Florida was Once a Trans Activist Hub

Tara Lopez Carn was not going to let the police stop her from living her truth. The Puerto Rican trans woman moved from New York to Florida in the early 1970s, where she quickly gained the attention of the Miami Beach law enforcement. Officers would follow her around the city, harassing her wherever she went. They would even out her to lovers by calling her slurs. One day, Tara had enough. She began dancing naked to music on a crowded beach as a large audience gathered around her and “cause[d] a near riot” according to one of her friends. The police hauled her to jail, where she would repeat the performance upon her release.

A colorized and restored article on Miamian trans women from The Miami News, 1974.

Tara’s act of disobedience came at a worsening time for trans Floridians. Cities throughout the state passed ordinances to ban on what they considered “crossdressing,” which included drag, trans expression, and costumes. Police could – and still can – arrest trans people at will. Tara removing her top provided only a peek into the absurdity of these laws in a country that supposedly fosters free expression.

Angela Douglas moved to Florida around the same time as Tara. The young trans woman founded what is arguably the first transgender activist group, Transsexual Action Organization (TAO), in 1970. After moving to the state, she declared, “1972 was the Year of the Transsexual in Miami Beach; hundreds were there, from all over the nation, and many Puerto Ricans and Cubans.” Trans women of color like Tara joined TAO, which Douglas claimed reached 1,000 members internationally by the end of 1973. Tara became the organization’s Presidential Assistant around the same time. She would edit their newsletters Mirage and Moonshadow, helping circulate the magazines to thousands of readers across the globe. Tara quickly became a face of the organization, leading workshops and lectures at universities, events, and conferences.

 A magazine cover with a person in a garmentDescription automatically generated with low confidence

The group named Tara their member of the month in July 1973 “because of her friendliness and help to other transexuals.” Tara’s amicable nature supported TAO's expansion throughout Florida, not just Miami. They brought trans people throughout the state, urban and rural, to their protests of the unjust laws similar to what we are seeing today. TAO was then the largest transgender organization in the world by membership. Centered in Florida, they fought for their freedoms in the belly of the beast.

Today, we see many groups emerge through similar modes of resistance. Students at the New College are organizing against its far-right overhaul. Migrants shut down thousands of businesses to protest Florida’s anti-immigrant law. National and international groups are sending mifepristone to those in need in the state. We cannot know what will come from these actions in the long term. But we do know groups, organizations, and movements often emerge through these means of subversion. With growing political participation from the margins, we may see a renewed interest in activism in the state for years to come. If there's one thing we can be sure about, pride has always been a protest.

Eli Erlick is an internationally-awarded activist, writer, and public speaker. In 2011, she co-founded Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER), a national organization dedicated to transforming the educational environment for trans students through collective action. She is currently completing her Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Cruz.