Sims, Mary

Barbara Ester interviewed Mary Sims on April 8, 2013.

On the lesbian community in Miami

How did you find Lesbian community in Miami?

"I found the gay community first. I worked at a beauty shop on the beach years ago and made friends with a gay boy. Then I met this white woman that came to the beauty shop. I was having some feelings for her, then found out she was involved with Helen Glover, a jazz singer. I was still with my husband, so it didn't make any sense to do that and I had one child, two years old. Helen then introduced me to a woman named Betty Harris, who was also a singer. I started hanging out with them and goin’ to clubs. It was 1966. It wasn't until ’69 that I had an affair with Betty."

On feminist activism

How did you get to be political and involved with the Lesbian Task Force?

"Me and Betty were very temporary. Helen introduced me to another woman name Jacquelyn who introduced me to Louise and Maryanne. I met them when they came from Texas in ’69 or ’70. I didn't become political till ’74 when me and Jackie broke up and I started hanging out with Louise. Louise and Maryanne were NOW (National Organization of Women) members. I met with them in their living room in ’74. There were nine of us. We were discussing starting a task force, a Lesbian Task Force of NOW."

What was your most important action as a political activist?

"I can attribute all of that to the Lesbian Task Force. They sort of pushed every woman to their best potential, giving women the opportunity to lead in the organization. I became, me and Ingrid Hunter, the chairpersons along with Louise and Maryanne. We facilitated the meetings. We had a lot of projects goin’. If a woman thought of a project, she was put in charge of it. There were a lot of women who became politically active through the Lesbian Task Force. It was amazing! We did dances for fundraisers. One of the things that the Task Force voted on was that the NOW chapter would get ten per cent of anything that we made a profit on."

What was the purpose of the Lesbian Task Force?

"It was to instill and promote the positive of being Lesbian, something like that. It was about culture and teaching. It was real short and simple but over the years, I’ve forgotten it. We were very proud of it. We started every meeting stating our purpose."

Did you do political actions or were you more of a social group?

"We did both. We did workshops on positive ‘Lesbian’. Organizations would call us and we would do workshops on trying to promote positive images of Lesbian women. I think we did a couple workshops at universities on Lesbianism. One of the workshops that really stick out for me was on ‘What is a Lesbian’. We did a whole number on the different phases of Lesbianism. At the end, the whole theory was that a Lesbian was any woman who said she was. It had nothing to do with sexuality; if she was woman identified, she was a Lesbian. This was all in ’74 or ’75. We had women who had different skills that would teach you how to do things. The Lesbian Task Force started at Maryanne and Louise’s house on 43rd street but it got so big we had to move it to the YWCA. We had almost 200 women in the Lesbian Task Force at one point. We had a newsletter we distributed in the bars to make women aware of the political side of a Lesbian. We even talked the bar into putting up a billboard in the women’s room so that we could put announcements on it for our dances or any meetings that we were having. Rumor had it that I was the liaison to the bars. There were several women who were liaisons to the bars. We had particular bars we would go to and try to recruit women."

What was the motivation for doing that?

"It was to make women aware of the Lesbian culture outside of the bars; a safe meeting place, the Lesbian Task Force. We had picnics. We had ball games. We were promoting a social agenda. We were political. We had some women who were dealing with the legislature. Several of us became members on the board of NOW. There were five Lesbians on that board in ’75. Several of us went to the national convention of NOW. We were really trying to be a part of the NOW structure at the time. The year me and Fran Malone went, that was the ‘year of the Lesbians’ in Philadelphia! What was really wonderful is that we got to learn about the culture that was happening all over the country. I learned about Audre Lorde, Rich, and all the women who were writing books and poetry and the political side of the Lesbian Culture that was happening in the ‘70’s. It was awesome and a growing time for women. We had contacted Olivia records and were sellin’ their albums. For me, especially there was Mooncircles with Kay Gardner. I had a stereo at the time. When I closed my door and left the house, Mooncircles was playing and when I came back it was still playing. It was like it fit every mood. We also were sellin’ Lesbian books. Mindy brought Dyke Jacket by Fran Winant down and we were sellin’ those. We were living up to our purpose, which was to educate women on our culture. We learned about the women’s culture that was happening. There was a lot of it, cause people were exploring and finding their womanness. We had poetry night. We had art night. We had women who would get together and share their skills. We had dyke night. There was a lot of stuff happening. We had tons of women that gave of themselves because one of the philosophies for the Lesbian Task Force was that women’s energy was more powerful then money. A lot of times, we didn't press so much about the money but women gave of their time and energy and their money so it became a really positive thing, the sharing."

