Fringe Moments in Florida’s Gay Rights History


In Florida, the Supreme Court of the United States decision legalizing same-sex marriage punctuates a long, sorted history of anti-gay tactics. To fully appreciate Florida’s role in the national gay rights debate and how far it has been dragged, screaming and praying into the sunshine, let’s look back at four of its not-so-proud moments.

    • The Florida Legislature’s legendary report: Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida.  In the 1960s, Florida legislative investigative committee went on a gay hunt and more than 100 college professors, deans and public school teachers lost their jobs. The committee also put out a 50-page anti-gay report, “Reefer Madness”-style. Sprinkled with bondage and glory hole photos and a dictionary of sexual vernacular, the report is a cross between soft-porn and a Sunday morning sermon. The legislative authors considered homosexuality “a threat to the health and moral well-being of a sizable portion of our populations, particularly our youth.” Salute to the Miami New Times for pulling the report out of the closet and reminding us that Florida’s leadership has always been fringe-worthy.
    • The Anita Bryant years.  It only took a few minutes for Anita Bryant to clean the pie off her face, but it’s taken gay activists almost 40 years to remove her legacy of anti-gay laws. In 1977 Miss Florida OJ made the state ground zero in her fight against everything gay. Her Save the Children campaign succeeded in getting the city of Miami to overturn its gay-rights ordinance and in getting the Florida Legislature to pass laws against gay adoption and gay marriage. Although the ban on gays adopting children was overturned by a court ruling in 2010, it wasn’t until Spring 2015 that the Florida Legislature officially repealed law.

  • Hillsborough County (Tampa) anti-gay pride ordinance. Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms, a rattlesnake of morality, led an attack on the county’s recognition of Gay Pride month after a few library patrons complained about a display on gay authors. The ban and following protest launched Florida into the national spotlight of shame once again. It also drove Tampa Strip Club King Joe Redner to admit he was gay, for the moment anyway. True to form, he sued in attempt to overturn the ordinance. (more in Fringe Florida)
  • The Modern Day Anita. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi of Katrina-dog infamy fought again and again to uphold Florida’s gay marriage ban as the sands of support disappeared beneath her. She even argued against allowing gays to divorce in Florida. The U.S. Supreme Court decision squashes her most recent appeal. Despite her relentless attempts to keep gay marriage illegal, Bondi has said repeatedly that she’s not anti-gay.pam bondi

Farewell, Dusty Rhodes

07_dustyrhodes_milestone_02-1132994868 World Wrestling Entertainment fans called him “the American Dream,” but Florida embraced him as one of its own. Dusty Rhodes, whose real name is Virgil Runnels, died Thursday after a fall at his Orlando home. He was 69.

The hair, the voice, the swagger, Rhodes was more than just a wrestler; he was an entertainer. In the 1970s he helped popularize the WWE form of wrestling with kooky antics and hyperbolic bravado. Although a native Texan, he found his groove in where else, but Florida. Tampa, to be exact.

Thanks, Dusty Rhodes, for making Florida even more interesting.

Image: WWE

Holy Mother of Rubber Mary

Just when I think  I have a handle on the most bizarre fringe in Florida, another morphs to surface. Thanks to colleague Craig Pittman, a chronicler of weird Florida, for forwarding me a Daily Beast piece on Maskers.  Maskers are typically men who cross dress in rubber masks and suits, taking on the appearance of a creepy living rubber doll. They may take the, uh, rubbersona of Wonder Woman, a French maid, and of course, Barbie. 1235248_626935767351367_1747132303_n

I actually spotted a masker at Fetish Con in Tampa several years ago, but at the time wasn’t aware of the term. The man looked like a blow-up Orphan Annie and was mentioned in passing in my book Fringe Florida.  I found him a little creepy, what, with the human eyes peering out of a rubber face. Think Buffalo Bill from “Silence of the Lambs” crossed with Baby Tender Love.

