Richard Heyman was a gay man living in Key West and he made headlines back in 1983.
That was the year he became the first openly gay mayor in the United States, right on the cusp of the AIDS epidemic and in the wake of the Anita Bryant campaign just one county away in Dade/Miami.
WPBT2 – the PBS affiliate in South Florida – is airing a documentary about Heyman called “The Newcomer” Monday, Jan. 14 at 9 p.m. The program will be re-broadcast Sunday, Jan. 20 at 5 p.m. CLICK HERE.
I talked to the director of “The Newcomer” - Emmy-award winning journalist John Mikytuck - in a telephone interview from his home in New Jersey where he used to work for the PBS program “In The Life. Here is part of our discussion:
Q. I know you grew up in Key West before leaving to attend grad school at Columbia, so is that how you came to this story?
A. “The story I really wanted to tell was about HIV and AIDS’ impact on Key West. I wanted to tell that story and I was trying to figure how to do it. I had the good fortune of reading about the mayor. One of the pieces I was reading was a commemorative piece written about his assistant June Keith. After she worked for Richard she became a pretty prolific writer. She marked the anniversary of his passing every year with writing a piece about him. I put it in my notes and after a while I went back and re-read it again.”
Q. What was it that caught your attention specifically?
A. “I read that the mayor was tested for HIV in 1989 and I thought, ‘wow, that’s really late.’ I came out when I was 18 around 1985 and I had been tested several years before he was tested and I was a much younger person. I thought, ‘why did he not get tested until 1989?’ Asking that one question led to a whole story of what you see in the documentary. It wasn’t my intent to tell Richard’s story. I wanted to tell the story of the effects of HIV/AIDS in Key West. It just happens that Richard’s story is the story of HIV/AIDS in Key West. I think Richard’s story is a timeless story. And I think people should be interested in learning about it because of the scope of what the gay community has accomplished over the last 30 years – and he was a major part of that walk toward equality, of more civil rights, more opportunity. But not only that, but it’s also a question of the needs of one person’s self interest and the needs of the general population. I think that is a story that is, unfortunately, timeless. It’s about people in important positions, whether political or another position, and some make the right choices and some don’t.”
Q. You found out he was really reticent to talk about AIDS even as the epidemic was spiraling out of control.
A. “I started out with a premise, you have an idea: I think the reason it happens is because of X. But until you start to research it and talk to your sources and find out the facts, all you have is a premise. The premise I had I found out as I interviewed more and more people turned out to be the truth. And truth is a really big word. It’s truth with a capital T. In this story that truth was that he hadn’t wanted to address this issue. And it wasn’t just Richard, but a whole community of people that didn’t want this to be public. And he was the victim of so many attacks. The picture of him in the newspaper with lesions added to his face. No one mentioned that he had been the target of an HIV/AIDS attack or that someone had tried to use the stigma of AIDS to defeat him. They altered his photograph to make it look like he had [Kaposi] sarcoma or something. It was a photograph that you can see the evidence right there in front of you. They had actually done that in the newspaper. And then to find that picture was incredible."
Q. In the documentary you put into context that Heyman became mayor after Anita Bryant’s campaign just a county away in Dade.
A. “That’s a really important part of the whole story. It was as if Anita Bryant…and her campaign was more of a defense. Throughout the late 60s and early 70s there had been these revolutions of all sorts of oppressed groups. There was anti-war, women’s lib, civil rights – all these revolutions. In the middle of that was the gay community and their battles to stop the police from arresting them for just congregating in a bar. Stonewall was in 1969. There was no organized movement against us. But then Harvey Milk came along and then Miami passed this human rights ordinance and Anita Bryant was a response to that. We weren’t sure where the country’s attitudes about us were. The Anita Bryant was able to defeat this really progressive bill, this legislation. We learned…that the world wasn’t really supportive of our community. But that didn’t mean that we didn’t deserve human rights. So we just kept fighting.”
Q. It’s hard to imagine today, but back then Key West was not a safe place for gays. You mention Tennessee Williams being bashed as an example CLICK HERE. Was Heyman’s campaign a reaction to all of that indifference?
A. “All of [Heyman’s] supporters realized that they had a lot of money invested in businesses and their lives in Key West and they saw through the Anita Bryant Campaign that it could all be taken away from them. They were trying to create a way to protect themselves. Tennessee Williams’ attack was a good example of that. He had been beaten up in the late 70s in Key West. That kind of hate was going on all the time in Key West and it got a lot of attention. The response from the police seemed to be less than it should have been. There were a lot of issues going on and a lot of other hate crimes.”
Q. Heyman was unique in a way. He was the perfect person to run for mayor at that time, wasn’t he?
A. “Richard was the guy. He had a great mind. He had an [art] gallery which was one of the essential social gathering spot. He was able to reach out to the gay community, the conch community, the African-American community and also the Latino community. He was accepted by all those different [groups] because prior to his running he had built friendships in all those communities. He was naturally a political person without realizing it.”
Q. What do you think was his legacy?
A. “The changes made in the charter has still to this day been the driving force for a lot of what you see as the development of Key West as a tourist destination since it was passed in 1985. In his second term from 1987 to 1989, which I don’t really focus on in the film,…he worked really hard to address the sewage problem, which was basically polluting all the waters around Key West. He passed the referendum to sell bonds to pay for the sewage treatment plant which is now on Fleming Key adjacent to downtown Key West. To this day that plant treats all the water in the city of Key West [Key West Richard A. Heyman Environmental Protection Facility]."
Q. Why should straight people watch this documentary?
A. “Well, as a sort of story about the human experience, it’s just an interesting story. I watch tons of movies and tons of documentaries. And yeah, I’m gay and yeah, it’s important with our struggle as a people to have those out there. But as a person who likes to be challenged intellectually, morally and philosophically and those kind of things, this is a really complicated and interesting story. I don’t think there is one sound bite where you can say what this story is about. I’m a history buff and it’s a history lesson, but it’s also a human story and it deals with moral and ethical issues too.”