On dyke pride week

Tell me about dyke pride week?

"There was gay pride, but it was mostly men. They did their thing but there was nothing geared toward women and that’s what we wanted to do was gear our energy towards women. You could say gay and you didn't know if that was men or women, but if you said Lesbian Pride, you knew it was all about women. I went to the city hall; several of us went, to get the river walk downtown to do a weekend bazaar. We had food. We had poetry readings and a dance. We made a calendar of events that women could go to all week. I thought it was successful just to have the dykes on the river, that the city permitted us to have a bazaar on the river walk."

I remember a wall sized mural you painted for one of the dances!

"I studied art in school. I had won a partial scholarship through the Institute of Art in Pittsburg but I never pursued it. When we did dances, we always had a theme and we tried to decorate and create art for that. We’d have three or four hundred women at our dances."

On working as a member of NOW

How ‘bout your involvement with NOW?

"We were part of the state organization, so we sent representatives to NOW meetings every two months. Quite a few women went. Me and Ingrid went. Women, who wanted to do it, did it. We would go out of town and we would connect with other Lesbians all over the state, like in Tampa or somewhere for the weekend, and they would provide space for us as we traveled. A lot of women who were NOW members or feminists, and dealing with seeing the lesbian as positive, [and they] started coming out. It was awesome! We brought all the books in. We had MS magazine when it was very popular. We started subscribing to other periodicals all over the country, and we started our own newsletter called ‘Lesbiana Speaks’. We would send those to different chapters. Lesbians who started a Lesbian Task force in Ohio got our newsletter. Some of our members coordinated all the mail that came in. We got tons of mail from all over the country. 'Cause we were in south Florida we got a lot of transients - people moving in and out from different countries - so we had correspondence from all over the world. I know there were contacts in England. The connections were awesome!"

On boycotting orange juice

Were you involved in the Anita Bryant referendum?

"Oh, yes, the phone bank. It was both straight and gay. What we did was organize to fight against her. I felt like it just brought the gay and lesbian community together. It united us, behind a cause. Everybody needs a cause and it was a cause. The scare tactic was that we were corrupting our children with gay and lesbian information down here. But you know, she lost her job because people boycotted orange juice. We found that our money had a positive statement. We could boycott. Our money was strong. Our money was political. We started stamping all our money. We said it was a political statement. Everybody would bring their money in and we’d stamp it ‘Lesbian money’. It became a political statement that we spent money. It was amazing because you would hand this money to people and some of ‘em would notice and some didn't but it was a statement. They didn't realize how much money Lesbians spent, and we do. We go to grocery stores. Some of us had children. We do the same things as normal people. We spend a lot of money."

Didn't you or a friend of yours get arrested around this time?

"I was with a white woman I was dating. She was down here for the missile crisis. It wasn't so much a Lesbian thing. It was a black and white thing. As the cop came up behind me on 69th street and said, I went “too slow through a green light and I was eatin’ chicken.” I said, “Well, I don’t eat chicken, I’m a vegetarian”. I had a bench warrant for a sports ticket or something so he took me down to jail but that was the excuse that I went through the light too slow or something, something ridiculous."

I recall Louise getting arrested around this same time for carrying a pocketknife.

"I don’t know if they were harassing gays, or [those] who looked like gays, or if they were harassing the black and white thing."

On divides in the Miami lesbian community and the Lesbian Task Force

What about racism in Miami and Lesbians? I heard something happened at Lu’s, a bar up north.

"Lu, yeah she had a thing against black women. I think she refused to serve somebody. It was blatant. The culture, the Lesbian culture was with the southern culture down here. I mean there was prejudice against color. We hadn't outgrown that as women. Our biggest thing however was that meat, men and money divide us. A lot of women were becoming vegetarians, becoming aware and very political about the environment. A lot of us were changing our eating habits. I became a vegetarian through the Lesbian Task Force. I met this woman named Susan who was from England. I was a heavy meat eater. She said, “You know Mary, I’m not trying to change you, but think about it. It takes 36 hours for that meat to digest in your system and your body could be doing other things like healing you.” It was a political statement. It didn't come easy. It was hard giving up meat. One of the things we used to like to say is that we go around in circles, we go up higher, and we come back to where we started from. Now I do chicken and fish. I try to stay away from the red meat."

What other things about Miami’s Lesbian community?

