I Thought About Leaving Florida — Learning About Our Queer History Convinced Me To Stay

feature art: Autostraddle

The truth is, as hard as I ride for it now, there was a time when I couldn’t imagine living here anymore, too.

It’s not a secret that American students almost never receive the historical and political education they need and deserve in our schools. So much is left out of what we teach them: Instead of teaching them the revolutionary truths of the fight for civil rights and the labor movement or the possibilities that exist beyond white supremacy and racial capitalism, we give them a sanitized version of “how far this country has come.” We give them something to be “proud” of. In all our attempts to maintain the status quo, we purposely leave out the histories of the people who have fought the hardest to simply exist here, to get the care they want and deserve.

Growing up and going to elementary, middle, and high school in Florida wasn’t much different save for a couple of teachers who, in retrospect, did what they could with the tools they had to show us different perspectives. Being the compassionate, angry, queer teenager I was by the time I got to high school wasn’t easy during these lessons, but paying close attention to them did help me gather tools to both open my mind to other possibilities and embrace the fact that there was so much more I needed to learn.

Luckily, by the time I was 16, I was fully entrenched in the punk scene in South Florida, which granted me access to a world that not only helped fill in some of the gaps in my political education but also encouraged me to seek out more ways to get them filled. Like most of the teenagers who began organizing in the mid-2000s, the majority of the work I did was in anti-war (specifically the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), anti-violence, and anti-capitalist movement spaces. I worked with other anti-war organizers to plan and execute protests against the wars; I helped out in union spaces and helped people work to unionize their workplaces; I worked with other LGBTQ youth to try to make spaces for us to connect and work together; I worked with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault; and, with two friends, I helped launch the first chapter of Food Not Bombs in Ft. Lauderdale. As we worked and worked and worked, many of us were under the impression that it was the unique and exceedingly complicated politics in our home state that made all of our resistance so difficult.

The more I learned from the music I was listening to, from the people I was connecting to and working with in my community, and from consuming a ton of leftist media, the more I thought about leaving Florida for a place where it would be easier to organize and recruit more people to organize against our systems of injustice in this country, some place where I thought our efforts would “actually” make a difference.

When it came time to decide where to go for college, I decided the best course of action was to stay in South Florida and save up as much as I could to begin my post-college life in whatever place was as radical as I felt I was. Early in that first semester of school, I was invited to a local showing of a documentary that discussed queerness and the Christian Church, and that was where, for the very first time in my life, I saw the archival footage of Anita Bryant taking a pie straight to the face on national television. It’s not that I had never heard Bryant’s name before, but I hadn’t really considered her. Really, I hadn’t considered what it was like to be young and queer in Florida much at all either.

It’s true that — as a visibly queer or trans person — the threat of violence constantly surrounds you no matter where you are. But I do think growing up in South Florida warped my understanding of what exactly it means to be out and safe in the place where you live. South Florida is culturally and religiously diverse and, for one reason or another, has always been a haven for the freaks, for the weirdos, and for the people who didn’t fit in well with their places of origin. That doesn’t mean it’s free from the structural inequities of every other place. There is deeply rooted racial and economic disparity here which is constantly exacerbated by the often violent policies made at the local and state level. It was always difficult to rally people together to stand up against the police and the prison-industrial complex and for their Black and brown neighbors, the impoverished, the incarcerated, immigrants, and workers. Mostly, though, with the exception of my own personal and familial struggles and some run-ins with cishet dudes over the years, it never felt like the worst place to be a gay teenager.

Historically, the three largest counties in South Florida have voted for Democratic presidential candidates for almost all of my 34 years of being alive. Broward County in particular, where I’m from, has generally always had huge margins tilting toward the more “progressive” candidates. Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, and Key West, specifically, have been crowned bastions of raucous and debaucherous behavior, places where you can go to truly let loose and let it all hang out (no, really, all of it). For many years, Wilton Manors, a small island city just west of Ft. Lauderdale and my current home, has been second only to Provincetown, Massachusetts in terms how many gay and lesbian couples live there relative to the general population, and it is home to several institutions exploring the history of LGBTQ people in this country, including a branch of the Stonewall National Museum & Archives.

