted the many problems, particularly the large population of “street people” and drifters. It also highlighted the Marlin Beach and its gay clientele, claiming that the hotel’s national advertising campaign had made it a popular gay resort destination. It cited the arrests of young male hustlers, mostly homeless teenagers, who were drawn to the area by the presence of the hotel.[24]

               This news came as a shock to Fort Lauderdale Mayor E. Clay Shaw. A conservative Republican who had been a member of the city commission since 1971, he was elected mayor in 1975. One of his major goals was to revitalize Fort Lauderdale tourism. In Clay’s view and the view of most of the city’s establishment, the presence of an openly gay hotel on the beach ruined any chances of drawing the tourist trade. “If a family from the Midwest comes to Fort Lauderdale and sees men making love on the beach, what will they think?... They’ll never come back.” The head of the city’s Hotel Resort and Hotel Association agreed and noted that the presence of a gay hotel would have an adverse economic effect on the beach. “It’s a social stigma and it will drive families away.”[25]

              If Shaw and the other city officials hoped to ignite a media storm similar to the one that erupted in Miami in the 1950s, they misjudged the media environment. In contrast to the atmosphere of moral panic over homosexuality reflected in the 1954 Miami Herald’s coverage of gay bars, the Fort Lauderdale News, the city’s major newspaper, was in tune with the trend of more balanced coverage of gay issues. But it also suspected that a public spat between the mayor and the city’s growing gay community could sell newspapers. The Fort Lauderdale News headlined the story of the mayor’s disapproval on the front page: “Mayor Shaw is Adamant: The City’s Gays Must Go.” According to the newspaper, the mayor’s goal was to eliminate every vestige of homosexual activity from the beach. “If he had his way, every vestige of homosexuality would be eliminated from the beach. If he had his way the Marlin Beach Hotel, which caters to gay tourists, will go straight. If he had his way, no other hotel in the city would advertise in national gay magazines that Fort Lauderdale is the place to spend a vacation.”[26]

               Shaw knew, however, that trying to shut down a legitimate business, even if it was gay, was a difficult proposition. Earlier that year in Miami, Jack Campbell, owner of the Club Baths, Miami’s gay bathhouse, had successfully sued the city for harassment in its attempts to shut it down. He even won a letter of apology and a promise to desist from the city’s police chief.[27] Moreover attitudes towards the hotel, even among its straight neighbors on the beach, were generally favorable. The hotel’s clientele spent its money at other beach businesses. And as one eighty-one-year-old widow and forty year resident of the beach who lived right next to the hotel remarked, “I can’t object to (the gay clientele). They keep their place neat and clean and they’re respectful.” She noted that a bartender from the Marlin told her that after work at 3 am he walked home by her house to make sure she was okay. “I thought that was awfully nice.”[28]

               Rather than target the hotel directly, Shaw aimed his fire at another problem: the beach’s large population of rowdy, noisy, and unruly street people, drifters, and panhandlers. More specifically, he targeted the presence of young gay male hustlers (or “male prostitutes”) who were part of the crowd and stood along the street and propositioned the hotel’s guests. Their numbers were not large. The weekend before the story broke, the city’s beach squad made thirty arrests on the beach for disorderly conduct and other reasons. Of the thirty, only one was for male hustling. In spite of the modest figures, Shaw contended that male prostitution was a major problem on the beach, a problem created by the presence of the Marlin Beach. [29]

               Shaw ordered his city manager, along with the police chief and legal advisers, to investigate the possibility of initiating a grand jury investigation of not only of the problem of male prostitution on the beach, but of gay owned businesses on the beach and their links to such prostitution. His overall goal, according to the News, was to stop the proliferation of “gays and the businesses they patronized.”[30] In the news coverage, the fact came out that  there was soon to be a second gay hotel on the beach. The Lauderdale Beach Hotel, just one block south of the Marlin Beach and another iconic hotel  now on hard times, was bought by  Don Embinder, the publisher of BLUEBOY, a gay men’s PLAYBOY with national circulation of 900,0000. He was going to put $1,500,000 into renovations to make it another destination gay resort hotel. “We are going after an enormously sophisticated audience,” which included  “famous homosexuals, writers, actors and personalities,” Embinder said. [31]

