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'Queer Miami' shows often-erased LGBTQ history of South Florida

Participants ride in Miami’s first Pride parade in 1978. “We are everywhere.” Indeed. [Tim Chapman  |  HistoryMiami Museum (1978)]
Participants ride in Miami’s first Pride parade in 1978. “We are everywhere.” Indeed. [Tim Chapman | HistoryMiami Museum (1978)]
Published Apr. 5, 2019

The first thing you notice when walking into the new "Queer Miami" exhibit are voices. They echo in the background — and all around — and become clearer as you stroll deeper inside the HistoryMiami Museum in downtown Miami.

They are voices of transgender performers talking about their craft. They are the voices of gay Mariel refugees who carved a new life in Miami in 1980 after fleeing Fidel Castro's Cuba. And they are voices of protestors of gay discrimination ordinances in the 1970s.

Tied to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion in New York City, the exhibit looks back at 100 years of crimes and discrimination against Miami's LGBTQ communities and how they made their voices heard through community development, the LGBTQ rights movement and marriage equality.

Miami native Julio Capo Jr. curated the exhibit, which opened March 16 and will remain up through Sept. 1 at the museum, 101 W Flagler St.

"It's an exciting — and most necessary — time to tell these stories," said Capo, an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and an expert on gender and sexuality.

"One of the greatest challenges in studying LGBTQ history is that our lives and experiences are so often purposefully erased from history books and archives," he said. "As this exhibit will show, our LGBTQ community, of which I am also a proud member, has persisted and persevered in Miami since its inception."

Housed in a 5,000-square-foot gallery on the second floor of the museum, the exhibit uses documents, news articles, testimonials and memorabilia to document LGBTQ history.

A series of panels detail Florida's early laws and ordinances that criminalized same-sex behaviors as well as female and male impersonator stage shows, or drag.

Black-and-white footage captured raids in the 1950s and '60s at Miami Beach and Miami bars known for catering to gays and lesbians. There's also surveillance video of men sunbathing at Miami Beach's 21st street and Collins Avenue, a popular gathering spot for gay men in the 1960s and 1970s.

A wall of photos features couples and people holding signs describing their professions in Miami's first LGBTQ parade in 1978. In one, a man carries a sign that says simply: "Gays In History."

Archival material highlights Anita Bryant's statewide "Save Our Children" campaign to repeal a Dade County ordinance that banned discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals. (Voters gave her a win in June 1977.)

Nearby, a display reflects on the early AIDS crisis with TV footage of early diagnoses in 1981 and how Florida "had more cases than almost any other state" in 1983. Articles and photos tell the story of Pedro Zamora, the Cuban-American AIDS educator who shared his struggles of living as HIV positive on MTV's The Real World in 1994 before his death.

A display case holds T-shirts, passes and programs from The White Party, an annual Miami event launched in 1984 to raise funds for HIV/AIDS programs at the Health Crisis Network, now known as Care Resource.

The exhibit also dedicated an area to LGBTQ immigration and its impact on South Florida.

A video interview shows a couple, Luis Molina and Rolando Zerquera, recalling how they pretended to be straight to flee Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boat lift.

The men describe how they swapped partners with a lesbian couple to protect themselves from being accused as gay during their voyage to Miami.

At the end of the exhibit, where a giant installation of rainbow-colored ribbons hangs from the ceiling, visitors are invited to write their own LGBTQ stories on index cards.

"There are many Queer Miami stories. Share yours," reads a message on a wall.

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