Ushered in through a back door by an older friend, I went to my first gay bar when I was only 17 years old and spent the entire night dancing with my friends in a sea of people we thought were just like us. I couldn’t find many gay role models in mainstream media or in many of the books I was reading at the time or at school, but if I went looking for them, I could at least see them out on Wilton Drive, wearing cut-off shirts, holding hands as they walked from one bar to the next. Because of these reasons, South Florida has always felt disjointed from the rest of the state and the rest of the South, which helped create and maintain an illusion of relative safety. In my young adulthood, this made me feel safe enough and provided me with the courage to be visible and loud in my community, which is to say that I couldn’t fully allow myself to hear the voice inside of me trying to signal that safety is extremely precarious.

By the time 2008 rolled around, I had already firmly accepted the fact that the Democrats and liberals of my county (and this country) weren’t very interested in justice, freedom, and community care. Ultimately, liberals are a part of the ruling class apparatus of this country and are just as afraid of losing power as their conservative counterparts. Just when a marginalized group begins to make some headway, they roll in with their backlash and their choruses of “We’re moving too much, too fast.” The 2008 campaigns for the presidency and all of the campaigns surrounding the policy measures that were put to vote on the Florida ballot that year — including Amendment 2, which sought to ban same-sex marriage in the state — really exposed just how far we were from the cultural and political revolution we imagined being within the reach of our lifetimes. When voting was completed, it turned out that Floridians, including South Floridians, voted overwhelmingly in support of Amendment 2. I can’t say it was devastating or even surprising. Marriage wasn’t something I thought a lot about, and I didn’t believe legislative victories could possibly ensure our safety, but I was angry at the lost possibility of it all and at myself for buying into the illusion. And the way I always dealt with anger was by trying to understand. Why and how did this happen? How did we get here? What the hell is the deal with Florida, anyways?

The short answer to that question was very easy to find. Like every other place in the U.S., Florida’s present is directly impacted by its more distant history of Indigeneity, colonization, mass genocide, chattel slavery, and racial capitalism, and by its more recent history of quick and drastic development, several booms in population growth, agricultural expansion, heavy immigration from the nations of the Caribbean and South America, Disney Parks and, of course, a never-ending stream of tourism and ecotourism that now support the economy of the entire state. All of these things — plus the general unruliness of the state environment and the people who were historically drawn to it — conspire to create a strange and complicated space that is as much an oppressive force against “degenerates” as it is a haven for us.

My research quickly brought me right back to Anita Bryant, her anti-gay reign of terror, that famous pie she took to the face, and straight into the history of anti-LGBT action and legislation that dominated much of the news coming out of Florida in the mid-20th century. For all the tolerance that appears to exist in the corner of the state where I live, the reality is that the ruling parties (and the domestic terrorist groups they encourage) here have always been deeply, deeply anti-queer.

People hold protest signs with phrases like "Protect Trans Kids" and "It's OK To Say Gay" and "We Are Permanent" written on them against a background of a Welcome to Florida sign and a palm tree

Art by Viv Le

In what feels like perhaps the most Florida thing of all, the conservative ruling classes of the state and the people who are the most drawn to it have always been at odds with each other. The people who moved down here because of its allure as a tropical fantasyland where they could free themselves of their inhibitions and pursue a life of adventure stood in direct opposition to the Southern plutocrats who were determined to turn the state into the “Jewel of the New South.” South Florida, in particular of course, has had a vibrant LGBTQ population since the earliest days of its development. As early as 1937, the queers down here at Miami’s gay La Paloma Club were fighting off raids by the Ku Klux Klan and the police and standing up to protests from residents who lived near the club. In 1959, ten years before the riots at the Stonewall Inn, Miami had already seen the marriage of a trans woman named Charlotte McLeod to her cishet partner at Miami Baptist Church. Six years after that in Tampa, the president and some of the faculty of the University of South Florida tried their best to take a stand against the infamous state-sanctioned anti-gay (and, more broadly, anti-communist) investigative group the Johns Committee by attempting to block their investigations at the school. Like many other U.S. cities throughout the 1950s and 1960s, LGBT people all over the state — from Miami to Orlando to Tallahassee — were fighting off the police raids of the spaces they had built for themselves.