               The Marlin Beach’s management responded to the mayor’s attacks by noting that they had a six man security force and a strict policy of keeping the street hustlers out of the hotel. Moreover they stressed that the hotel was an upscale operation and its clientele included “doctors, lawyers, professors..., mostly middle and upper middle class people.” They also criticized the mayor for acting rashly, noting that it made no attempt to first talk with the hotel owners about any problem. They argued that gay tourism did not hurt Fort Lauderdale. “Have gay communities ever deterred people from going to Acapulco or Cape Cod or San Francisco? Can he suggest one instance where an influx of gay people has hurt the value of a resort?” Nonetheless they expected a rash of new inspections by the city health and fire officials. “There are many ways they can shut us down,” said one of the managers. “But we will not capitulate.... We will hold on as long as it takes.”[32] The Fort Lauderdale News ran the story of the management’s response with the front-page headline: “Gays: We Are An Asset to the Community.”

               But this did not remain only a fight between Mayor Shaw and the hotel’s management. It was seven years after the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, and along with the emergence of a visible community, there were now groups and organizations ready to stand up for the community. Their origins and politics reflected the community’s diversity. As was the case in many gay communities across the nation, the oldest was the Fort Lauderdale congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). Founded in Los Angeles in 1968 by Troy Perry--a Presbyterian minister who was defrocked when he became open about his sexuality--the MCC appealed to gay men and lesbians who sought to combine their sexuality with their spiritual beliefs and needs. By 1970 there were congregations in eight cities, including Miami. Throughout the 1970s the membership grew and often the MCC was the first organized group to emerge in gay communities. The Fort Lauderdale MCC congregation was formed in 1975 and had over 100 members. It provided religious services and also a ready-made system of friends and support. Although the church’s political involvement was limited because of its tax exempt status, its pastor, Rev. John McGill, was an active spokesperson for the interests of the community.

               A second group, the Tuesday Night Group, began in early 1977 when a small group of gay professionals began to meet following incidents of police harassment. They bought their complaints to the city police chief, who promised it would stop. The group quickly grew into a bi-monthly meeting of fifty or so “neatly dressed professionals (who) sip pink grapefruit punch and discuss political strategy.” Their core members were typically closeted and their political activity was focused on quiet backstage networking with local officials and community leaders. They also had good connections with the large but closeted portion of the Fort Lauderdale gay community. Thanks to careful planning and good organization, “they could mobilize 300 or more for parties and fundraisers.” [33]

               The controversy, however, bought into existence a third group, the Broward Coalition for Human Rights, whose membership and politics was quite different. Its main organizer, Bob Kunst, was not even from Broward County. He was one of the founders of the Miami/Dade County Coalition for Human Rights, which was organized the previous spring by gay leaders and activists in Miami. Their goal was to endorse County Commission candidates in the November election. They were successful in electing a slate of candidates who supported passing a county-wide non-discrimination measure that would include “sexual preference” and were now quietly working with the newly elected commissioners on drafting the measure.

                Kunst, however, was drawn to a different kind of politics. Something of a “flower-child” radical political activist from the 1960s, he believed in a strategy of confrontation and media coverage, particularly where he was the central figure. As soon as the story about the Marlin Beach broke, he came to Fort Lauderdale and, together with local activists Dale Moore, Mark Silber, and MCC minister Rev. John Gill, formed the Broward Coalition for Human Rights.[34] In contrast to the Tuesday Night Group, the coalition openly organized and held a meeting attended by seventy-five people and open to the press. Kunst, calling Shaw’s statement a “public cry for discrimination,” called for a protest in front of the Mayor’s office the next day. Looking forward to the spring city elections, Kunst said that the Broward County gay community, which he estimated numbering 100,000 (out of a population of 894,631), had sufficient political “clout to oust clearly defined opponents of gays.”[35]