While masking is an obscure fetish, Florida apparently is a significant address in the kinky world of human rubber dolls, and I’m not speaking of Rubber Doll, the latex fetish performer who lives in South Florida. The DB piece profiles a masker, Robert a.k.a. Sherry, who lives in Orange County, Florida and was featured in the documentary Secrets of the Living Dolls which premiered Monday night on Britain’s Channel 4.  Robert, who by the way is a property developer, said he buys his rubber doll suits from a Wildwood, Fla business called FemSkin.  DB says FemSkin is “a family-owned and -operated business running out of Wildwood, Florida, where Barbie Ramos and her three sons build and deliver $1,800 realistic custom-made skins to clients across the globe.” That’s right. The matriarch of the rubber doll business is named Barbie.

Stay tuned. Something stranger is always just around the bend of the Florida imagination.





University Press of Florida’s Q&A with Fringe Florida Author

Take a Walk on Florida’s Wild Side with Lynn Waddell

Posted September 17, 2013 by flpresspr in Arts & CultureAuthor InterviewFlorida HistoryFlorida TourismNew BooksPublication Announcement. Tagged: . Leave a Comment

Photo by James Harvey

Photo by James Harvey


Q&A with Lynn Waddell

author of

Fringe Florida: Travels among Mud Boggers, Furries, Ufologists, Nudists, and Other Lovers of Unconventional Lifestyles

“I can’t tell you how many times I heard something like, ‘Don’t use my name because my relatives don’t know I’m into this.’” – Lynn Waddell

University Press of Florida (UPF): When did you know that you wanted to write this book? What led you to this subject?

Lynn Waddell (LW): It was a long evolution. More than 10 years ago an editor asked me what I wanted to write about and I told him people with extremely focused passions; interests that they obsessively pursued, be they collecting hand towels or building a multi-billion-dollar casino empire. There’s no such beat in most, if any, newspapers and perhaps not surprisingly, I didn’t get the job.

Without realizing it, I began gathering string for this book not long after I decided to make my home in St. Petersburg, after graduate school in the late ‘90s. I wrote about a few of the book topics for a Tampa alternative newspaper. Since 2001 I’ve freelanced for a wide variety of national daily newspapers, weekly news magazines and travel publications, including Florida travel guides. During the course of my paying gigs, I stumbled across some amazingly interesting people whose stories never fit within the pieces I wrote.  The idea for the book grew from that frustration. It wasn’t until I met then-University of Florida Press Editor Jon Byram at a travel writers’ conference that I realized it could become a reality. He showed great interest in the idea.  I got serious and crafted a proposal.


Available now!


UPF: How is your day structured when you write? What’s your writing routine?

LW: My work days vary widely depending on the type of writing I’m doing. I still jungle some freelance news assignments which disrupts my book work. News editors typically want stories the day before they assign them, so there’s little time to deconstruct a sentence or daydream about where to plant the petunias.

When it comes to long-term projects, I’m one of the world’s most unstructured working writers. I’m so skilled in procrastination that I’ve done taxes to avoid writing.  But that’s no way to complete a book, and I’d sooner stand on my head for 10 years than fail to complete a committed project.  With this my first book, I evolved to a state of time management just slightly better than a slug’s.

Having gained 20 pounds while working on Fringe Florida, I’m now incorporating exercise into my work day else I lose the ability to stand up.


UPF: Does Florida tend to lend itself to the fringe lifestyle more than other places? If so, why do you think that is?

LW: Most definitely. There are reasons unique to each lifestyle, but one common factor is the physical environment, the year ‘round mild weather and sunshine.  Exotic animals thrive here, so people who want to be around them move here. You can ride a motorcycle here year ‘round and Florida has more motorcyclists per capita than any state outside California.  Nudists can garden in the buff in Central to South Florida all year with only a few days of possible shrinkage. And on and on.

