Introduction: The Marlin Beach Affair


Fort Lauderdale Beach postcard, c. 1975. All images courtesy of Stonewall National Museum & Archives, Fort Lauderdale, FL.


Fort Lauderdale Beach postcard (reverse), c. 1975

               South Florida’s modern history began when it was discovered in the late 1800s by the growing middle and upper classes from the Northeast and Midwest, seeking escape from harsh northern winters. Miami, incorporated in 1896, was the initial focus of development and grew rapidly, both as a city and a major tourist destination, until it was devastated by the Miami hurricane of 1926. Afterwards growth resumed slowly, but then exploded in the post-World War Two years. The postwar generations of young people and older retirees, aided by improved forms of transportation and air conditioning, moved into the area in large numbers. (The 2018 population was 2,760,581.) Twenty miles to the north, the city of Fort Lauderdale, incorporated in 1911, followed a similar pattern of growth, although on a smaller scale. It attracted tourists, retirees, and new residents seeking a relaxed and warm beach-side place to live. Between 1940 and 1970 the population of the city and the surrounding Broward County area grew from 39,794 to 620,100. (The 2018 population was 1,951,260.)[1]

               Along with causing the vast physical transformation of the previously uninviting swampy tropical environment, the newcomers also reinvented the area in terms of their own fantasies and desires. It was a site of exotic adventure for those wishing to escape the established rules and regimes of an increasingly industrialized society. Joining the flood of tourists and new residents were men and women whose sexualities did not conform to the dominant heterosexual regime of the larger society. In South Florida they found a place more relaxed and less condemning. By the late 1930s Miami had a thriving, but highly closeted, homosexual scene. In the mid-1950s the Miami police had a stated policy of not harassing homosexual bars, which ONE, the national magazine that advocated for homosexual rights, recommended that other cities follow.[2] Still, that policy did not reflect a homosexual presence that was accepted or considered legitimate. At best the homosexuals were treated with a stigmatized tolerance that was reflected in official policy and treatment in the mass media.

              As a state in the South, Florida was not immune to the surge of anti-integrationist activism that followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing racial segregation in public schools. In 1956 the Florida state legislature created the Florida Legislative Investigative Committee to find ties between civil rights organizations in Florida and the Communist Party. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, denied the Committee access to the membership records of the state’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Frustrated, the Committee turned towards investigating the presence of homosexuals in state universities and schools. Over the next six years the Committee’s efforts resulted in the firing of thirty-nine professors and deans as well as the revoking of seventy-one public school teachers’ certificates and the expulsion of a number of university students. The Committee, however, was disbanded in 1965 when the publication of the committee’s report Homosexuality in Florida featuring explicit photos of gay male sex caused an outcry.[3]

               Also reflecting the conservative atmosphere of the 1950s, the Miami Herald, the state’s largest newspaper and a power in state and local politics, used the kidnapping-murder of a seven-year-old girl and the theft-murder of a twenty-three-year-old Miami man by two teenage hustlers to argue that the presence of homosexuals sullied the city’s reputation, sending away to other Florida cities “the orderly, substantial tourists who can’t find the quiet and decorous life they seek in rowdy Miami.” This began an intense two month campaign to close the area's homosexual bars and drive homosexuals from the region. The Herald depicted homosexuality as an illness, a crime, and a moral evil. Bars were raided, homosexuals arrested, and the campaign was declared a success. While the bars quickly re-opened, the campaign achieved its goal of stigmatizing homosexual identity and would serve to characterize that Herald’s coverage of the community up until the late 1960s.[4]

               In Fort Lauderdale, concern was raised that the “homosexuals being driven out of Miami” would be coming to Fort Lauderdale. A number of people called the police to report having seen homosexuals on the beach. As the Fort Lauderdale News reported, however, local police found “No Invasion Here by Homosexuals.”[5] “We have nothing like that in Broward County,” the county sheriff  said. “For that reason we don’t attract homosexuals as permanent residents. They all go to Miami to be with their friends."[6] Nevertheless the police stepped up surveillance and a few weeks later the newspaper noted on the front page the arrest of a thirt-six-year-old out of town man (from Lake Worth) for disorderly conduct in downtown Fort Lauderdale. He came to Fort Lauderdale “hoping to find someone with homosexual tendencies.”[7] Yet no major campaign against homosexuals followed.

               Indeed throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, the emerging gay and lesbian presence in Fort Lauderdale was generally ignored by the larger heterosexual community. In spite of the unfriendly police atmosphere and stigmatized public image, the Fort Lauderdale homosexual community developed and grew. The 1965 International Guild Guide[8], the gay travel directory, listed four gay bars in Fort Lauderdale. The new residents settled in neighborhoods like Sailboat Bend and Riverside Park, areas noted for their Key West ambiance and run down housing, where they began to remodel and renovate.

