I have a new favorite person, and her name is Ruth Shack. She’s the 85-year-old whirlwind who’s spent her life fighting for the arts, historic preservation, and civil rights in Miami. Last week she received the 2016 Miami Culture Champion Award in a gala event I was unable to attend because NYC is frozen and life sucks.
Shack may be best known as the sponsor of the 1977 Human Rights Ordinance in Miami-Dade County. A three-term county commissioner, she proposed an amendment to the county’s existing anti-discrimination law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It passed. “I thought it was a very ethical and very Jewish thing, to fight against discrimination,” she told me in a telephone interview. “I didn’t think it was a big deal. But I was condemned by priests and rabbis and I got death threats. People forget that back in 1977, gay people could be fired, could be jailed, could be sent out of their homes and out of theaters. To see my friends going to jail just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time was horrific.”
But Shack’s victory was short-lived. Some readers may recall singer/former beauty pageant-winner/citrus spokesmodel, Anita Bryant, who came out swinging with an anti-gay-rights campaign called “Save Our Children,” and Jerry Falwell followed her to Miami to help her fight the war. Shack’s ordinance was repealed, and Miami didn’t ban discrimination based on sexual orientation again until 1998.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.