While uncoordinated resistance was happening across the state in big and small ways before 1969, things really didn’t begin heating up until the national backlash against LGBT people began shortly after the Stonewall Riots happened. Shortly after the riots, the very first Southern chapter of the Gay Liberation Front was founded at Florida State University in Tallahassee by Hiram Ruiz, who brought together not just LGBT people in North Florida, but also feminist, anti-war, and anti-racist groups throughout the region to help push the fight for liberation forward. In 1972, Miami hosted the Democratic National Convention, and it was there that, for the first time in the convention’s history, Madeline Davis and delegates from across the country called for the Democratic party to make gay rights part of its platform. By the mid-1970s, attitudes towards gay and lesbian people were changing throughout the state, so much so that by 1977, Miami became one of the 40 cities nationally to pass anti-discrimination ordinances for LGBT people. That’s when Anita Bryant — then a famous singer, Miami resident, and the face of Florida Orange Juice — launched her infamous “Save Our Children” campaign in order to get the ordinances repealed. Bryant’s incendiary campaign and her ridiculous claims about the connection between homosexuality and pedophilia — rhetoric that is still rampant in our the halls of the Florida legislature and all over conservative media today — helped galvanize the LGBT rights movement nationally…that famous pie in the face moment happened in Iowa and the man who pied her was from Minnesota.

Bryant’s “activism” led LGBT groups in Florida and across the country to band together to lead a boycott on Florida citrus and Florida orange juice, which led to major losses for the industry and, ultimately, Bryant losing her job. By the end of the 1970s, groups in both Orlando and Jacksonville had already held Gay Pride Picnics in the public parks of those cities, and businesses owned by LGBT people servicing exclusively LGBT clientele were popping up all over Miami Beach and Ft. Lauderdale. As the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s changed LGBT organization nationally, it also changed here. In the late 1980s, the group AID Orlando was hosting drag shows and balls as fundraisers to help cover the cost of the work they were doing to provide assistance with medical costs for people living with HIV/AIDS and spread awareness about the virus. Not too long after, a Ft. Lauderdale chapter of ACT UP, helmed by a man named Barry Teeters, was making waves in South Florida as Teeters and his crew stood up to and got arrested for standing up to then gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush during his unsuccessful 1994 run for governor of the state. The next year, Teeters and other activists disrupted Broward County Commissioners’ meetings to get them to pass anti-discrimination ordinances in the county. Although they didn’t pass anti-discrimination laws until the 2000s, the 1990s saw more growth in the amount of organizing that was happening by and for LGBT people in South Florida, the rest of the state, and the entire country. Only nine years before I started doing this research, South Florida got its first large-scale Pride event in June 1999 with the first annual Stonewall Pride Parade & Street Festival in Wilton Manors. This history was so close to me, with some of it happening within my lifetime, and I didn’t even know it until I really started to look.

Because the more radical parts of the queer liberation movement have largely been taken out of the mainstream conversations about Pride and the ways many queer and trans people celebrate it, learning all of this — even the less radical parts — helped me begin to situate Florida’s queer history within a larger context of resistance against white supremacy. The more I learned about the history of queer resistance and the fight for queer liberation in Florida, the more I learned about the history of the fights for Black liberation, Indigenous liberation, and women’s liberation and about the history of the fights for workers’ rights and the preservation of the natural environment here, also. As I pulled the curtain back on this history that had been hidden from me, it became easier and easier to see how the various threads of oppression are connected, how patriarchy begets anti-Blackness and xenophobia, how anti-Blackness and xenophobia beget anti-communism, how anti-communism begets anti-queerness and trans oppression, how all of these things create a system and culture of repression that impacts the way we shape and structure our society and threatens the lives of the people who are targeted by the white supremacist, patriarchal regimes of the U.S.