               Indeed, in the 1960s homosexual communities were beginning to develop across the country and there was a growing national awareness of such communities. Following a 1963 front page New York Times story about the many homosexuals living in that city (“Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern”), similar alarmist stories on local homosexual communities appeared over the next four years in local newspapers. National magazines like Look, Life, and Time devoted major stories to the subject. In spring 1967 the popular news program CBS Reports aired an hour long documentary The Homosexual. Narrated by Mike Wallace and citing medical and legal experts, the show summarized society’s opinion of the homosexual as sick, criminal, shunned by employers, and incapable of having a meaningful and fulfilling relationship with a man or woman. The show was the first depiction and discussion of homosexuality on national network television and was viewed by over forty million people.[9]

               Given the media’s attention to homosexuality and homosexual communities, it was perhaps not surprising that in Broward County, when a grand jury investigation of organized crime was called by the State Attorney in spring 1967, he included an investigation of homosexuality in its charge. Some parents had complained to him about their children seeing homosexuals on the beach. The grand jury proceedings lasted for weeks and dominated the pages of the local press. But after the grand jury interviewed many witnesses, the major outcome were the indictments of figures involved illegal gambling. As for homosexuals, the grand jury found no evidence of links between crime and homosexuality and noted that being a homosexual was not illegal. As an assistant in the State Attorney General’s office said in response to an inquiry about how to handle homosexuals, “A ‘fag’ can't be arrested just because he’s sitting in a bar having a drink.”[10] The grand jury concluded that homosexuality was a disease that could not be easily cured. It could only recommend that measures be taken to insure that young children, particularly in places like the state hospital, not be exposed to homosexuality.[11]

               During the grand jury investigation, the Fort Lauderdale News, seeing an opportunity for a good story and following the model of other newspapers, ran an investigative series on the city’s presence of homosexuals in Broward. It reported that there were about a dozen known “homosexual bars” and an estimated 20,000-40,000 homosexuals in Broward. Among them were many doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. While it treated homosexuality as an unfortunate condition that had no likely cure, the series had none of the alarmist tone that marked the Herald’s coverage in the 1950s, when it was common to see words like “perverts,” “deviates,” “sickness,” “infestation,” and “colonies” in stories about homosexuals and their communities.[12]

               The more neutral tone of newspaper coverage was a reflection of how, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a definite shift in the national media’s coverage of homosexuality. Now homosexuality was seen more and more as one of the changes in the overall sexual culture produced by the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. The American Psychiatric Association 1973 declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness, for instance, removed any justification to treat it as an incurable sickness. With the emergence of the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sexual and gender diversity was now treated in more balanced ways, seen as an issue of “minority rights” and not of social morality.[13] The word “gay” was replacing homosexual as the common description and the homosexual presence in South Florida was becoming a self-aware gay community.[14]

[1] Susan Gillis, Fort Lauderdale: the Venice of America, (Charleston, SC., Arcadia, 2018);

[2] Julio Capo, Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2018); Fred Fejes, “Murder, Perversion and Moral Panic: The 1954 Media Campaign Against Miami’s Homosexuals and the Discourse of Civic Betterment,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9, 3 (July 2000); Fred Fejes, “Florida,” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America, ed. Marc Stein (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004), 404-408.

[3] Stacy Braukman, Communists and Perverts Under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1956 (Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 2012).

[4] Fejes, “Murder, Perversion and Moral Panic.”

[5] “No Invasion Here by Homosexuals," Fort Lauderdale News, September 20, 1954.

[6] “Broward Has No Major Problem with Perverts, Deputy Asserts,” Miami Herald, August 22, 1954.

[7] “Disorderly Count Nets Man 5 Days,” Fort Lauderdale News, September 30, 1954.

[8] 1965 International Guild Guide (Washington, D.C., Guild Press, 1965).

[9] Fred Fejes, Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The Origins of America’s Debate on Homosexuality (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 11-53.

[10] “Long Lashes Zinkil, Hints Political Deal,” Fort Lauderdale News, April 22, 1966.

[11] “Hospital Conditions Spark Homosexuality,” Fort Lauderdale News, March 11, 1967.

[12] “Reporter Finds Gigglers on Visit to Gay Bar,” Fort Lauderdale News, March 10, 1967.

[13] Fejes, Gays Rights and Moral Panic, 31; Webster Schott, "Civil Rights and the Homosexual: A 4 Million Minority Asks for Civil Rights," New York Times Magazine, November 12, 1967.

[14] Throughout this time, and up until the early 1980s, the South Florida gay community presented itself as racially anglo-white. It was only in the 1980s in the context of the AIDS epidemic that the Black and Latin gay communities began to assert their presence.