It’s hard to believe now but from the time South Florida began to grow in the 1890s through World War I in the 1910s, the land boom of the 1920s, the great depression in the 1930s, and World War II in the 1940s, the LGTBQ population lived in relative obscurity. There were always gay people, there were gay bars and clubs and even drag shows (known as female impersonators). It was just something that was there, something that was happening and nobody really talked about it or interfered and everyone was just fine with that…until 1954. The famous “Homosexual Panic” that battled gays from the 1950s through the 1980s and still has lasting remnants today in South Florida can be traced to one incident; the murder of Eastern Airlines Flight Attendant William T. Simpson in August of 1954 and Miami Daily News journalist Milt Sosin’s reporting of the incident.
Like most gays at the time, Simpson lived a pretty modest life. He was 27 years old and was among many gay men that worked for Eastern Airlines as a flight attendant. Eastern Airlines was based in Miami and was Dade County’s largest employer at the time. Unlike many of the others he often distanced himself from the “crew parties” that were often planned amongst his coworkers. He wasn’t even one to often frequent the few underground gay bars that existed in Miami at the time. Simpson had no family nearby. He came to Miami in 1951 from Louisville, Kentucky simply because, however inconspicuous, it was a place with many gay men, and a place with career opportunity.
On the evening of August 2, 1954 Simpson landed at Miami International Airport after a final shift working aboard a flight from Detroit. With a giddy attitude most of the flight his colleague, Stewardess Dorothy Hoover, remarked that he had mentioned several times of a date he had planned that evening after work. He reportedly left his NW 4th Ave apartment around 10 p.m. according to his landlord who was last to see him. Two hours later his body was found face down in some gravel by Dick Cline and his girlfriend Joan at a spot near the Arch Creek Bridge, near NE 134th St and Biscayne Blvd. Today Flanigan’s Bar & Grill marks the spot, but in the mid 1950s this area was a “lovers lane” featuring a small secluded beached area under the bridge where one could park their car right along the Little Arch Creek waterway and engage in sexual activity.
What Simpson didn’t realize when he made his plans that night was that his date, Charles Lawrence, was notorious for “rolling” gay men (as local media called it then) and luring them to a secluded spot where his accomplice Lewis Killen (who would secretly trail Lawrence until they reached the secluded spot) would jump out and assist with robbing the victim. Usually Killen would wait until Lawrence began engaging in sexual activity with the victim because they were more vulnerable.
Usually Killen and Lawrence would not kill their victim, but in Simpson’s case for reasons still not clear something spooked Lawrence when Simpson didn’t cooperate like many of their other victims did. They shot him in his left side and Simpson, stumbling out of the car and yelling “Leave me alone! Leave me alone!” finally tossed over his keys and wallet before collapsing a few yards away. According to the North Miami Police report Lawrence and Killen made off with $25 and actually thought Simpson would live and were quite surprised when they found news the next day that he had died.
Miami Daily News reporter Milt Sosin was on the story from the moment it broke. He authored his first front page article aptly titled “EAL MAN IS SLAIN ON LOVERS LANE” on the afternoon edition of the paper on August 3, 1954. Along with that headline was the picture of the head of Simpson’s corpse. Sosin immediately suspected Simpson was gay because of the location the murder took place and the thought that it was unlikely a woman could do such a crime. Without much evidence of homosexuality yet, Sosin still referenced the potential killer as man and that it was possibly a sex crime.
The story immediately began to gain traction, but rather than trying to report on heinous crime itself, Sosin wanted to learn more about Simpson’s sexuality. At the time homosexuality was no commonly mentioned in mainstream media at all and certainly in this case made for a juicy story. In following the investigation, Sosin found that police seeking out a gay colony of what they thought to be 20 or 30 men that may have known Simpson turned out to be a colony of 500 men.
Rather than any more details about Simpson's murder, the story on the front page of the Miami Daily News on August 9, 1954 was "Pervert Colony Uncovered In Simpson Slaying Probe," the article detailed that nearly 500 gay men conjugated in a northeastern part of downtown Miami around where the Omni Center is today. The article went on the further accuse Simpson of mixing with the wrong crowd and getting involved in “gay drama” and perhaps that might have been the motive behind his murder. One investigator quoted in the article even went on to claim the murder might have been because Simpson was looking to become “queen” of the colony.
Lawrence and his accomplice Killen both admitted to the murder which in theory should have put a lid on the homosexual colony “issue” however, facing first degree murder charges, they testified in November of 1954 and claimed while they did like to “roll” gay men they would pick up, Simpson took it too far. They claimed Simpson made them feel unsafe and made unwanted sexual advances towards Lawrence. The jury was easily influenced by the fact that local newspapers alarmed them and the rest of the public of the activity that was going on. Neither the Miami Herald or the Miami Daily News dedicated much coverage of the actual trial but actually focused on stories of homosexuality around the Miami community.
With the term “pervert” being used to describe Simpson in court it became very easy for the jury to feel the vulnerable insecurity Lawrence claims he had. Both Lawrence and Killen were only convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
This case was the catalyst of what quickly seemed liked endless homophobia in South Florida. Various Christian activists groups stepped up and called for Dade County politicians to rid the area of homosexuality by raiding known gay bars, clubs, and hang out spots. WTVJ even ran a documentary warning people of the dangers of gay people among them. Newspaper articles informed readers to be aware of their neighborhood surroundings and who their neighbors might be.
Even by the 1970s when homosexuality started to be recognized in a better light, people like Anita Bryant, still alarmed by the initial “homosexual panic” prevented any basic rights to be extended to gay people. Certain businesses like Florida Orange Juice and Coca-Cola Bottlers of Miami, and department stores' Burdines, Jordan Marsh were all subject to anti-gay boycotts in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis further implicated homosexuality as a dangerous activity.
Rays of the “Homosexual Panic of 1954” still linger since there are still people who disagree with the gay lifestyle, but the quality of life has improved tremendously for gays in South Florida and the rest of the country since then. Human Rights groups have worked hard to make sure discrimination and profiling of gays has ended. And while there is still a lot of work to be done, South Florida today is a destination quite different from the place William Simpson left behind.