Each time I visit my parents in South Florida I am amazed by the evolution of the gay scene. It was an exhilarating, yet terrifying, time when I first came out of the closet in Fort Lauderdale in 1988. The majority of LGBT people weren’t out and those who were formed a tight-knit, supportive community. This was reflected by the standard bar greeting – a hug – which was offered to friends and even strangers.
The majority of gay bars were located in out of the way places, and once inside were dimly lit and drenched in a haze of smoke. The crowd skewed older because the younger generation was still in hiding. A subset of men used pseudonyms because they were terrified of being outed.
It was a more dangerous time to be gay. When one walked on Federal Highway to get to the largest nightclub, The Copa, there was always the risk of hurled epithets or bottles. On rare occasions, police raided gay bars ostensibly looking for drugs – but there was a strong undercurrent of homophobia.
AIDS had taken a heavy toll on South Florida’s LGBT community. Seemingly healthy people would be dancing one week and in hospital beds the next. One balmy August evening, I met a 22 year-old at The Copa. In my naïveté, I asked why he was wearing a winter sweater. He told me that he had AIDS and was suffering from the chills. Within two years he had gone blind, caught pneumonia, and died.
The threat of AIDS was ubiquitous. People were fighting the disease, taking care of sick friends and partners, morning the loss of loved ones, or still HIV-negative and terrified of becoming infected. The scourge both destroyed and united a burgeoning community that had no one to depend on but themselves.
It was also an exciting time to be alive. The bars were full of energy and verve. There was no Internet, so people could not meet after the bars closed and the only other option was cruising in public spaces, such as Victoria Park. Although, with a large number of men still in the closet, there were fewer possibilities to meet someone special, which created, in some cases, the loneliness exploited by the extreme right. (As usual, they were the problem, not the solution.)
By 1990, the scene had grown and largely gravitated to Miami’s South Beach. This was a time of gargantuan nightclubs, thumping music, and excess. It seemed, in my view, it was a grand form of escapism in the age of HIV. It was also a lot of fun and more young gay people began to gingerly step out of the closet. This trend was expedited by political radicalization with groups like Act-Up and Queer Nation raising consciousness and visibility. In the coming years, activist groups, such as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) would encounter exponential growth, offering a more formal face of activism.
By the late 90’s, the LGBT and arts communities had restored the glory of the once shabby and dangerous South Beach and turned it into an international destination. Rents began to rise and many LGBT homeowners cashed out. While South Beach is still a remarkable place to vacation and has a vibrant gay scene, it is no longer the Gay Mecca it was in its heyday.
The energy has now shifted to Wilton Manors, a small city near Fort Lauderdale that used to be known for its honkytonks and trailer parks. Today, the main strip bustles and bursts with well-lit bars and jumping nightclubs, such as The Manor. It has high-fashion gay clothing stores like J. Miles, and gay restaurants, such as Rosie’s and Tropics. While many LGBT newspapers are closing nationwide, the local South Florida Gay News (SFGN) is thriving, offering a thick paper with real journalism.
Today, there are countless LGBT college age youth who can barely fathom what life was like in 1988 – only two years after the Supreme Court upheld sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick.
The bar scene is more subdued and is usually packed with friends simply hanging out. The bulk of the cruising no longer takes place in dark bars or Victoria Park, but is done, for better or worse, with private phone Apps, such as Grindr and Scruff. AIDS is still a very real threat, but drugs that prolong life have diminished the immediate terror and limited public discussion of the disease.
The lives of LGBT people in South Florida are generally better, healthier, and people have significantly more career and romantic options than in 1988. On the flipside, this has meant a loss of community. Being gay is no longer sufficient to receive a hug at a bar – you actually have to have something in common with a person other than sexual orientation. This, it seems, is the price of progress.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”