Gaymerica (Revisited): While Nivaldo Slept

By : Todd Simmons
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ToddSimmonsTrying to capture in words what 1994 was like for me is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. To say that the world, my world, was “different” then stretches that word to its limit.

It was the year I met Tom Dyer, for starters—a charming attorney from Winter Park with a warm spot in his heart for his LGBT brothers and sisters and an entrepreneurial dream to publish a newspaper that would serve them. As a journalist who had written for daily newspapers and The Advocate, I was intrigued to meet someone who shared my passion for our community and its social justice movement. When he drove over to Tampa to ask me to work with him on the project, he didn’t have to ask twice.
But it was also a year in which so many other things of consequence were happening. Tom Hanks won the Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia, thrilling me and my husband, Nivaldo Gonzelez, who was himself battling AIDS. For those raised on Will & Grace, Ellen and Modern Family, it’s nearly impossible to convey what it meant to us to see a gay man fighting the still relentlessly lethal epidemic portrayed in a major film.

It was the year in which activists with the Human Rights Task Force of Florida, which I led as co-chair, banded together to fight the memorably named “Yes! Repeal Homosexual Ordinance Committee,” and its (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign to scuttle Tampa’s human rights law.

It was the year of the Republican mid-term “revolution” that brought Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America to power. It was also the year that AIDS claimed Randy Shilts, author of And the Band Played On, and Pedro Zamora, the MTV Real World star who showed the world the meaning of courage and grace.

1994 was also the year that I began writing speeches for President Betty Castor at the University of South Florida. It was at my USF office that Tom and I—along with the fabulous Michael Kilgore—met for the first time and talked through plans for Watermark’s expansion. I agreed to both write and edit content coming out of the Tampa Bay area (in my spare time, lol), including a column I called “Gaymerica.”

“Gaymerica” was a combination of reporting and commentary on local, state, national and international LGBT issues, which took considerably more effort than now. The Internet was in its infancy (though gay men had already discovered AOL chat rooms), social media wasn’t yet a gleam in anyone’s eye and information traveled at a considerably slower pace than today.

It’s comical now to recall what it took to get text and images from Tampa to Orlando. We were sometimes reduced to faxing over stories, which would then have to be retyped on the other end. Many were the days that I struggled to get a photo file to fit on one of the old 1.2MB disks (remember the small square ones?) so that it could be shipped over to Orlando for production, as most e-mail programs wouldn’t deliver files as large as 1MB. Still, we marveled at new technology that would seem primitive today.

I loved working with Tom, who no matter the deadline pressures or other obligations never seemed to lose his cool or miss a chance to represent Watermark in the community. And I truly loved writing about the Tampa Bay area and its LGBT scene during times that, despite the specter of AIDS and the oppression of conservatives, seemed charged with excitement and possibilities.

Watermark played an especially important role in my life as my husband began his final journey. On long nights when I’d often stay at the hospital, I’d type deep into the early morning hours while Nivaldo slept. In a situation where we both so often felt powerless, Watermark became a place where I could fight back, using the power of words and a media platform that reached tens of thousands of readers across the state.

After Nivaldo passed in January of 1996, and I drifted for months in a sort of self-destructive free fall, Watermark was a constant that brought some semblance of order and meaning to the interminable hours when I wasn’t at work at the university. I look back now on some of my writing from that period and wonder how I did it. But at the time, Watermark truly was often my salvation.

I edited and wrote for Watermark for five years, and in addition to the events described above, those five years included me meeting and marrying my husband of now 17 years, Gustavo Martinez-Padilla, and moving to Miami in 2000. In the years since we moved to Oregon, where we adopted two wonderful sons, and then to Honolulu, where Gus is a university professor and I’m executive director of the statewide LGBT organization, Equality Hawaii. Last December, after working for passage of Hawaii’s marriage equality law, Gus and I were officially married in a small ceremony in our home. Gaymerica, indeed.

All these many years later, I’m terribly proud to see Watermark not only surviving, but thriving. I often visit its website, and think of what a vital chronicle it’s been for two decades of perhaps the most interesting and exciting period in the history of LGBT people ever. To the extent that I played a small role in establishing a solid foundation for Watermark, I’m grateful to have been part of it all, and would gladly go back and do all of it—well, most of it—again.

From many thousands of miles away, I congratulate the readers, supporters and staffers of Watermark and, above all, Tom Dyer for reaching this milestone. May the next 20 years be just as rewarding as the first 20.

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