Just like in the 1970s, the state of Florida, most of the American South, and the plutocrats who still run things around here have been back in the news for, once again, passing legislation that attempts to drive already marginalized people further and further out to the fringes of our society. The far-right ruling party here is trying their very best to suppress and obscure the diverse cultural and queer history of this place and to erase and eradicate the very people who made and continue to make this land livable and wonderful every single day. In addition to that, throughout the pandemic, leadership in the state has continually shirked its responsibility to the people here and has encouraged people who don’t agree with their own state’s Covid policies to move here to “be free.” Since the early days of the pandemic, we’ve seen the migration of almost 1,000 people here every single day, many of whom are coming not because of the tropical fantasyland allure but because they see it as a place to enact their fantasies of far-right political and financial domination. The dynamic is shifting rapidly, and I don’t think people outside of the state fully realize how that shift can and will impact them, too.

Due to the proliferation of social media, we have to hear and see — among some national outrage at what has been happening — that many “progressive” and left-leaning people around the country view the South and Florida as throwaway regions without unique histories of political repression and progressive resistance against it that has directly influenced resistance in other places. It’s difficult to sit back and watch this happen over and over again every time the ruling class plays their power games. It feels like the people who should be fighting against them alongside us forget we’re even fucking here. I can’t count how many posts I’ve seen featuring that edited gif of Bugs Bunny sawing Florida off the map or how many times I’ve had to read or heard the words “Let Florida sink” from some annoying Northeasterner or Californian. They tell us to move on and move out, to find places that will appreciate us and treat us better, to make a home somewhere else without offering assistance or considering what that would actually mean for so many of us who can’t or don’t want to just pick up and go.

I get that it can be easy to ignore what’s happening in the regions people view as backwards and regressive, and I’m certainly not positing that progressive people should show up for us by moving here. It’s just that without radical change across the country, without a cultural and political revolution, no place is guaranteed to keep you safe all the time. It’s a terrifying notion, sure, but the potential for revolution is just as conceivable as what’s currently happening here and throughout the country, and it’s not without precedent.

I never expected to find such a rich history of resistance here, but discovering it helped me recognize that wherever there is marginalization, there is always mobilization against it. Sometimes, we just have to excavate that knowledge from tombs the ruling classes have tried to bury it in. Once I did, I didn’t just want to ride for Florida or make my own home here, I wanted to fight for us also. I wanted to learn how to take care of my community and let them take care of me. I wanted to make sure that in the face of what feels like impending doom, we have the resources necessary to take care of ourselves and survive regardless of what those against us do. Living here is heartbreak every day, but there’s so much ebullience, too. Like the people who fought for better before me, I’m buoyed by every little rebellion, riot, and revolution they won, and out of all the possible histories available to me in the current moment, I know that this one, this story of the place that made me, has made me better able to handle the threats and challenges that come with ripping this world apart and starting over again.

So, what the hell is the deal with Florida, anyways? We, along with the other places people try to forget, are taking the brunt of far-right ruling class authoritarianism reiteratively, which means we are, as always, on the frontlines in the struggle to bring that new world to fruition. Join us.


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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 26 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. Cool. I just live in FL. Not a native. It’s not home. Never will be really. Just a place I hang my hat until I can return to my real home. I’m a Delaware Valley girl through and through. This place doesn’t compare. And yes – I am making plans to leave – FL and me, we are done with each other. I don’t appreciate, understand or care for the Southern way of life. It’s just not me. Lol.

  2. Hello from a lifelong Floridian! Thank you for teaching me many things I did not know about my home state! I love to travel but nowhere else will feel like home to me. I do my share of organizing in several organizations. Thank you for this tribute.

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