The political battle lines were clearly drawn in 1977 when gays sought approval of a then controversial Dade Human Rights Ordinance, which guaranteed they would not be discriminated because of their “affectional or sexual preference.”
Opposing the ordinance: a group of conservatives led by nationally-known singer Anita Bryant, the state’s orange juice pitchwoman who lived in Miami Beach.
The dramatic clash — the ordinance was initially approved and repealed months later by voters — marked a seminal moment in the nation’s gay rights movement now captured in a documentary that premieres Tuesday night 3/4 at the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach.
The feature-length film by director Joe Cardona in association with the Miami Herald Media Company (MHMC) and WPBT2 will be broadcast at 8 p.m. on Thursday by WPBT2.
Its title, The Day It Snowed In Miami, serves as a metaphor: the ordinance that sparked the outrage was debated by commissioners on an uncharacteristically frigid night and some opponents at the time remarked that the ordinance would pass “when hell freezes over.”
The morning after the ordinance was approved — Jan. 19, 1977 — Miamians woke up to snowflakes for the first and so far only time.
At the time, then Dade County was the first metropolitan area in the South to pass an ordinance prohibiting housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexuality. Months later, however, voters repealed the ordinance by a 2-1 margin. It wasn’t until 1998 when Miami-Dade County commissioners approved the original ordinance in yet another dramatic vote.
The passage and subsequent revocation by voters of that ordinance sparked a national movement that brought the topic of gays and lesbians into American households. Some called it a national wake-up call for gay rights activists.
Miami Beach’s Bob Kunst, the most vocal leader, sums it up in the film this way: “If you thought we were a bunch of pansies ... you were wrong,” he says of his conservative opponents.
Bryant, who now lives in Oklahoma, declined to be interviewed for the documentary, but one of her children, William Green, who lives in South Florida, was interviewed and helps explain his mother’s motivation.
Miami Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez said the documentary is another way for journalists to enlighten the public.
“We are looking through the prism of the past at an issue that is once again at the center of a national conversation,” Marqués said. “With our partners, including sister newspaper el Nuevo Herald, we are using documentary style elements as another journalistic tool to tell this important story.”
The documentary, a second for MHMC in association with Cardona and WPBT2, gives a unique historical perspective of the times. The first film, which examined Haiti’s future and past following the 2010 earthquake, was honored with an Emmy Award.
In The Day It Snowed In Miami, Cardona and Jose Iglesias, an el Nuevo Herald videographer, who is the film’s editor and director of cinematography, trawled through tons of old black-and-white historical footage to retell the story. Miami Herald LGBT issues reporter Steve Rothaus provided expertise to help shape the complex tale.
As the movie evolves from the gay-rights tug-of-war to the events of the times, clearly another villain for the gay community is the rise of AIDS —punishment from God, as Bryant’s troops would say.
Another hit to the gay rights movement’s gut was the murder of gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who had visited Miami during the campaign to repeal the ordinance. He returned to California with a resolve to fight against similar legislation.
Also featured in the documentary is former Miami-Dade Commissioner Ruth Shack, the champion of the gay rights ordinance, whose late husband Richard was Bryant’s onetime booking agent. He had asked the singer to support his wife’s entry into local politics — and Bryant agreed.
It is Bryant, a 1959 Miss America pageant contestant, who plays a prominent role in the documentary as she successfully leads her organization, “Save Our Children,” and takes her fight nationwide.
One long-forgotten incident speaks volumes of the tension between gay rights supporters and conservatives. The impeccably dressed Bryant was hit in the face by a gay activist with a pie at a news conference.
“God, forgive him,” she prays in front of her attacker, obviously seething, as she wipes the pie from her face.