Wednesday, February 3, 2010

South Beach Redux

When I was 20 I moved to South Beach. At the time it was a budding gay community that celebrated every new "gay" that moved into the neighborhood. South Beach was an interesting phenomenon because it kinda turned Miami's and the world's gay community on its head. Why? Well Miami's gay community lived dispersed throughout the city with its center of gravity located in the "funky and bohemian" community of Coconut Grove. Again an area of historical significance, unique historical properties, and a flavor all its own. "A Gays" lived along Tigertail Ave, Coral Gables and in South Miami. These "A Gays" earned that distinction primarily for two reasons: money and to a lesser agree...looks. However, money was the true source of their influence. These were professionals, old money and the like. They were mostly local boys and girls and Caucasian.

So what happened? How did South Beach change it all? Interestingly a series of unique events occurred that upended the old order. Those events happened nationwide, but were magnified on South Beach. First it was the fashion industry discovering "the male form". Second it was the AIDS epidemic.

Lets begin with the discovery of the male form by advertisers. Up until the late 70's sexualization of the male form in commerce was pretty rare. Men in ads were cowboys, businessmen or playboys. The idea that a young man, with six pack abs and a large endowment would be the image to encourage women to buy Calvin Klein underwear would not only shatter the taboo of male (semi)nudity but reinvent gay men's own self image. This is where South Beach turned the gay pecking order on its head. All of a sudden, the currency of power in the gay world was no longer based on money, it was purely physical. The beautiful boy with the six-pack abs was infinitely more "A Gay" than the attractive thirtysomething doctor with a manse on a canal in Coral Gables. The Coconut Grove and South Miami crowd were seen as dowdy and irrelevant in this new gay nirvana.

The AIDS epidemic. Countless articles describe South Beach as "heaven's waiting room" at the height of the epidemic. Young men from Northern cities with generous disability and unemployment benefits could live cheaply and well in a boyish twilight of beach during the day, partying in the evening. Again, in a world that is coming to an end, why would accomplishment be important? Nobody expected to live long enough to accomplish anything.

Well, the deaths abated. The boys grew up. The boys died. The boys moved on. What did the ghetto offer? Well on some level it did offer a level of security. To see gay people interacting with each other on a variety of levels: economic, social, politically was an important lesson. All these things were not reflected anywhere else in the culture. Despite all the partying there was all of the other stuff going on too. Group identity is empowering, ghettos give you that in huge doses. So its sad to see it change. But again, change is inevitable.