Almost 30 years ago, Ohio transplant and art gallery owner Richard Heyman won a bitter race against a native son to become mayor of Key West, then a crumbling Navy town trying to reinvent itself as an island paradise for tourists.
Heyman’s victory made international news. He was America’s first openly gay mayor.
“Now, it’s so what?” said writer June Keith, who was Heyman’s secretary. “But believe me, back then it was huge.”
Emmy-award winning director John Mikytuck tackles the story of Heyman – the fascinating, complex and forgotten gay icon who died of AIDS-related pneumonia – in his documentary, The Newcomer. It premieres on broadcast TV at 9 p.m. Jan. 21 on WPBT2.
“It’s a timeless tale,” Mikytuck said during a phone interview from his home in Lambertville, N.J. “And AIDS is still an issue, too.”
The project was quite the undertaking for Mikytuck, a self-taught cameraman and video editor who went to graduate journalism school at Columbia University to hone his story-telling skills.
Mikytuck, who won an Emmy in 2008 for his web TV show Reporting AIDS, did not set out to do a documentary on Heyman. He had planned to tell the story of how the deadly disease affected Key West through his own experience of working for the nonprofit organization AIDS Help while living on the island from 2001-2006.
But while researching, Mikytuck said, he found Heyman’s life more compelling and representative of the 1980s, a decade when the gay community was making political progress following the national Anita Bryant-led anti-homosexual crusade – only to be slammed again with a mysterious, scary disease that was disproportionately killing gay men at an alarming rate.
A first version of the documentary was shown three years ago at gay film festivals in Alabama and Miami. It also ran for a week at the Tropic Cinema in Key West and was shown once at Cornell University, Mikytuck’s alma mater. He reworked the film for its broadcast premiere.
The documentary portrays the six-foot-four Heyman as a charming, savvy, well-dressed and successful businessman who had been valedictorian of his high school class, went to Ohio State University on basketball and scholastic scholarships, served in the U.S. Army and opened a chain of hair salons named Sir Richards.
After moving to Key West in 1973, he opened Gingerbread Square Gallery on Duval Street. The gay community’s businessmen were revitalizing Key West, and members of its Business Guild saw Heyman as the gregarious person who could lead their efforts in mainstream politics. Heyman was talked into running for public office during a party with cute, thong-wearing servers and plenty of alcohol, his campaign manager Peter Ilchuk said in the documentary.
In 1979, Heyman was elected city commissioner. In 1983, he made history with his mayoral triumph.
A week before his death in 1994, Heyman told The Miami Herald: “I didn’t run as a gay man; I ran as a man who felt he could do things to change our city.”
Friends say Heyman never liked the label “gay mayor.” They say he ran to be the leader of all Key West’s residents, with a mission to build a sewer treatment plant, revise the antiquated city charter to better manage development, provide opportunity and pay equality and grow the fledgling tourism industry.
But the documentary also builds the case that for all the good Heyman did, America’s first gay mayor did not deal with the most critical issue the small island faced during his tenure: the new AIDS crisis.
The film asserts that Heyman kept his silence even though his longtime partner, artist John Kiraly, had been one of the first eight people in Key West diagnosed with AIDS in 1983, months before he became mayor. It was a time when such news was usually a death sentence, with no known cause, treatment or cure.
The documentary shows a doctored picture of Heyman’s face in a campaign ad that ran in the Key West Citizen the day before the election. Marks were added to the picture’s face to make it look like Heyman had Kaposi’s sarcoma.
“KS is a cancer that at the time was one of the first indications a person had AIDS,” Mikytuck said. “They were trying to stigmatize him, and maybe that is why he stayed silent about AIDS because of what he suffered through the campaign.”
And while Key West was one of the most tolerant cities in the country, nurse Joan Higgs said in the documentary that there still were some people in the community that thought “God hated f——” and that death was the just punishment for homosexuality.
The documentary also implied that Heyman did not bring up the AIDS crisis at City Commission meetings because of economics.
“Richard’s first love was this community,” said Heyman’s friend Wesley Calvin, a homeopath. “And the gay community didn’t want to hear it. They were concerned it would scare away a lot of tourists if HIV and AIDS was advertised or talked about, or condoms were pushed upon people.”
Mikytuck said his friends joked the story was like “Jaws – the resort town that has a killer shark, but nobody in the town wants it known they have a killer shark.”
Wesley says in the documentary that Heyman had wanted to do something about AIDS, but couldn’t do anything as a “single political person” because he had no support.
One review of the documentary in the Birmingham (Ala.) Weekly said: “If (Heyman) had helped to shine a light on the AIDS epidemic, fewer people might have died.”
Keith, who helped Mikytuck put the documentary together by providing four albums of archival information and rare video footage of Heyman, said she was disappointed in the “direction” of the final product.
“I kind of walked away from it thinking the portrayal of the mayor was some sort of guy partying and having a great time while people were dying all over the place,” she said. “It really wasn’t like that. It was a really bad time. It was horrible.?. And AIDS was mysterious in 1983. It was just taking shape and not understood.”
There was no “organized hush-up,” she said. “John made it sound like there was a sinister PR arrangement, which there wasn’t. I wish we had known more. We were terrified. Gay men were wondering if they were next. If they were going to be dead by Christmas.”
Keith said Heyman did not turn his back on the crisis but did what he could to help, which included contributing “a lot of money out of his own pocket” to a new organization, AIDS Help.
After he decided not to seek reelection in 1989, Keith said, Heyman planned to make helping people with AIDS his life’s work. “But of course, he became ill,” she said.
Heyman, 59, died Sept. 16, 1994, with Kiraly at his bedside.
At the documentary’s end, it states that more than 1,000 gay men from Key West, almost 50 percent of the population living there in 1983, have died from AIDS. The long list from the Key West AIDS Memorial is slowly displayed in white type on a black background.
Keith said those numbers are misrepresentative of the situation in Key West. “If you lived in Michigan and visited Key West once, or you had a sister here or a friend here you could have your name on that list,” she said.
She thought the documentary did not focus enough on Heyman’s positive legacy – that he was a strong role model to the gay community across the country at a time when many stayed in the closet in fear.
“Right now, I’m working for a gay police chief in Key West,” Keith said. “When I interviewed with him, I said I believe you are in this position in part for what Richard did back in the ’80s.”