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From Division to Unity PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
November 2016

A heated Village Council dispute transforms a community

Tbigstock--125970608his Saturday, November 5, Miami Shores will be host to the city’s single greatest celebratory event of the year, as the third annual Unity Ball gets under way at the Miami Shores Country Club.

For those of you new to the area, the swirling, rocking Unity Ball, which will feature the Spam Allstars, is more than just a party to blow off steam.

It’s a community fundraiser where 100 percent the proceeds generated, more than $75,000 last year, are then plowed back into the greater Miami Shores community via the Unite Miami Shores Foundation, benefiting a range of educational programs, community events, charities, and improvements.

It simply is the best do-good party in town that has me reaching for the aspirin bottle the next day. (I have my personal Unity Ball experience down to a simple formula: Me + open bar = hangover.)

The Unity Ball’s history is a roller coaster in its own right. The party’s origins are rooted in the seminal event that arguably changed the political character of the Village.

In July 2014, the Village Council was asked to consider a nonbinding resolution that called on the State of Florida to support marriage equality for gays (it was prohibited at the time in Florida but overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court about 11 months later).

That July meeting heard a great many presentations by opponents of gay marriage who’d come from the broader Miami-Dade community to pack the room; their presence helped lead to defeat of the marriage equality resolution by a vote of 3-2.

Council members who voted against the resolution voiced reservations about whether the Village was the appropriate venue for matters that were the purview of the state and federal governments.

Miami Shores resident Dennis Leyva scoffs at that reasoning, noting that the civil rights movement in the 1960s developed from pockets of support that grew and spread, and that the vote was the first in any city in Florida against marriage equality.

The outcry, particularly from the Miami Shores LGBT community, was immediate and intense. In the ensuing weeks, major local sponsors of the Mayor’s Ball, the longtime predecessor to the Unity Ball, withdrew their support, leading to its cancellation and demise.

A chastised Village Council then slightly amended the original marriage equality resolution and took it up again at the September council meeting. This time more than a hundred residents attended, who spoke overwhelmingly in favor of the measure. The new resolution passed 4-1, with two of three of the original opponents switching their votes.

With the demise of the Mayor’s Ball rose the Unity Ball. The spirit of the first Unity Ball in 2014 was of activism and political triumph. The local forces in favor of marriage equality had made themselves heard and persuaded a majority on the Village Council that the resolution, while nonbinding and symbolic, was critically important to a large segment of the Miami Shores community.

But the issue also highlighted the real divisions around marriage equality that existed within the community, some of which are felt even to this day. Neighbors were pitted against one another, and honest disagreements on the issue quickly became heated.

Local resident and entrepreneur John Challenor, himself gay and affiliated with the first Unity Ball, reflects wistfully that the 2014 council conflict was unfortunate and unnecessarily divisive. Challenor says that a go-slow approach, one that highlighted keeping the peace and promoting the positive business attributes of Miami Shores as gay-friendly, might have achieved the same outcome, but without the division.

Others, though, look back on the upheaval as a much-needed dose of strong medicine. Despite the ugliness and divisiveness, it made the council acutely aware of, and in tune with, the character of the community.

Consider that Miami Shores, according to City-Data.com, ranks seventh nationwide among small cities in terms of the percentage of same-sex households (these are defined on the website as self-reported same-sex, unmarried-partner households). Only Wilton Manors (which ranks first) and Oakland Park (No. 5) have higher percentages in Florida. When seen in this statistical light, is there any wonder that the negative vote sparked an intense backlash?

Leyva recalls that the initial vote showed the council had fallen out of touch with the community.

How Miami Shores became a destination community for gays is anyone’s guess. There’s speculation that years ago, before the establishment of Doctor’s Charter School and efforts to improve area schools, local real estate agents marketed Miami Shores to the mostly childless gay community as an affordable, quality neighborhood.

Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that LGBTs have dramatically transformed the Village. “What’s the saying?” Unite Miami Shores member Giselle Kovak reminds me. “Once the gays move in, property values rise.” She also points to the LGBT community’s interest in renovating historical homes and promoting vibrancy in the local arts.

Additionally, there has been real progress in the municipal government. Village staff and the police have received training on how to interact with the LGBT community.

The Human Rights Campaign, a national civil rights watchdog and lobbying group for LGBTQ issues, annually publishes a “Municipality Equality Index Scorecard,” which “examines the laws, policies, and services of over 400 municipalities and rates them on the basis of their inclusivity of LGBTQ people who live and work there,” according to its website. To give an idea of the progress in recent years, in 2012 Miami Shores had an overall score of 34 (on a scale of 100), whereas in 2016, it scored a whopping 91!

This is a huge achievement, thanks in part to the original efforts of former councilmember and Chamber of Commerce director Jesse Walters and Unite Miami Shores. Their efforts generally occurred below the radar, but the high score is an achievement that arguably is a result of the tumultuous marriage equality debate of 2014.

The truth is that society’s acceptance of the LGBT community, and specifically gay marriage, has been the most rapid social transformation in my lifetime. Growing up as a teen in the early 1980s, there was nothing more insulting one could call another than a gay slur. And those who identified as gay were undoubtedly targets for bullying and harassment.

Fortunately, my own youthful ignorance and biases have melted away with the tempering effects of age and, more directly, as a result of getting to know a number of gays.

Personal relationships with diverse groups are really the very best antidotes to stereotyping and bigotry. Today when someone identifies as gay to me, it’s almost as innocuous as if they’re saying they’re left-handed. And think about it, isn’t that the truest definition of victory for equality?

 

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