Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Marlin Beach Affair: When Fort Lauderdale’s LGBT Community First Stood Up.

 Although the LGBT community has been  a part of the Fort Lauderdale even before it became  a place on the map, it was only in the 1970s that  it emerged as a visible community. Riverside and Sailboat Bend, with its Key West ambiance, were  the first neighborhoods with sizable  concentrations of lesbians and gay men. Organizations like the Metropolitan Community Church provided one of the earliest gathering places  where lesbians and gay men could come together and worship. Bars such as Tacky’s   and the Everglades provided popular social meeting places.  And  gay owned local businesses like photographers, printing shops and restaurants began to to advertise openly.

For the most part the emerging gay presence was  ignored by the larger heterosexual  community.   In the 1954 when Miami went through a brief period of “moral panic” about the city’s gay bars, public officials in Fort Lauderdale assured the citizens that there were  no threats and they had the situation under control. In 1967 there was a well publicized  Grand Jury investigation about crime and homosexuality in Broward.   Yet, nothing much came of it. The Fort Lauderdale News ran a multi-part series on homosexuality in Broward noted for its lack of sensationalism and tepidness.  When the report was released its major outcome was to indict  a well know  local crime figure for gambling. Homosexuality was an ignored footnote.   Since then, although there were occasional bar raids and  arrests  for “lewd behavior” in the parks or along the beach, the resort  economy and culture of Fort Lauderdale created  a relatively relaxed scene.

The warm weather and beautiful beaches  also made Fort Lauderdale  a perfect destination for the growing lesbian and gay tourist trade. While some gay men and lesbians opened up early guesthouses and most hotels did not blink when two men or women rented a single room, it was the opening in the mid-1970s of the  Marlin Beach Hotel as America’s first explicitly gay resort hotel that explicitly marked Fort Lauderdale as a gay tourist destination.

Completed in 1952 the Marlin Beach  was the jewel of the Beach’s hotels. Just across AIA from the  (the place where Beach Place is today)  it had  over 105  rooms, a stage and dance area  two restaurants, and a courtyard with a large pool One of the restaurants was downstairs and had a large aquarium type window  onto the pool, allowing diners to enjoy their meals while  watching  the goings-on under the water in the pool.  Both the hotel, and the dining room window were featured  in the 1960 movie “Where the Boys Are” that established Fort Lauderdale as the place to lay in the sun in the day and party at night.

However the 1960s were not kind to the Fort Lauderdale Beach and the Marlin.  With jet flight becoming popular,  tourists began to discover  newer fresher places like Las Vegas, the Caribbean  and  Hawaii. The opening of  Orlando’s theme parks stole the family trade. As a result  South Florida tourism began to decline. Fort Lauderdale’s beach area became the destination of spring break students  and others looking for beaches, warm weather, parties and cheap hotels.  With them came a large population of panhandlers, “street people,” hustlers  drifters and druggies. Like other hotels on the beach, the Marlin Beach  quickly  became  run down and  lost its glamour.

However in  1972 it was rescued  when bought by  a group of gay entrepreneurs with plans to turn it into a  top-class resort catering to the emerging lesbian and gay  tourist market. They spent   over $300,000 renovating it and in 1974 began   ad campaign in national gay magazines  promoting it as “America’s premier gay resort,” making Fort Lauderdale again the place “Where the Boys Are.”  

All of this occurred under the  Fort Lauderdale establishment’s radar. Neither the city   nor business leaders  condoned or even knew about it. However in late November 1976, the  Fort Lauderdale Beach Improvement Association, 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 Marlin Beach and its gay clientele, noting the hotel’s national advertising  campaign  and  its  reputation as  a popular gay resort hotel.  It   cited the  number of arrests of young male hustlers who were drawn to the area by the presence of the hotel.  

This  news  came as a shock to Fort Lauderdale’s 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 with 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 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 with 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.”

The city’s major newspaper The Fort Lauderdale News headlined the story of the mayor’s disapproval “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 , the Marlin Beach....will go straight.”