               Adding to Shaw’s discomfort was the conclusion of his city manager and other advisors: there were no grounds for a grand jury investigation. There was no evidence that the activity of male prostitution was organized. Furthermore, as Police Captain Ron Cochran noted, “homosexual men are not typically involved in violent crimes” and trying to police sexual activity--homosexual or otherwise--required a use of scare police resources better put elsewhere. Moreover the whole policing of sexual consensual activity was something the city police and sheriff’s office saw as very low priority. The earlier complaints about harassment made by the Tuesday Night Group seemingly had their impact. The city police chief wanted to make it very clear that “they did not intend to harass gays or violate their basic rights ” He added that in order for the police to catch and make an arrest for indecency, “We have to catch them in the act…. It is not a fun job.” Finally the city manager added, “there is nothing the city can legally do to stop homosexuals from vacationing in Fort Lauderdale if they want to.”[36]

               On Friday November 12, twenty-five members of the Broward Coalition, including six women, showed up on the steps of City Hall and held a press conference. Kunst, the spokesperson for the group, said that if he had planned a mass demonstration, “several thousand persons would have shown up to protest Shaw’s public claims “that open homosexual activity might be chasing away the family tourist trade.” Saying that he represented Broward County’s “150,000 homosexuals,” he declared that Shaw was using “us as a scapegoat and we are tired of that tactic." He continued, "I think the intelligent voter is going to want a change from this kind of immoral leadership in City Hall.” Perhaps as a sign of the community’s growing political clout, Kunst was joined in his condemnation of Shaw by State Representative John Adams, a popular Democrat representing Hollywood, Florida. Through a letter read by an aide, Adams called Shaw’s criticisms of the gay community “injustices…which I consider totally unnecessary, ill-mannered and politically motivated.” The situation Shaw had created “has clearly defined itself as dirty politics.” Kunst called for the mayor to apologize or resign.[37]

               Shaw would not apologize; instead he now argued that his actions were misunderstood. His call for a grand jury was to deal “with problems on the beach of which homosexuals are only a small portion." He continued, "They’re the ones seeking to get mileage out of something that does not exist.” Moreover he denied that he or his city administration ever harassed homosexuals. “If they have specific charges of wrongdoing, we’ll investigate them.” Shaw’s actions, however, attracted attention in the national and international gay press. The Gay Community News, one of the major gay national newspapers, published a story headlined “’Creeping ‘Gay-ism’ Stirs Fort Lauderdale." According to the article, “the reaction of the previously unpoliticized gay community was swift,” citing as an example the formation of the Broward County Coalition for Human Rights, whose first task would be to organize a voter registration drive to defeat Shaw in the upcoming election. In a story headlined, “’City is too Gay”'--Mayor,” the London based Gay News noted, “They’re getting worried down in Florida USA. It seems that Fort Lauderdale is becoming too gay for comfort.”[38]

               Signaling the end of controversy, The Fort Lauderdale News rebuked Shaw in an editorial for “Hip-Shooting” on the issue of homosexual beach resorts. The newspaper noted that while there were legitimate concerns, his over-reaction to the gay hotels and his call for a grand jury investigation of “homosexual and male prostitutes on Fort Lauderdale Beach,” without consulting with his city manager and the police, brought unwelcome national attention to the city, which was “the opposite of what he intended," since "Fort Lauderdale beach has long been an attraction for the tourist.” While two of the beach hotels cater to homosexuals, “the gathering of gays is no greater than at any other of the large beach resorts areas.”[39]

               After the press conference, Bob Kunst returned to Miami. That spring he played a very visible media role in the campaign led by Anita Bryant to repeal the recently passed county non-discrimination ordinance. The Broward County Coalition for Human Rights continued its political work, soon to be accompanied by other similar organizations. E. Clay Shaw remained as mayor and went on to be elected in 1980 to the first of thirteen terms in Congress. His district comprised mostly the beach area in Broward and Palm Beach counties, including the neighborhood where the Marlin Beach Hotel was located.

