For as far back as I can remember my great-uncle, Mario, stood out. He was the patriarch of my family — a distinguished gentleman who had put himself through the University of Havana and willed his way to success, pulling his entire family up by the proverbial bootstraps. He was ethical and compassionate, even-keeled and sophisticated. My Tio Bebo, as we lovingly called him, meant the universe to my mother, whom he helped raise. He was, basically, a third grandfather to me.
And yet no matter much my family relied on him financially, emotionally and intellectually, there always an unspoken chasm — an inexplicable distance. As I grew older, I discovered that my uncle was gay, though no one in my family had ever acknowledged it above a regretful whisper at a loved one’s funeral.
Almost 20 years ago, as I gathered his personal belongings after his passing, I came upon letters to friends with whom he shared his feelings and exposed his soul. His writing was earnest and wistful, reflective of the hidden life he was forced to lead. My heart sank as I grasped the fact that this man, whom I loved and respected dearly, could not be himself around the family he helped prosper.
Over the past 18 months I have collaborated with the Miami Herald and WPBT2 on a film called The Day it Snowed in Miami, which premieres next week. As I researched and crafted the narrative of our film, my uncle’s solitary experience weighed on my mind.
The film examines the peaks and valleys of the LGBT movement in Miami, from the turbulent and polemic 1970s — when the popular entertainer-turned-activist Anita Bryant was pitted against an awakening gay community — to the AIDS pandemic that indiscriminately left a swath of death in its wake and concluding with the 1998 passage of the human-rights ordinance in Miami-Dade County. The LGBT struggle for equal rights in Miami had lasting effects on the national gay-rights movement.
“Back in 1976, there was no organized gay community, per se. People did not identify as gay back in those days for fear of reprisals.” said former County Commissioner Ruth Shack, who proposed the equal-rights ordinance that set off the virulent opposition that Anita Bryant forged. “Gays at that time were invisible because they were severely discriminated [against].”
Invisible, perhaps, until political activist Bob Kunst came onto the scene and, along with Dr. Alan Rockway (and later Dr. Melodie Moorehead), challenged Bryant and her supporters head on.
“The revolution was fought here, “ Kunst told me this week. “All eyes were on Miami in the 1970s as we took on Anita Bryant. I realized then that it was a matter of time before we won politically because we successfully brought gay-rights issues into American living rooms and kitchen tables.”
Kunst astutely understood early on that the issue was simple: “It wasn’t a traditional, political left vs. right battle, which is how the political establishment erroneously framed it. This was clearly and solely about equal treatment under the law for gay Americans who have always been great contributors to our nation’s prosperity and defense,” he said.
“All we were demanding was to be treated justly.”
Over the past few years, the country’s attitudes toward LGBT rights issues have sharply shifted in favor of the defense of fundamental rights for LGBT Americans — the seedlings of that evolution were planted in Miami.
As a filmmaker I was honored to chronicle the LGBT community’s struggle for equal rights. As a Miamian, I am proud that the war against gay discrimination was fought here early on. And as the great-nephew of a gay man who lived a shrouded life in fear of being repudiated by his own family, I dedicate this documentary to his memory — I will always love and remember you, Tio, for the great man you were.