History and the people who make it: Hiram Ruiz

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the 24th in a series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. Hiram Ruiz was interviewed by Jess Clawson [C] in 2012.

C: Hiram has brought some photographs that he is going to describe. 

R:  This photo is on the cover of one of the books about the Gay Liberation Movement, taken on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York. I spent that summer in New York. This was one of the first pride marches.

In junior college in Miami, I started coming out to friends just before I went to Tallahassee, in the autumn of [19]69.

In that era, you really had negative stereotypes: no positive imagery, no groups, there wasn’t anything on TV. So I went up to Tallahassee and some people invited me to a party in Cataloochee, a small town outside Tallahassee. It was the first time I’d gone into a gathering of gay people. And people were dancing. I don’t think I’d ever conceptualize[d] same sex couples dancing, and that in itself was very liberating, my first eye-opener.

In February of 1970, I went to Mardi Gras. There were people holding hands in the street, being very visibly gay. It was really so liberating and inspiring and it was like why isn’t it like this?

Shortly after that I went to visit my grandfather in LA and there was a gay liberation [front] in LA as active or known as the one in New York. I found out about a meeting and I went. Again, I was completely wowed and motivated by the whole experience.

We went back to Tallahassee and started to talk to my friends. We decided we would start our own gay liberation front.

We started by putting up signs around campus and the first symbol we used was derived from the gay liberation front in LA, a riot there. Police attacked the bar, and people were running away, a lot of people had ink on their hands. There were all these hand prints on walls, that became a symbol, so we used that, before fist and all that came around. We had two-three meetings and then summer comes and everyone dispersed.

I went to New York for that summer. I got very much involved in the Gay Liberation front during its peak year. I was in a consciousness raising group that was all minorities, blacks and Hispanics. We all went to Washington to the Third World Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention.

Back to Tallahassee in autumn of [19]69 and we were raring to go. I moved in with three friends into an apartment building right near the campus. During the summer we made this banner, when I was in New York in these marches.

C: The Florida State Gay Liberation Front.

R:  We began trying to put ads in the newspaper. The first meeting was in our apartment. Something like 40 people came, including professors and students.

We were freaked out — we had no clue what we were doing. In LA I had met a transsexual named Angela Douglas and — I don’t even remember now — but for whatever reason, Angela Douglas showed up in Tallahassee. It was really very challenging for us because we’re being bold enough being gay, but here’s this transsexual walking around, obviously not a woman physically, but being a woman.

That was very challenging, being out in public with her. She was very political and she forced us to deal with a lot of our own issues and stereotypes and hang-ups. So it was a lot of growing going on on a lot of different levels.

We were very identified with all the other liberation movements going on. This is 1970, so all the activist people, you could fit us all in one room in all varieties. So having her there, we were going to be really different. We got evicted shortly after the first meeting, because we were gay. So that group split up.

That was the beginning of the intense period that whole academic year [19]70-71. Nixon came to Tallahassee, not in the city, but off at the airport. This is a protest we had at the airport when Nixon came.

There were a lot of things going on around campus. The women’s group was very active, the black group was very active. Vietnam was the big [thing], and we were a part of all that.

The great thing about the gay liberation front at that time is that it sought to be a part of a broader movement. It wasn’t just about us being gay, but it was the whole social revolution for everybody.

Some other groups didn’t necessarily want us. I’m talking about nationally, not necessarily Tallahassee. Like the whole history of the GLF in New York. The Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance was all about the GLF alliance as a part of the broader social movement and the GLAA thought that you needed to concentrate on gay rights. GLF was so intensely political.

The GLF in New York just fell apart in a couple of years. GLAA grew and led into the mainstream in subsequent years.

These are just pictures around Tallahassee. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the term love-in, sit in — this was our gay-in that we had in Tallahassee.

This is Judy Fee, the person who came and spoke with me in Gainesville later. The key leadership was Judy, myself and Jose Fernandez, a friend of mine also from Miami.

We tried to get recognition as a student group. They even voted in student government to recognize us, but the university wouldn’t allow it. This is simultaneous with businesses preventing us from having ads in the paper. People in the paper supported it, but the university threatened to close down the paper, and they couldn’t have survived without advertising, so they had to cave.

They used to have something in Tallahassee called the military ball. We did a protest and held a kind of mock anti-military ball. It got in the campus paper.

