When the Christian Coalition began to look around three years ago for constituencies to support the repeal of Miami’s gay-rights law, they might have cast hungry looks at the area’s Cubans. After all, Miami’s Cuban-Americans are famous around the world for the degree of their right-wing tilt; on communism and Cuba, if they went much further to the right they would fall over.
Instead, with matters coming to a head and a repeal measure going before voters on September 10, something strange and wonderful has happened: A large number of right-wing Cubans have come out firmly in support of lesbian and gay civil rights.
Miami-Dade County’s gay rights law was only passed in 1998, very late for such a big metropolis. The reason it came so late was that Anita Bryant, in one of the worst defeats this country’s gay rights movement has ever known, led a campaign that overturned a similar local ordinance here by devastating margins in 1977. Bryant’s venomous Save Our Children campaign, which coined the slogan, “Homosexuals cannot reproduce so they must recruit,” sparked the repeal of nondiscrimination laws in three other cities, and setbacks and antigay campaigns in many more. Bryant’s nationally prominent blitz was the first organized, well-funded opposition to gay civil rights in America. If it dealt a body blow to gay people nationally, it killed the gay movement here for some twenty years.
Miami’s small gay and lesbian movement finally pushed through an amendment to a human rights law four years ago that protects people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing, credit and accommodations. It was almost immediately the subject of a repeal effort by the Christian Coalition and a related, ad hoc group called Take Back Miami-Dade. Stakes are high for this ballot fight, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign, the two major national gay political groups, have both gotten involved, sending staff, scores of volunteers and money. The national religious right has also gotten involved, on the other side; in addition to the Christian Coalition’s help, the repeal effort has been represented legally in its petition battles by the American Family Association’s Center for Law and Policy out of Tupelo, Mississippi.
But it’s unclear why the right backed the local leaders it did. Take Back’s Cuban leader, Eladio Jose Armesto, is a figure of fun and a source of embarrassment in the Cuban community because of his penchant for loose-cannon comments–he is the rare sort of Christian Coalition ally who enjoys saying “butt-fuck” to the press–and because of a Miami police affidavit alleging that he once beat his pregnant wife with a wooden hanger, earning him the nickname El Percherito (the Little Hanger) even though the charges were eventually dismissed.
Perhaps there wasn’t much choice in local activists, or perhaps the right was simply banking, as many leftists would have, on the reactionary reputation of Cuban-Americans. If the latter, they have been disappointed. Cuban-American support for the progay side has extended from major Republican donors Sergio Pino and Remedios Diaz-Oliver to Joe García, the head of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the pre-eminent anti-Castro group in the United States. “I think [the gay rights law] is a good thing,” García told The Nation. “I think it’s good for the community.” Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, who famously told federal authorities they would be to blame if violence broke out over Elián, has joined the No to Discrimination/SAVE Dade Committee, made up of notables who support gay rights. One of the area’s two Cuban Republican members of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who vociferously fought the effort to recount Dade County’s Gore ballots in 2000 and who had a poor record on gay rights until last year, is also opposing the repeal. A very substantial portion of the funds raised to fight the repeal have come from the conservative Cuban-American business establishment. In polls conducted by SAVE Dade, the group fighting the referendum, Cuban-Americans came in at 63 percent against repeal.