BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Twenty years ago in Florida, gay men and lesbians feared losing their basic human rights.
To fight a statewide ballot initiative that would have outlawed local gay-rights ordinances, such as one adopted in 1992 by the Miami Beach Commission, four gay men came up with an idea to raise money: hold a big beach party off Ocean Drive.
“That was the galvanizing thing,” said Clark Reynolds, one of the four who created the first Winter Party on South Beach.
This week brings the 20th Winter Party. Since 1994, the one-day party has morphed into a weeklong festival for men and women raising about $2 million for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender nonprofits in South Florida.
“It was not envisioned as a multi-year event, but it was so successful that the founders decided to form a foundation to continue the Winter Party and give out proceeds to the gay and lesbian community,” said Reynolds, who planned the earliest events with his partner, Dennis Leyva, and businessmen Ignacio Martinez-Ybor and Stewart Stein.
The four will be honored Saturday night at the Winter Party’s annual VIP event at the Gale South Beach and Regent Hotel hosted by Good Morning America weather anchor Sam Champion and his husband, artist Rubem Robierb.
Stein says the beach party concept came to him after a July 1993 trip to Fire Island, N.Y., for the Morning Party, then the top HIV fundraiser for Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
“I had been visiting Fire Island as a guest of [finance writer] Andy Tobias,” Stein recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow, who wouldn’t want to be coming to Florida and having this oceanfront party experience in the wintertime? It was a light bulb going off.”
Stein, Reynolds, Leyva and Martinez-Ybor plus other local activists formed a group called SAVE (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone), which would fight the anti-gay referendum proposed by the American Family Association.
“We said, right, we do it in February, when it is freezing up north. We can get people to come down and fill up the hotels. The city will be thrilled and we could have a great fundraiser,” Reynolds said. “At the time, no one at the city could remember anyone doing anything on the beach. We set up a dance floor right on the sand. There were so few events happening at that time, they didn’t require us to get a permit.”
The four men did most of the planning. Stein’s mother, Jackie, who worked for the Dade County Fair, helped him secure tents and a sound system.
“Clark and Dennis, they were very well-connected in the community. They had access to people who could help with seed money. Ignacio had access to the volunteers,” Stein says.
Leyva stresses that all the work was done by volunteers. “Nobody was paid -- another little treat. Everything was donated. We would just have to rent port-o-lets and we would have to buy water.”
The first Winter Party on Feb. 13, 1994, attracted 1,500 people. Half were local and 30 percent came from New York City.
The party raised about $45,000. A Florida court threw out the antigay ballot initiative as unconstitutional and the money was given to seed SAVE.
“It was never only about the party. It was to change people’s hearts and minds,” Martinez-Ybor says. “We saw ourselves as agents of change.”
About 2,500 attended Winter Party the next year and founders started the nonprofit Dade Human Rights Foundation (DHRF), which would disperse grants from the party funds to local groups. The earliest beneficiaries would include YES Institute, (an anti-suicide project for LGBT youths), Aqua Girl, Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and Pridelines Youth Services.
In 1997, Winter Party expanded to a full weekend of events and the foundation launched the Miami Recognition Dinner, a fundraiser to honor local activists. DHRF became South Florida’s leading gay charitable organization.
By 2002, the founders had stepped away. Run by a paid executive director, the foundation that year gave more than $160,000 to groups that included the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, Pridelines Youth Services, Fort Lauderdale’s Gay & Lesbian Community Center and the Miami Light Project.
In 2004, DHRF, now called the Gay & Lesbian Foundation of South Florida, went bankrupt. Its volunteer board fired employees and closed its Biscayne Boulevard office.
“We left them with $300,000 in cash,” says Leyva, still angry. “I was outraged. It was a lack of oversight by the board of directors.”
Winter Party and the Recognition Dinner were quickly saved by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which bought both events and paid off the foundation’s debts. The group also agreed to keep two-thirds of all money raised by the events in South Florida, the funds to be overseen and dispersed by the Miami Foundation’s GLBT Community Projects Fund.
Since 2004, the task force has donated $1.4 million in grants to local LGBT nonprofits.
“South Florida, Miami-Dade County, was very lucky that someone at the task force saw the value in the Winter Party as a fundraising vehicle and took it on and nurtured it and ultimately made it better than the founders could have ever imagined,” Stein says.