By that time, I had become very confrontational. On campus I was out there to the point that some of the gay folks who would attend meetings and see me coming and cross the street. We are talking about a time, a place, very dangerous for gay people. This was a Hilton downtown. We threw flowers at social workers.

The Miami [Herald] does this series called “the homosexual.” It was just scathing – like homosexuals were pedophiles – prissy beauticians who had high-pitched voices and who carry on and just — all the stereotypes, all the negative.

So I contacted the Herald and said, What are you doing? They arranged for the woman who had done the series to interview me. I did some investigation, her son had been molested, and that’s what had driven the series.

She did actually made an effort, and did one focused on me and one focused on the movement. I didn’t use [my name] because I was not out to my family yet, and that year that did happen, but it was still the times. This is at that point the only, that I’m aware of, movement going on in the south – nothing going on in Miami, nothing in Atlanta.

The University of Florida invited us to come and speak. There was a full car load of us, and we turned it into a party. I did some kind of speech, but nothing that would wow a crowd. And then Judy comes on stage and takes the mike and says, “My name’s Judy Faith, I drink beer, and I’m a lesbian.” The whole crowd went into a roar and she just took it from there. I never had any other contact with UF until after I graduated and moved to San Francisco in 1971.

I wound up being there for two years. I went into social work. The first place I did field work was the counseling center at FSU. But the second one was the mental health center in Gainesville and I wanted to do group peer counseling on campus.

I did an announcement in the newspaper, and the psychology building gave us a classroom. Something insane like a hundred people showed up, and I was neither expecting or prepared for that.

There’s clearly a need here. Is this the first time in two years that the word gay has been mentioned on campus in Florida? Maybe it was. I don’t know if that became anything or not.

We had one friend who wanted to start a gathering place most other gay groups were against bars because they were generally Mafia run and just as oppressive as other parties in the community. We helped to pull together and they opened a gay bar in downtown Tallahassee. It did last for a few years.

C: Do you remember what it was called?

R: It closed, they re-opened somewhere else. That other bar, I’m sure, it’s called Elsewhere. Because every time they’d gone to bars, they’d say that they don’t want you there, go elsewhere. When I came back from grad school, that other bar was open. This one was like a dance bar, which is ironic given that in 2012 there is no gay bar in Tallahassee.

It was raised in the state legislature that Jose and I should be thrown out of the university. On campus there was clearly a lot of hostility. Our posters were constantly being torn down. We would put them up at four or five in the morning and by nine most of them were gone and then we’d go out and do it again.

C:  You didn’t feel threatened?

R:  No, not physically threatened.

Angela got arrested for being dressed in women’s clothes. I don’t remember the eventual disposition of that. She was released, but she was only in Tallahassee for a week or ten days and then she up and left. I’m sure there’s a lot more to Angela’s story than we ever knew.

If you look at the Yearbook from FSU from 1970, you will see that the whole yearbook is about the student movement and women’s lib. There’s no mention of gay lib and it was far more in the newspaper than any other groups. There was one little line with something to do with the student government. So it’s like we never existed.

In January of [19]75 I left for London, a huge study abroad program.

The specific group might not have survived but it really changed a dynamic. It’s like opening the closet door. Not just opening it but springing it wide open and saying, here we are. The movement evolved in many different ways and in many different directions, but it never went back.

Life has changed so radically    who could have even conceptualized gay marriage to be of an agenda and presidential debate?

We see things, even if it’s just young couples that are just walking on the street holding hands, kids would go to the prom with their same-sex partner and you feel like wow.

When I was growing up, there was no gay anything. The only time I had ever seen gays on television had been these exposes that had been like the gay life all in the shadows and everything all dark. There was nothing gay and positive. All this began to change: people were marching and standing up, demanding rights. People started coming out.

C: Within or around the GLF, was there any issues of race?

R:  There were a lot of issues in GLF. What were we gonna be a part of? Were we going to be a part of this movement or this? What do we do with a black movement that’s homophobic? How do we deal with the emerging women’s liberation movement that doesn’t want to be thought of as lesbians. And our small group had its own little level of diversity and it was really an issue.

There were a lot of issues at that time. FSU and FAMU were threatened that if they didn’t integrate they’d lose some federal funding. All these things are going on at the same time.

It’s exciting for me to see young people who take interest in how did we get to where we are. Obviously it’s still not here.

Search for “Hiram Ruiz” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu/collection/ for the full transcript of this interview.

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