She was “Sweet Edda” in her senior years to a community that looked upon Edda Cimino as a trailblazer, a leader, the face to represent hope and strength and acceptance.
While “sweet” might have worked for the Florida orange juice that her foe, Anita Bryant, was pushing in the 1970s as the singer led a crusade against gay rights in Miami-Dade County, Cimino didn’t have that sweet luxury.
Instead, with her Midwest accent, she was a tornado. She brought change at a time when few wanted to hear a voice like hers.
“She absolutely made a big difference. She was not a soft and gentle voice. She was a strong, active voice — and she was something,” said retired social worker and fellow activist Joan Schaeffer. “She was fearless and she worked in the schools at a time when it was not safe to be open and gay and she was really a pioneer in working to make the world a safer place — especially for kids.”
Cimino died Wednesday , on her 85th birthday of pneumonia, in the small Florida town of Ococee, near Orlando, where she lived with her longtime companion Mary Beth St. Rose and “a surrogate family of dear friends from the last 30 years,” said her friend Marcia Lynn.
At her old Northwest Miami-Dade home, post-retirement, she loved to tend to her lush garden and practice yoga and meditation. At her new Ococee home, she replicated some of that experience. Her bedroom window afforded a gorgeous view of the sun rising over a lake, Lynn said. She had just returned from an eight-day cruise in the Caribbean.
Cimino had moved from her longtime Miami-Dade home two years ago but left an appreciative community in South Florida a lasting legacy.
“She was a dynamic, passionate force in the community in support of the rights of all LGBT people, adults and youth,” said Miami-Dade teacher and counselor Robert Loupo, executive director of Safe Schools South Florida. “She left an indelible mark on our South Florida community and the community at large.”
Cimino, a featured subject in the local Emmy-winning production of The Day It Snowed in Miami, did so for a South Florida populace that, at one time, preferred she didn’t exist.
That 1977 winter in which snow fell on Miami coincided with a story the Miami Herald published on the gay rights battle in Miami-Dade. A lesbian schoolteacher identified herself solely as “Eleanor” and said, “I live in terror that someone will learn I’m gay.”
“Eleanor” was the Chicago-born Cimino and she had a reason to keep her identity out of the news at that time. In the early 1960s, a police officer knocked on the door of the two-bedroom apartment near Coral Way that she shared with her girlfriend and the woman’s son.
Cimino was arrested on a morals charge. A neighbor reported that Cimino was a lesbian and had seen her having sex with her partner in their bedroom.
What the neighbor didn’t immediately reveal is that she had stacked boxes up against the Cimino house so that she could peer through the few unfrosted jalousie windows that were slotted high up on the wall.
A judge tossed the case and blasted the neighbor as “a peeping Tom.” But the incident left scars.
Cimino spent a night in jail. “I went into shock,” said Cimino in a 2003 Miami Herald story. “This was before the gay-rights anything.”
Cimino became a gay activist in 1972, even if she initially did so on the down low, studiously keeping her name out of the paper while she was a teacher at Booker T. Washington Middle School.
In a 2000 Miami Herald story, Cimono said a couple of fellow teachers knew of her sexual orientation. Cimino told them, in the teachers’ lounge, after enduring a round of gay jokes. “I know you wouldn’t hurt my feelings,” she said, as she leaned in, “but I am a lesbian.”
Throughout the 1970s, she regularly provided bail for gays. “I was like a gay hotline,” she said in the 2003 article. “If you got in trouble and got arrested, Edda would bail you out.”
Indeed, Cimino “stared down Anita Bryant, opened the first LGBT counseling center in the South (in 1971!), mobilized for pay equity, helped Florida’s gay teachers keep their jobs and much more,” wrote family attorney Elizabeth Schwartz on a Facebook post.
The Day It Snowed in Miami’s executive producer Joe Cardona posted on Facebook: “Edda's participation in the film was invaluable. It was an honor to have met her. She was an important contributor to the struggle for LGBT equality and overall respect of human rights in South Florida.”
Cimino retired from teaching in 1995. Four years earlier, she joined the Miami-Dade chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), an organization that lobbies for the rights of gay teachers and students. Soon, she was co-chairing GLSEN.
“I used to be ashamed and afraid,” she said at age 77 in the Miami Herald. “Now, I feel like I belong in the world. That I have a right to be here.”
Cimino is survived by her sister Annette Fitzgerald and half-brother John Cimino. She will be interred at a family plot in Chicago.
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