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 in early March 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 Corona Fraud Scandal 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.