Florida is also the largest tourist destination in the world. Tourism hucksters have been selling it as a magical, exotic place to live your dreams for a century.  People come here to reinvent themselves and be whatever they thought they couldn’t be in the cloudier place they are from. I can’t tell you how many times I heard something like, “Don’t use my name because my relatives don’t know I’m into this.”

You also have to consider that two-thirds of Floridians moved here from somewhere else, which I theorize makes them more risk-taking, daring, than people who have spent their whole lives in Peoria or even the Bronx. It takes a special constitution to leave the people and places you’ve grown up with far behind.


UPF: How did you choose which Florida subcultures to feature in your book? How did you find out about them?

LW: I established strict criteria for including each subculture. First, it had to have prominence as compared to its cousins in other states.  Second, if it reflected a twist on iconic Florida such as the Holy Land Experience with theme parks and pony play with Ocala’s horse industry, even better. Third, each topic had to have a contemporary element and the ability to be experiential.

I came up with a list of about 20. Some didn’t pan out for various reasons. For instance, I spent a week in Miami trying to find an angle on drug culture. I ended up visiting a pill mill, which while interesting, didn’t fit within the tone of the book. I also probably over-researched the lifestyles that I did cover and ended up with such a wealth of material that I had enough for one book, if not a separate books on some topics. For the most part, I found the people through good old-fashioned reporting – going places and approaching them.


From Ch.4 "The Other Wild Kingdom." As evidenced by this bunny's bondage wear, sometimes one fetish is not enough. Photo by Lori Ballard.

From Ch.4 “The Other Wild Kingdom.” As evidenced by this bunny’s bondage wear, sometimes one fetish is not enough. Photo by Lori Ballard.

UPF: Craig Pittman recently made a list of theweirdest places in Florida” for Slate Magazine. If you had to make your own list of the weirdest places in Florida, which would be in your top 5?

LW: My focus is more on people who are extremely passionate about unusual things. I must add that for the most part I discovered that those people are pretty conventional in other aspects of their lives.

With very little digging and looking through a different lens, I’m sure you can find fringe anywhere in Florida. Fringe doesn’t respect city boundaries or state lines for that matter. I just argue that Florida has larger concentrations of it than most other states.


UPF: What was the craziest thing that happened during your explorations and research for Fringe Florida?

LW: Without spoiling the book, I’ll just say the pool scene at Swing Fest. Although I tried to prepare myself for it, there really is no way for a Vanilla to prepare for such things.


UPF: You were a research assistant on the movie Showgirls. Was that experience part of what got you interested in the offbeat and unconventional topics you gravitate toward covering?

LW: That certainly increased my interest and prepped me for exploring Tampa’s adult entertainment industry, but upon reflection, my interest in unusual characters and lifestyles probably drew me to Las Vegas, which, like Florida, has no shortage of fringe. I did learn quite a bit from working with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Watching him hang out with and smoothly guide conversations with dancers that I had already interviewed was reaffirming because I’m also not a confrontational interviewer. Despite Joe’s reputation as a hard-nosed reporter and sometimes difficult screenwriter, he was very disarming and fluid with his interview subjects. I also had a front row, and sometimes uncomfortable seat to the power plays in movie making, but that’s a whole other story.    


UPF: What do you hope readers will enjoy the most about your book?

LW: I hope that they not only have fun experiencing the unconventional side of Florida and getting to know people who do things that they may never do, but also enjoy learning the history of how these lifestyles grew here. Most of all, I hope that their awareness evolves with mine, that people aren’t always who they seem. Real people not so different than them live behind the late night punch lines.

From Ch. 3 "Sisters of Steel." Leather & Lace MC Founder and president Jennifer Chaffin takes a break from overseeing her club's weeklong gathering to show her bike.

From Ch. 3 “Sisters of Steel.” Leather & Lace MC Founder and president Jennifer Chaffin takes a break from overseeing her club’s weeklong gathering to show her bike.


UPF: What are you currently reading?

