Broward County Replaces South Beach as America's Gay Playground

Backstage at Voodoo Lounge in Fort Lauderdale, a manager with a clipboard yells "Five minutes!" and the drag performers begin to scurry. They are readying themselves — applying eye shadow, taping body parts — for a packed Sunday-night audience. The walls are candy red, and the smell of smoke hangs in the air.

Daisy Deadpetals is the shortest queen in the room, but she stands out. She makes eye contact instead of checking her makeup in the mirror and wears tennis shoes instead of high heels. One of the most sought-after drag performers in South Florida, she has hosted the TV show Deco Drive and works six gigs per week, ranging from standup comedy to record spinning.

Although she got her big break in South Beach, Daisy has since done something drastic: She packed up her possessions, signed mortgage papers, and moved into a three-bedroom home in Pompano Beach. "There's just more work up here," she says with a shrug. "There has definitely been a shift."

Call it the great gay migration north. The epicenter — and the future — of the South Florida gay community might not be South Beach anymore but in Broward County.

"You just have a larger gay nucleus," says Steve Adkins of the Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manors now claim 150 gay-owned shops and establishments. The area also hosts the largest PrideFest in the state, with more than 40,000 attendees and 250 vendors, many of them corporations. Meanwhile, Miami Beach had no such parade until 2009.

By 2006, Fort Lauderdale ranked number six nationally for gay travelers, according to the city's tourism board, surpassing Miami. The following year, gay vacationers accounted for about $800 million in tourist dollars — 11 percent of the city's annual tourism-based income.

One reason for this northward trend is gay bashing in South Beach. For years, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) circle has discovered that South Beach isn't the free-spirited haven of gayness it once was. According to state records, 75 percent of countywide gay hate crime in the past year occurred in Miami Beach, a place the rest of the world sees as a big, happy gay rainbow. In a five-year span, the State Attorney's Office reported 26 incidents, half of which were in Miami Beach. Victims include a lounge singer who was stripped naked and hogtied and a magazine publisher who was viciously beaten.

In Broward, gays have found a largely welcoming community, especially in Wilton Manors, where even the oil change place, Mr. Lube, has a sign that features a man stroking the erect part of the L.

Backstage at Voodoo Lounge, it's minutes before call time. Daisy finishes applying her red lipstick and says, "I don't want to offend anyone, but I just make more money up here." Then she walks out of the cramped room and hops onstage in front of a full house. She lip-synchs, cracks a joke about Nancy Reagan, and pulls a plastic baby from her faux uterus.

Later, she teases a couple of lesbian out-of-towners. "Welcome to Fort Lauderdale!" she grins.

The makeup artist does not look happy. A bloody gash on his forehead is fastened with black stitches, scrapes cover his cheeks, and his eyes — once lined with mascara — are badly swollen. Tony Lopez hides behind a pair of sunglasses and explains why he looks so rough: "I got jumped for being gay."

Three days earlier, Lopez, a 29-year-old employee of MAC Cosmetics, was celebrating the White Party — the world's largest fundraiser for AIDS — in South Beach. He dressed up, watched a drag show with two friends, and ordered a vodka cranberry cocktail at Twist nightclub.

It was 4 a.m. November 29 when he wandered by himself to the takeout window of David's Cuban Café on Meridian Avenue near Lincoln Road. As he approached the line for food, an aggressive 20-something staggered up to him.

"Got a cigarette?" he asked. Lopez shook a Marlboro Mild from the pack and handed him one.

Right then, a gang — Lopez remembers four men — "appeared out of the woodwork." They shoved him into the alley behind the restaurant, yelled "Fucking faggot!" and began to punch him. He fell to the ground and tried to shield his head as they kicked him in the face.

"It crossed my mind to play dead," Lopez recalls. "I felt completely helpless and degraded." Afterward, he stumbled a couple of blocks and passed out on the sidewalk.

When he awoke, nursing a concussion in a dreary hospital room, he realized his attackers hadn't bothered to steal his jewelry, wallet, or cell phone. They were more interested, he believes, in beating up a queer.

In the span of two months — inside a small South Beach radius — at least three violent attacks against gay men have taken place. One victim was a European tourist who walked away with bruises. Another was a popular club owner's boyfriend, who was told "Get out of here, fag" before an attack.

After midnight on a February night in 1999, two young women followed a 25-year-old gay waiter named James Gentry home as he left Twist nightclub. The long-haired brunets taunted him before clawing his chest and stabbing him twice in the back with a knife. Cops called it "a random hate crime," and 21-year-old Besaida Cubias was eventually convicted of attempted murder.

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