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The Folks Who Rule in Wilton Manors

By Jesse Monteagudo

palmtree.jpg - 11.57 K The election of an openly gay majority to the Wilton Manors City Council was not an overnight success, but the end result of a decade-long economic and political process on the part of that city's lesbian and gay community. After 12 years as Council Member and Vice Mayor, John Fiore beat former Mayor Sandra Steen to become Chief Executive of "the Island City".

He joins openly gay Council Members Gary Resnick, who was elected in 1998, and Craig Sherritt, who ran unopposed. The election of Sherritt, whom I first met in 1981 when, as a college student, he was on the Board of the Dade County Coalition for Human Rights, is especially satisfying.

Pundits were quick to compare Wilton Manors to West Hollywood, California, the only other U.S. city with a governing gay majority. But there is a world of difference between "the Island City" and "Boys Town". West Hollywood is a city of movies, boys, gyms, fast cars, boys, sex clubs, discos - and did I mention boys?

Wilton Manors is a town of middle-class couples who work hard, own homes and pay taxes; just like any other bedroom community except for the fact that many of these people are gay.

Though I never lived in Wilton Manors, for two years (1978-1980) I lived right across the border, in the SIR Apartments on Dixie Highway. "The Island City" was at the time a sleepy little town full of consignment shops and not much else.

The "hot gay neighborhoods" were then in Fort Lauderdale, in Riverside Park and Victoria Park. But rising prices in the latter and depressed conditions in the former led many of our community members to seek greener pastures.

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The migration of much of Wilton Manor's straight, white middle class to the suburbs provided the opportunity, and a rising class of lesbian and gay realtors made sure that the new property owners would be lesbian or gay. Fiore, who knows as much about his city as anyone, estimates that 30 to 40% of the 13,000 people who live in Wilton Manors are bisexual, lesbian or gay.

In Wilton Manors, as elsewhere, political power gradually follows economic influence. Fiore, "the elder statesman of gay politics," is the reluctant symbol of our community's rise to power. When he was first elected to the City Council in 1988, Fiore downplayed his sexual orientation to such an extent that critics complained that the man's closet had a revolving door.

Still, Fiore did his part to encourage gay migration into his island city, first by helping the Poverello Food Bank and Thrift Shop move into then-rundown Shoppes of Wilton Manors, and later by spear-heading the creation of a special arts and entertainment district that encouraged gay businesses.

"Fiore's track record of sensible community development and fiscal conservatism is widely recognized as contributing to the city's economic turnaround and a doubling of property values over the last 10 years," said the on-line gay journal GayToday

"Back then, I thought being gay would be a liability, but I wanted to be in office, so I took the chance and I was the only one out there," said Fiore to a reporter, during the campaign. "What I found out was that in Broward County, it's not always a liability. And what's happened here over the years has been like the little snowball at the top of the hill that got bigger and bigger."

"Me being up there [on the council] gave [gay and lesbian] people confidence it was a more liberal city. It just kept growing and growing," Fiore told TWN, South Florida's gay community newspaper. Gay business owner George Kessinger took advantage of the new arts and entertainment district to open his new club, Georgie's Alibi, in the Shoppes of Wilton Manor.

Georgie's Alibi soon became Broward's most popular gay bar, leading to a parking problem which should be the Fiore Administration's first item of business. One thing led to another, and now the Shoppes are home to Better Bodies Gym, Gaymart, Art Frenzie, Mustard's Restaurant and Russotto Realty, the greatest and most successful of the agencies that made gay Wilton Manors happen.

wiltonmanors.jpg - 7.71 K To Sandra Steen's credit, her opponent's sexuality was never an issue in the campaign. Fiore himself downplayed his gayness as a factor in his election: "The voters are more concerned about what you've done and what you can do than what you are," he told a reporter.

Still, the knowledge that his election would make history helped Fiore, if only by bringing out a large number of lesbian and gay voters in an election that otherwise had a small voter turnout. "It's an important milestone for the gay and lesbian community and for the city," Fiore admits.

"We have a seat at the table, and we are really a part of the community. Being gay is becoming a nonissue. When it comes to running the city, it really doesn't matter that I am a gay man."

Is Wilton Manors part of a trend, or an isolated incident? The LesBiGay and Trans communities have not been as successful in Fort Lauderdale, a larger city with a more diverse population. To this day no openly gay person has been elected to the Fort Lauderdale City Commission, and those who have tried have been found wanting.

The support of gay Broward's "movers and shakers" was not enough to re-elect gay-friendly Commissioner Jack Latona, who was defeated by challenger Cindi Hutchinson in an election that focused on Latona's pro-development record.

Even worse, Broward voters approved a measure that will expand the County Commission from 7 to 9 members and create district elections for Commissioners. This means that the lesbian and gay community, which is concentrated in certain parts of the county, would no longer be able to elect a full Commission, like the one that passed Broward's Domestic Partner Law.

I'd like to think that Wilton Manors is not one of a kind, and that its success can be copied elsewhere in Florida. Miami Shores is a good candidate: it is small, homogeneous (no pun intended) and has enjoyed a large influx of gay and lesbian property owners.

Whatever happens, there and elsewhere, depends on their gay communities themselves, their non-gay neighbors, and the powers that be in Tallahassee, which has ultimate power over all of us.

Still, we owe it to ourselves to pause and celebrate Wilton Manors's victory, even if we don't live there, if only as an inspiration for future achievements.

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