LW: I’m re-reading Jack Kerouac’s classic On the Road as part of a great citywide book club called “Keep St. Pete Lit.” Kerouac lived and died in St. Petersburg. On the suggestion of a friend, I’m also reading something totally outside my normal library: Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam.

UPF: Who are your favorite authors, and how have they influenced or informed your own work?

LW: I’m a big fan of Tom Wolfe, his fiction and non-fiction. He brilliantly captures personalities and situations representative of broader social phenomena. He’s so spot-on in his fiction that I’ve woken my husband to read him passages and say, “I know this person!” I wouldn’t embarrass myself by attempting to mimic his style, but I read everything he writes in hopes that some of his talent magically dusts off on me.

Being a child of the South, I’m a naturally big fan of Southern novelists. To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book. I can dine on the irony of O. Henry.

I have no aspirations of being another Hunter S. Thompson or David Foster Wallace and would never compare my work to theirs, but I’m working on loosening my writing and find reading theirs helpful.

At the beginning of my research on Fringe Florida I read Evan Wright’s Hella Nation: Looking for Happy Meals in Kandahar, Rocking the Side Pipe, Wingnut’s War Against the Gap, and Other Adventures with the Totally Lost Tribes of America, and Warren St. John’sRammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip to the Heart of Fan Mania (I am guilty of being an Alabama football fan).  I found both particularly helpful in introducing first person without being intrusive and mocking of those they wrote about. I struggled greatly at the beginning of writing Fringe Florida with allowing myself to be in the book and on how to introduce humor without coming across judgmental of the people I had encountered.Rammer Jammer was an especially enjoyable example of how to accomplish the later.


UPF: What are you working on next?

LW: I’m revising a Las Vegas mystery/parody novel that I wrote a few years ago calledDesert Fish. It’s about a young, Southern, female casino beat reporter who investigates the murder of a casino executive and uncovers the biggest story of her fledging career. It’s actually not as autobiographical as it sounds.


UPF: Do you have one sentence of advice for new authors?

LW: Marry someone who loves and believes in you enough to feed you meat on a stick while you write and not complain about it.  


UPF: Were you tempted to adopt any of the lifestyles in Fringe Florida?

LW: Mentally and even emotionally, sometimes I could follow people down the rabbit hole and get a peek at things through their eyes. It’s intellectually intoxicating but not to the point that I couldn’t leave.

I’m not a joiner by nature. However, as I spent more time with the ladies of Leather & Lace Motorcycle Club there were moments when I forgot that I can hardly ride a bicycle and wished I could be a part of their tribe. But I can’t deal with regular meetings and must-do anything, except for my writing.

Lynn Waddell is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, the Daily Beast, Budget Travel, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @FringeFlorida

On Scientology

Some have asked why I didn’t focus on Scientology in my book chapter on Florida’s unusual religions and practices. After all, it was founded by a sci-fi writer. It uses an electropsychometer, a device which looks and sounds like something from a 1950s b-movie, to help “clear” practitioners of implanted “spiritual disabilities.”


The church’s outreach group is called Sea Org and upper ranks dress like naval officers. And most germane to Florida, it owns about half of downtown Clearwater. The Gulf coast city is home to Scientology’s spiritual headquarters, or Flag, as the church calls it, being short for flagship. These are just a few of the church’s, shall I say, unconventional attributes. Solidly fringe material.

But Florida has so many faiths that fall outside the norm. I gravitate to irony, so I juxtaposed one of Florida’s oldest religious communities which holds séances and orb tours with the Disneyfication of Christianity at Holy Land Experience.  Little evokes “Florida!” more than a theme park.

That’s not to say I didn’t consider Scientology. During my Florida travels, I stumbled upon a Scientology gathering at one of their multiple buildings in downtown Clearwater. I got an e-meter demonstration by a Flag member wearing gold lipstick. I watched the church’s slickly produced, ambiguous videos on large HDTVs while the same Flagger watched me. I took their personality test, which another Flagger said showed I was depressed. (She told my friend the same thing.) My unplanned visit was quite enlightening, but after reading about the church’s response  to press and the South Park parody, I decided it best to leave in-depth coverage of Scientology to those with a legion of lawyers on retainer.

