Miami Heat

Miami Heat

An antigay ballot initiative spurs some surprising political coalitions.


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.

Making matters worse for the antigay side, local Christian Coalition head Anthony Verdugo, who is also a board member of Take Back Miami-Dade, was arrested on August 16 after a yearlong investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for committing fraud with signatures on referendum petitions. Three Christian Coalition volunteers were arrested on similar charges. Still, no major contests are on the ballot September 10, and only the strongly motivated are expected to vote. And polls on gay-rights questions, like those asking white voters about black candidates, frequently overestimate support because voters are embarrassed to admit discriminatory views.

Meanwhile, class and ethnic tensions in Miami are playing out with gays as the battleground. The two groups most lacking in political connections and economic clout–African-Americans and poorer, evangelical Latinos, mostly from countries other than Cuba–have provided the biggest base of support for the repeal effort. Take Back’s rallies mostly draw poor, relatively recent immigrants from Central America; and African-Americans, many of whom resent Cubans’ power in the city, have provided a great deal of organizational backing. Two influential black activist groups–the African-American Council of Christian Clergy, and People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, or PULSE–have signed on, and AACCC in particular could sway voters because it represents some 300 ministers from churches throughout the county. AACCC’s executive director, the Rev. Richard Bennett Jr., told the Miami New Times, “We’re trying to get out, like, 50,000 fliers to the churches, and I’m contacting the pastors asking them to make an announcement from their church pulpit…and ask [their] congregation to vote ‘Yes’ on the repeal.”

This curious situation–the Cuban right coming out for gay rights, while poorer communities of color are lined up against it–reflects Miami’s unique circumstances as well as gay activists’ success, and failure, at making their movement multiracial.

The world-historical shift in attitudes toward gays among the Cuban right is the result of a number of factors. Chief among them is the excellent organizing accomplished over the past nine years by Miami’s Cuban-American gays and lesbians, who have worked hard at winning over heterosexual Cubans. The most successful and tireless coalition-builder has been Jorge Mursuli, who himself reflects the unique contradictions of political life in Miami. Mursuli, who was executive director of SAVE Dade when it successfully campaigned to pass the gay rights law in 1997 and 1998, is now Florida director of People for the American Way; he is a Republican, a self-described progressive, an openly gay man and a Castro-hater who virulently opposed the return of Elián González to his father. In an interview for this article, he compared the one local pro-Cuba radio station, Radio Progreso, to “a pro-Nazi radio station in a Jewish neighborhood.”

A large percentage of SAVE Dade’s activists are Cuban, and after Mursuli left the helm last year, one of his two replacement co-chairs was a Nicaraguan gay man whose parents came here because of fears about the Sandinista revolution. “The thing that’s been unique in Dade County is that the leadership of the gay and lesbian community has for the most part been Cuban-American,” says Juan Carlos Espinoza, a political scientist who consults for the City of Miami. In fact, there were no significant gay and lesbian political groups in the county until the mid-1990s, when large numbers of Cubans came out.

Castro’s persecution of gays helped bring the issue home for straight Cubans–for years, gays and lesbians were put in labor camps, jailed or arrested (in the case of men) for looking too femme. So did the coming-out of family members. “Support for members of one’s family is really strong in this community,” says Espinoza, a gay, Cuban-American leftist. “So when people in their family came out, lots of Cuban-Americans started changing their minds.” Business has been afraid of losing gay tourist dollars. But what finally brought the right wing around was Elián.

“Elián was a great loss for our community, and everyone realizes it,” says the Cuban American National Foundation’s García. “Our rhetoric was out of tune.” Nearly all observers say the Cuban right has been trying to appear substantially more progressive ever since, and that backing gay rights was seen as an appealing way to accomplish this. “Everybody matures,” says García. “Everybody grows older and wiser.”

García, in fact, was brought in to head CANF in 2000 to make it seem “more palatable” and progressive to non-Cubans, according to Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University who heads the Metropolitan Center, which studies local political developments.

While the Cuban establishment’s embrace of gay rights reflects positive changes in both gay and Cuban politics, the failure of a similar shift to take hold in the black community reflects a converse failure in black and gay organizing. White-dominated gay activism here only became open to gay Cubans because it had to; in a town where African-American gays and lesbians reportedly have the greatest difficulty coming out, SAVE Dade remains Latino and white in leadership.

The gay political movement is still so new here, and so chastened by Bryant’s victory twenty-five years ago, that it falls over backward trying to present a mainstream image. SAVE Dade has loudly trumpeted its ties to business and the power structure, with the result that those who feel most alienated from these things–local blacks and the poor–have been open to the most crudely divisive of antigay pitches. “Martin Luther King Jr. would be outraged” by gay activism, Take Back’s leaflets say. “Homosexuals’ income is nearly five times that of AFRICAN-AMERICANS!” Neither assertion is true, but in Miami on September 10, it could appear enough that way to hurt all interested communities.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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