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Why a Forgotten KKK Raid on a Gay Club in Miami Still Matters 80 Years Later

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Decades ago, a raid at a queer joint made headlines and became the source of major public discussion. Those who conducted the raid sought to suppress a growing culture that made more visible those who transgressed gender norms and those who engaged in homosexual acts. In the midst of a local culture war, the raid represented an attempt to impose distinct moral standards for the community; for many conservative reformers, queer folks represented the breakdown of the area’s moral fabric.

In the long run, however, the raid had unintended consequences. It ultimately helped build community among those whom law enforcement could harass and arrest for wearing clothes not associated with their sex, for vagrancy, for lewd and lascivious behavior, or for any other of the broad charges they used to criminalize queer people during the era. The club became a site of resistance against the city’s conservative forces.

While lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) history is still only rarely taught outside of specialized courses in colleges and universities (although that is beginning to change), many Americans might think they know when and where this raid happened: June 1969, at New York City’s Stonewall Inn. The “Stonewall riots” have been at the center of the queer imagination in the United States and abroad for decades. However, while those events helped strengthen and consolidate the more radical impulses of previous movements for gender and sexual non-conformists, the description above was not written with Stonewall in mind. While Stonewall has come to represent a revolution, in which queer and transgender people fought back against the state and a society that participated in or had become complacent to the violence against them, it did not happen in a vacuum. Past moments of resistance created a solid foundation for its unfurling, and future examples would follow.

Eighty years ago this month, on Nov. 15, 1937, a raid took place at La Paloma nightclub in an unincorporated part of Dade County (modern-day Miami-Dade County). Unlike at Stonewall, law enforcement was not behind this Miami-area raid. Instead, nearly two hundred women and men from the Ku Klux Klan—wearing long, white hooded robes that both concealed their identities and struck fear—burned a fiery cross on public property and inducted several dozen new members that night. They then stormed La Paloma, roughed up staff and performers, and ordered the nightspot closed. They had been trying to shut it down for some time. At La Paloma, women performed stripteases on stage. Performers then known as “female impersonators” entertained paying customers, and effeminate men (or “pansies”) made crude sexual jokes to the audience’s delight. Gender and sexual non-conforming people not only staffed the club, they also represented a part of its clientele. As one contemporary observer recalled, “Homosexuals in evening gowns, trousered lesbians, and prostitutes” were among those who forged community in spaces like La Paloma.

The Klan became a visible and influential source of power in Miami during the 1920s when its members employed violence and fear—including lynchings, bombings and parades—to silence and purge challenges to white supremacy and urban authority. This proved especially true both during and immediately after Prohibition in Miami, where articulations of so-called immorality took shape through a prism of licit and illicit vice, changing gender and sexual norms, immigration from the Caribbean and elsewhere, and a laissez-faire tourism industry that promoted numerous forms of transgression. In this way, the Klan claimed its actions at La Paloma and elsewhere represented its commitment to saving white homes, families, women and traditions.

Local law enforcement conducted its own raid of La Paloma less than two weeks later. In fact, given the history of the KKK at that time and place, it is even possible that some of the authorities may have also worn the hood or known the identities of some of the Klansmen who raided the establishment.

In the end, these raids, and several that occurred before and after, proved ineffective in silencing queer voices and experiences. La Paloma, for example, soon reopened and, according to its manager, offered “spicier entertainment than ever.” One of the new skits rehearsed for its reopening was a satire of the Klan’s raid at its club, including performers wearing the white hooded robes.

Although wildly different, the reason the events at Stonewall and La Paloma share some general overlapping threads is that queer joints have historically been key sites of resistance, change and even revolution. There are dozens more examples of such raids: Turkish Baths (New York City, 1929), Cooper’s Donuts (Los Angeles, 1959), Gene Compton’s Cafeteria (San Francisco, 1966), and Black Cat (Los Angeles, 1967), among others.

We should not assume, either, that such raids are simply cautionary tales of a bygone era. More recent events, such as the raid of Rainbow Lounge (Fort Worth, 2009), Eagle (Atlanta, 2009), and perhaps even the offices of Rentboy.com, an escort service (New York City, 2015), make clear that these so-called “safe” spaces—even as they have evolved and transformed over time—are still hotly contested and surveillanced by the state.

They are also prone to massive violence. While the Klan did not kill anyone that night in 1937, the intimidation they hoped to incite finds commonality in the 1973 UpStairs Lounge arson attack that killed 32 people in New Orleans and the 2016 Pulse nightclub attack that killed 49 people in Orlando. These were all acts of domestic terrorism.

It is also clear that the history of the KKK is not a cautionary tale of a bygone era either. This past summer, several events in Charlottesville, Va., found the KKK joining other white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups in public rallies. Their hate-filled slurs targeted Blacks, immigrants, Jews, and LGBT people, too.

The raid at La Paloma has been erased from popular consciousness, but it fits into a long and rich tradition of queer resilience and resistance. To remember La Paloma is to challenge the neat periodizations that view Stonewall as a necessary bookend for a movement with rich antecedents, and I suspect many other histories remain buried in our archives. Milestone moments matter, but so do those forgotten stories. After all, discrimination and violence have many guises, and to focus only on one example is to risk missing the real story of how progress happens—and how much more work there is to be done.

Historians explain how the past informs the present

Julio Capó Jr. is assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His book, Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940, is out now from the University of North Carolina Press.

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