However Shaw knew 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’s of the Club Baths, Miami’s gay bathhouse, had successfully sued the city for harassment in their attempts to shut it down. He even won a letter of apology  and a promise to desist from the city’s police chief.  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 81 year old widow and 40 year resident of the Bach noted, “I can’t object to (the gay clientele) . They keep their place neat and clean and they’re respectful.”

Rather than target the hotel directly Shaw aimed 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 30 arrests on the beach  for disorderly conduct and other reasons. Of the  30,  only one  was for male hustling. In spite of the figures,  Shaw contended that male prostitution was a major problem on the beach, a problem  created by the presence of the Marlin Beach.

Shaw ordered his city manager, along with the  police chief and legal advisers  to investigate the possibility of creating  a county grand jury investigation 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 the to News, was to stop the proliferation of “gays and the businesses  they patronized.”

Ten years earlier, the threat of a grand jury investigation  would have been enough to shut  down the Marlin Beach or at least stop  its catering to a gay clientele. However it was 1976,  seven  years after Stonewall and the emergence of a  proud and activist lesbian and gay community, The community in Fort Lauderdale had grown strong enough, for the first time,  to stand up and fight. Moreover the straight community was beginning to realize that the rights of lesbians and gay men were not something they could dismiss lightly. as they had done in the past

The hotel management  responded to the mayor’s attacks by noting they had a  six man security force and  strict policy of keeping the street hustlers out of the hotel. Moreover they stressed that the hotel was an upscale operation and  it clientele included “doctors, lawyers,  professors, ...mostly middle and upper middle class people.” Moreover they  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.”

More importantly, there was a new element  in the fight. Joining the hotel management in condemning the mayor’s action was the recently formed community group: The Broward County Coalition for the Humanistic Rights  of Gays. Started  by local activists Bob Kunst ,Dale Moore,  Mark Silber  and MCC minister John Gill, it was the first LGBT political organization formed in Broward County to fight for the rights of  the LGBT community.

They along with two dozen other local activists held a press conference outside the Mayor’s office and  charged him with acting with political motives; he was up for reelection next year.  “It’s a nice political slogan to get the community hysterical  over it becoming a gay mecca.,” said Bob Kunst.  Accusing Shaw of homophobia, Kunst continued,”These political terror tactics are not going to work, The straight community gets ripped off by them worse than the gay community while the police are fussing around with us, the regular community doesn’t have the same protections...He’s doing this because he thinks the gay community won’t fight back. We will fight back . We are not going to put up with this  nonsense.”

Adding to Shaw’s discomfort was the conclusion of  his city manager and other advisors:  there was 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. 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.”

By now the news story about Shaw and the Marlin Beach had become a regular item both in the Fort Lauderdale and Miami newspapers. It even made the national media with a story in the Variety, the daily movie industry newspaper.  In an editorial The Fort Lauderdale News  criticized the mayor’s  for his “Hip-shooting on Homosexuals,”  advising him that he should first think before he acts. Speaking at the Coalition's press conference, State Representative John Adams of Hollywood called Shaw’s actions “dirty politics”  and pledged  to support  “the preservation of your (LGBT) rights.” The Coalition demanded that Shaw either apologize or resign.

Shaw would not apologize, rather he now argued that his actions were misunderstood. His call for a grand jury  to deal  “with problems  on the beach of which homosexuals are only a small portion...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.” In any event he learned a valuable lesson about  Fort Lauderdale’s LGBT community.

The expected rash of city inspections never occurred and the Marlin Beach  continued  being the  one of the  nation’s most popular gay resort hotel.  The Broward Coalition for Humanistic Rights of Gays became the Broward Coalition for Human Rights, the first county gay rights organization. Shaw went on to be elected to Congress and his district comprised mostly  the beach area in Broward and Palm Beach counties: The Marlin Beach was one of his constituents.  

For many in the city’s LGBT community, this was the first time they publicly stood up  and demanded to be heard. . No longer quietly content to live in  the shadows of this sunny resort city, they were beginning the long march of being acknowledged  as an legitimate and important part of the larger Fort Lauderdale community.

Image Credits: Fort Lauderdale News;