"We had dyke nights. We had music nights. We had art nights. We even had how to repair your car. Everybody was sharing their skills, which was empowering. I think that’s what the experience of the Task Force did. It empowered you to be the best you could. I remember being shy and not saying much when the Task Force started. Every woman was involved. That’s what we tried to do, is make every woman feel important and be involved. We all have talents and we are all leaders. That’s what was special about the Task Force; we kept saying and repeating that every woman was capable of being a leader. We really didn’t have a leader. That’s what the beauty of it was. We had two chair people, a chair and a co chair but we had sixty leaders."

Do you recall the split in the Lesbian Task Force?

"Yeah, it was a separatist thing, ya know, meat, men and money, it was partly men and partly money. The NOW chapter decided that every woman in the Lesbian Task Force should be a member of NOW. They saw all the money that we were handing over at the general meetings. We’d hand over a couple hundred dollars from our fundraisers. At one point, we had more members in the Lesbian Task Force and more money in our treasury then the Task Force had. It got real sticky about the money. There’s five Lesbians on the board. Any woman who wants to become a member of NOW, we encourage them to do that but we don’t make it an option because we’re dealing with Lesbian issues, and we are giving back to the chapter. They saw it as dollar marks. We said, well no, we’re not going for it, we’ll break up. It was that and it was the ‘separatist’ thing. A couple women came here from California and different places and we started talking about it. We had rap and consciousness raising groups. A lot of women said no, I don’t want to shut out men from my life. Well, that’s yours. So there was this big party on the beach and we ran into some men and we had a big blow up because we were on the (Virginia Key) beach with no tops on. Men had harassed us and the women banded together and probably whipped a couple asses. That got back to the Task Force at the meeting since we reported on everything. Some of the women decided they didn't want to be separatists. It was that and the money that broke up the Lesbian Task Force."

On the work of the Lesbian Task Force

Were there any other things the Lesbian Task Force did while it was active?

"We did workshops that were open to the public on Lesbianism. We had to deal with men asking stupid questions but we kept it very positive and when they asked if we hated men, we said no, we just rather put our energy towards women, keeping everything positive. We’d just rather be with women. You know some of us had children. There was a point in time where I was a mother of two boys. I really couldn't be a separatist but I could respect the space and not bring my sons to anything that was women only. NOW wasn't separatist, it was the Lesbian Task Force that wanted to be only women space. When I traveled with NOW, I took my boys to the NOW meetings. I thought feminism needed to be instilled in every man. It’s just that there was a time and place. It wasn't hard. If I was doing Lesbian things, the boys would be with their father. I was doing Lesbian things but I also knew they could be accepted at NOW meetings. I remember my son being the only male on the bus going to Georgia for the National conference of NOW. My daughter also went. My son was maybe twelve or thirteen. Women came up to me and said “Was that your son on the bus? He was able to talk about Wicca, feminism, the women’s movement and NOW!” He would sit in the plenary sessions and take notes and come out telling us how to vote ‘cause he was hobnobbing with the women. NOW was a good time for my boys but they weren't involved in the Lesbian Task Force. I think they are very tolerant and respectful of women. I guess they have a different outlook ‘cause they were raised by a crazy lesbian. I also think they needed time to spend with their male counterparts because they do have a different outlook. I think the best rule is men should take care of their boys and women should take care of their girls but we often need to teach them how to interact with other women. I remember my daughter and me were working around the yard and she had a wheelbarrow. Her brother went to grab it and she said “I don’t need your help, I’m a woman”, and she was like eight or nine. It also teaches our women to be independent. Having two sons and a daughter was an experience. They’re very close in age, the same way my mother had me. I’m the oldest, then two years she had my brother and nine months later she had my sister."

Any other story or comments on this topic?

"I think Louise and Maryanne, even after the Lesbian Task Force ended, kept that culture going with Something Special*. It was maybe a year or two after. They started cooking vegetarian food and it went on for what twenty-five years. The Lesbian Task Force made me a leader. They pulled out that leadership ability in me because I’m a shy person, really. I remember sitting in a meeting. If you said anything you thought about it, because Louise would bring you up on it. It was like Maryanne and Louise created the Task Force as a test on group dynamics. 'Cause that’s what they did, they practiced a group dynamic. And I thought it was an experiment for them, being social workers, on how to relate to group dynamics - because that’s what they were teaching us, positive group dynamics. They really, between the two of them, always kept out the negative forces that would break a group up. For the first two years, I felt that. That’s why it lasted so long. The Lesbian Task Force is the longest organization I've been in. I've been in quite a few women’s organizations after the Task Force and none of them had that group dynamic."