               As for the Marlin Beach, the expected rash of city hotel inspections never occurred and for a the next nine years the hotel continued being one of the nation’s most popular gay resort hotels. It also served as an important center for gay community activities, organizations, and fundraisers. One of the county’s first AIDS organization and counseling center was started in a room by the pool and the hotel hosted AIDS fundraisers. With other gay hotels and guest houses opening in Fort Lauderdale, with the AIDS crisis beginning to reduce its business, and with the beach area becoming more seedy with hustlers and street people, the management decided to go straight. In 1986 it changed its name to the Spring Break Hotel, trying to attract the spring break crowd. In 1986, however, after many years of trying, the city put an end to the invasions of rowdy students and the spring break business quickly dried up. The hotel tried to return to its gay clientele and spent money on renovations and advertising in gay magazines, but the business was not there. New gay guest houses were increasingly popular with the upscale tourists that the hotel used to attract. The hotel limped on until 1991, when it went bankrupt and was sold in foreclosure.

               It did not, however, go quietly. Its closing in 1992 was marked with a two-day blow out party with over 5,000 people, including local community residents who came to the Sunday tea dances, people who had stayed there as guests, and those who worked there as bartenders, housekeepers, front desk people, and groundkeepers. Many of the South Florida female impersonators, entertainers, and musicians who got their start there came back to entertain the crowd there one last time. As one guest noted, “They came to say good to the Grand Old Lady.” Pieces of the resort were offered as souvenirs. In a few months, the Marlin Beach was bulldozed, along with a number of other hotels on the beach, to make way for BeachPlace, a new condominium complex with an open-air courtyard filled with restaurants and shops.

               The gay beach remains, but because the BeachPlace complex blocked the afternoon sun, it moved one block north to a more sunny portion of the beach. It is called Sebastian Beach after the nearby Sebastian Street (and for gay men, the iconic martyr St. Sebastian). Reflecting the importance of the gay community in Fort Lauderdale today, it is featured prominently as part of the city's tourist promotion.[40] In 2018, Dean Trantalis, who had been a gay community activist since the 1980s, was elected the mayor of Fort Lauderdale with 64% of the vote. The gay "presence" had become a "community."

[24] “Shaw Seeks Jury Probe of Beach ‘Gay’ Activity,” Fort Lauderdale News, November 25, 1976.

[25] “Mayor Shaw is Adamant: The City’s Gays Must Go,” Fort Lauderdale News, November 30, 1976.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Fejes, Gay Rights and Moral Panic, 66.

[28] “She Watched the Neighborhood Change,” Fort Lauderdale News, November 1 1976; “Mixed Emotions over Beach Area Used by Gays,” Fort Lauderdale News, November 29, 1976.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Mayor Shaw is Adamant.”

[31] “We are An Asset to the Community,” Fort Lauderdale News, December 1, 1976.

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Gays Stay Here ‘in Closet’ but Wield Political Clout,” Fort Lauderdale News, October 14, 1979.

[34] The original name Broward/Dade for Humanistic Rights, a suggestion of Kunst’s, was soon dropped after Kunst left.

[35] Fejes, Gay Rights and Moral Panic, 67-71; “Gay Group to Ask Shaw’s Resignation at City Hall Rally,” Fort Lauderdale News, December 2, 1976.

[36] “Officials Reject Grand Jury Probe of Gays,” Fort Lauderdale News, November 30, 1976.

[37] “Gays to Shaw: Apologize or Quit,” Fort Lauderdale News, December 3, 1976.

[38] “‘Creeping Gay-ism’ Stirs Fort Lauderdale, Gay Community News (Boston), December 25, 1976; “‘City Is Too Gay’- Mayor, Gay News (London), #116, March 24, 1977.

[39] “It’s Our Opinion: Hip-Shooting on Homosexuals Stirs Backlash,” Fort Lauderdale News, December 3, 1976.

[40] “Marlin Beach Resort Closing Draws Thousands,” Fort Lauderdale News, April 22, 1992; Dan Santoro, Where the Boys (and Girls) Were (Morrisville, NC: Lulu, 2015), 233-235.