BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Miami-Dade gay activists and allies left the safety of South Beach on Thursday and staged a public forum demanding repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' at the iconic Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho in Little Havana.
"If we were having this discussion in the 1960s -- my father's generation -- what would be happening in the restaurant or in the streets would be chaos," said speaker Jorge Barbontin, 47, a straight ex-Marine raised in Miami by Cuban-American parents.
"In the middle of Versailles on an issue that may have been thought to be controversial in the Latin community, there was no reaction to it," Barbontin said.
The "Voices of Honor'' forum -- sponsored by Miami-Dade County gay-rights groups Unity Coalition and SAVE Dade, and Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign and Servicemembers United -- was widely promoted in the media and in Little Havana.
"We wanted to reach out to the Hispanic community and what better place than the heart of the Hispanic community, Versailles Restaurant," said Herb Sosa, president of Unity Coalition, a Miami-Dade County gay-rights group that operates fully in English and Spanish.
Barbontin said that when he grew up, his family never spoke about homosexuality. On Thursday, he publicly demanded an end to the law that prevents gay men and lesbians from openly serving in the U.S. military.
"We have better things to be talking about," said Barbontin, a real estate property manager in Miami. "Attitudes have changed. There may have been narrow views in an older time. The views 20 years ago aren't what we have today. And our views tomorrow won't be what we have now."
In addition to Barbontin, speakers were Yaletza Morales of Miami, Walker Burttschell of Miami Beach and Pepe N. Johnson of West Virginia, all gay service members who left the military under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
At that time, the gay ban was military policy and not yet law. After newly elected President Bill Clinton said he would lift the ban in 1993, it "became the hottest topic around'' Morales said.
"People were scared. I was not going to pretend who I was. I already came out to my family. My ex-husband knew," she said. "I went to my chief and said, `I have to talk to you. I'm living with a woman. I'm gay. I'm not pretending. You'll see me on South Beach holding her hand. So I need to get out now, with an honorable [discharge]."
Morales left the Navy without benefits just before the ban became law in 1994. She became a paralegal and raised her son, now age 25.
"I was nervous because I know it's a political hotspot. There's a lot of passion that flares there and I was scared," Morales said afterward.
The Versailles forum (”No Preguntes, No lo Cuentes'') was part of a national tour organized by HRC and Servicemembers United.
"It's the first and only Spanish-speaking event being done so far," said Miami political strategist Vanessa Brito, a Unity Coalition board member. "Since Florida is one of the states they are focusing on -- and Sen. Bill Nelson is one of the votes they need -- they're trying to mobilize the Spanish-speaking constituency."
Nelson is one of six uncommitted U.S. Senators being targeted for support, said Marty Rouse, HRC's national field director.
The Florida Democrat would support repeal subject to an upcoming study by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates of "how it will impact the military," Nelson spokesman Bryan Gulley said.
Brito said Thursday's forum was carefully orchestrated to frame the military ban as a discrimination issue, not a gay-rights issue.
"When you talk about discrimination to this population, it really brings the issue together. It's not about the LGBT community," Brito said. "Obviously we talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, but that is not the premise of what the veterans are talking about here."
The forum's success encourages Unity Coalition and SAVE Dade to be more active in communities that haven't traditionally embraced gay rights, said C.J. Ortuño, SAVE Dade's executive director.
"You have to take a leap and say, `Let's go into the belly of the beast,' '' Ortuño said after the forum. "And OK, the belly is not so bad."
New photos by CHARLES TRAINOR JR. / Miami Herald Staff
Center photo: Yaletza Morales in the Navy (about 1989).
Bottom photo: Yaletza Morales at Versailles