Can you give me an example?

"If you came up to say well, “I don’t like that”, Louise would say, “Well what would you like? And you got it!” If you came up with a negative, you had to come up with a positive and then you had to take it on. And she would say, “You’re a leader. You can handle that. Go ahead.” If a woman came in and said, “Why don’t we do a dance?” she’d say, “Great, you got it! Find the women who want to help you do that”. And so it was like, if you came up with an idea, there were women who were willing to help you with that idea, but they put you in charge of that idea. It really pushed you to grow and to expand your world and your experience.

"The Lesbian Task Force gave us confidence to even say the word ‘lesbian,’ because that was one of the things that we talked about in group. Words are power. If you make that word positive, nobody can use it against you. If you walk down the street and someone calls you a dyke, you can turn around and say ‘No, I’m a super dyke!’ So you would defuse the negative to make it a positive. It was powerful. The Task Force gave you the power to be whoever you wanted to be, and the energy to do it. I still see that meeting with all those white men at the city hall looking at us and saying, “I just wanna talk to your leaders” and fifteen women standing up and saying “We are”. And then this frustration on this man’s face; they had no recourse but to say “we didn't know there were that many lesbians”. We took up half the hall, women of every color and age. We had Latin. We had Spanish and Jamaican. We had a couple of blacks. We had whites. We had a few rednecks. Even at that, the Lesbian Task Force itself was very diverse and very loving. It was more like a family because we gave everybody the freedom to be whoever they wanted to be."

On class differences in the Lesbian Task Force

What about class differences, did you notice challenges?

"Of course. Sometimes, some womon’s energy was better than your money cause they could get it done. We had women who would donate paper. We printed our newsletter and it didn't cost a penny. We printed 500 copies of ‘Lesbiana Speaks’ every month or two and mailed it out. Women would give us money for stamps. If we had a dance and ya didn't have money, we had a sliding scale. We included the poor women and the women who had money. And if you didn't have money, maybe you could bring some ice, or if you had access to a table or you could get somethin’ from your job. It was that kind of give and take. It was very powerful. I’m proud of being one of the women who started the Lesbian Task Force in Miami."

On life after the Task Force

What came after that for you?

"A big let down. Actually, I was part of ‘Sisters Supporting Sisters’. I was part of ‘Women of Color’ and ‘Rainbow Women,’ but nothing as powerful as the Lesbian Task Force. I guess the Task Force was an umbrella for a lot of organizations. Women went off and did a lot of other things. Whatever we needed would happen. The Lesbian Task Force wasn't for everybody. A big part of my coming out was the Lesbian Task Force because I was involved with one woman of color, and she seemed to hide in the closet - one of my lovers at the time - so it was a freeing thing for me to get out and say “Hey, I’m a Lesbian”! My mother was very involved in the Civil Rights movement. I think she had something to do with a super market on 62nd that used to charge so much to cash checks or something. My mother and others protested, and that market went up in flames. She was out there on the front lines. My mother went up to DC for the tent city, and took my sister for Martin Luther King’s speech. She was very active in Miami and part of ‘model cities’ in Liberty City. There was a rebellion going on all around me at that point. She can be involved in that, and that’s good, but I wanna be involved with the women’s movement because that’s part of me too. I guess I chose the gay issue. The world can kiss my ass, because my mother loves me and can accept me for who I am. My mother passed away in ’74 on Good Friday. Me and my four sisters went to DC for the first inauguration of President Obama. It was very important for us, in honor of our mother and the civil rights movement."

* From Wikipedia:
Save Our Children, Inc. was a political coalition formed in 1977 in Miami, Florida, U.S. to overturn a recently legislated county ordinance that banned discrimination in areas of housing, employment, and public accommodation based on sexual orientation. The coalition was publicly headed by celebrity singer Anita Bryant, who claimed the ordinance discriminated against her right to teach her children biblical morality. It was a well-organized campaign that initiated a bitter political fight between unprepared gay activists and highly motivated Christian fundamentalists. When the repeal of the ordinance went to a vote, it attracted the largest response of any special election in Dade County's history, passing by 70%.

* Something Special, (1987 – 2011) a Lesbian venture is a unique dining experience for wimmin, serving vegetarian meals in our private home and offering “wimmin-only” space with an ambiance of Lesbian culture.

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