This week’s article, In Texas lawsuit, judge orders Scientology and its leader to stop harassmentby Joe Childs and Thomas C. Tobin in the Tampa Bay Times reminds me of my wise decision.

Fetish Con Revisited

It’s only appropriate that near the release of my book I return to where I began the adventure, Fetish Con. Yes, this is a convention with a trade show floor, conference rooms and all the trappings of bourgeois commerce, except Fetish Con vendors push everything from super hero porn to shock wands. Kinksters attend seminars on age play (think men in diapers) and how to safely beat their partner. The downtown Tampa Hilton (formerly the Hyatt) has hosted the kinky event since 2004, so long that leather-clad fetish models in platforms and a man dressed as a bumble bee standing outside the hotel don’t get second glances from the passing suits on lunch break. It was here in 2009 that I discovered that my state is a beacon in the dark world of sexual fetishes. No state outside of California, of course, matches Florida in kinkiness or business enterprises that supply the goods, be they fetish models, latex clothing, or human pony tack.

For the Bubba Rubberist.

For the Bubba Rubberist.

I met my first ponygirl at Fetish Con along with an international pony play champion. They weren’t around during my visit this past weekend, but I did find evidence of the champ’s handiwork. A pony play newbie from Deland was wearing some of his hand-crafted leather tack complete with a real horse-hair tail.

Gene and his new ponygirl at Fet Con 2013. Gene is sometimes a pony, too. Photo by author.

Gene and his new ponygirl at Fet Con 2013. Gene is sometimes a pony, too. Photo by author.

Holding her reins, Gene B., formerly of Florida, said he said he’s a switch, which in pony world means that at times he’s a pony and at other times, a pony trainer. His business card says he’s also into tickling, human pets, and human furniture. Like a good submissive, the vinyl-hoofed pony was quietly under her trainer’s control (pony play is an extension of BDSM). Plus, she had a bit in her mouth which makes pronunciation virtually impossible. When I asked if she liked being a pony, she managed a light whinny. Gene said he’s adding her to his stable of human pony trainees. Never mind that he now lives in Texas. Ponies will travel for the right touch. For that matter, kinksters of all flavors travel to Florida to fulfill the fetish fantasies. This Jersey/Virginia couple has been planning their annual vacation around Fetish Con for 10 years. They say it helps their marriage.

William and Karen keeping it unreal at Fetish Con 2013. Photo by author.

William and Karen keeping it unreal at Fetish Con 2013. Photo by author.

Fetish Con 2013: Not clear if Williams sees himself as the bee on his back or if it's more like a Wanted poster.

Fetish Con 2013: Not clear if Williams sees himself as the bee on his back or if it’s more like a Wanted poster.

Bernie Bondage Bunny of Orlando was also on parade. I first saw him bouncing up and down the aisles of the vendors selling dildos and leather whips back in 2009.  My only surprise is that it took until now for Fetish Con to make him the official mascot.

Bernie Bondage Bunny at Fetish Con. Photo by Lori Ballard. All Rights Reserved.

Bernie Bondage Bunny at Fetish Con. Photo by Lori Ballard. All Rights Reserved.

Welcome to Fringe Florida

Florida is as much a state of mind as a place on the map.  Billed as a wonderland, a paradise, an escape, people come here to be whatever they think they can’t be in the cloudier places they are from.

As a journalist,  I’ve immersed myself in some of the stranger and more iconic lifestyles for the book Fringe Florida: Travels among Mud Boggers, Furries, Ufologists, Nudists, and Other Lovers of Unconventional Lifestyles that is being released by University Press of Florida on Sept. 17, 2013.