BY Paul Rubio
March 08 2010 5:00 AM ET
Back north of the Miami-Dade/Broward county line, Fort Lauderdale’s economic survival of the fittest in the past two years left the weakest of the restaurants, clubs, and accommodations to fade away. Since then, Fort Lauderdale has returned to its unfussy roots. The city’s forced micro-induction of metropolitan sophistication goes no further than the few luxury beach hotels and a handful of upscale eateries. Wilton Manors, the official gayborhood, has flourished with dozens of quaint gay novelty shops, colossal neighborhood bars that reach capacity with cheap nightly drink specials, and mismatched architecture.
Fort Lauderdale has prospered as a destination for singles and couples in search of middle-class gay utopia with a small-town feel. The scene, the stores, and the lifestyle cater to an over-40 crowd, significantly less concerned with trends than neighboring Miami. Fort Lauderdale remains very much a beach town, where it is acceptable to wear a tank top and flip-flops to restaurants and bars. The “come as you are” philosophy defines everyday life.
Through their race to become gay belle of the ball, Miami and Fort Lauderdale inadvertently lost their mutual exclusivity, and it actually seems that the former rivals have finally found equilibrium. It’s common now for residents and visitors to split their time between the two cities. Regular visits between the two are welcome reprieves for those seeking a break from a home turf. The fine line between proximity and distance keeps things fresh and fun for residents on both sides of the county border. The largely vanquished spring break scene notwithstanding, visitors still flock to Fort Lauderdale from the far corners of the nation in search of the same simple combination that made the city famous: sun, fun, sex, and booze. Most prefer to stay at one of the 30 clothing-optional gay bed-and-breakfasts rather than massive new hotels, all minutes from Sebastian Beach. In contrast to SoBe’s “Muscle Beach” reputation, Sebastian Beach finds itself the Cheers of South Florida beaches—friendly and relaxed, stripped and raw, with all ages and sizes, from twinks to porn stars to leather daddies to bears. After the beach, the city’s younger adults and elders indulge in a hedonistic cocktail of sex, alcohol, and dance remixes along Wilton Drive.
Whereas Fort Lauderdale brings together people from all over the United States, Miami unites nations and varied cultures, lending to a remarkable diversity and cosmopolitan feel. The legacy of immigration waves from the 1970s onward endures, and Spanish and Creole are spoken alongside English. While the nightlife scene is significantly smaller than at Miami’s peak (think Madonna and Versace in the 1990s) a few gay strongholds such as Score, Twist, Mova (formerly Halo), and Buck 15 remain steadfast in defense of their territory. And there’s still no shortage of flash. Well-dressed Europeans and worldly globetrotters strut South Beach’s Lincoln Road catwalk, outflaunting one another in designer jeans, chunky glasses, exclusive T-shirts, and posh trimmings.
Politically, both stand as liberal pockets in a state ironically all too familiar with the iron fist of discrimination, recently tightened by constitutional bans on civil unions and same-sex marriages. Socially, each city has attracted its own eclectic following. Gone are the days of relentlessly trying to outshine one another and prove homosexual dominance. Now, Miami and Fort Lauderdale are proudly distinct arenas for indulging, ignoring surgeon generals’ warnings, or cultivating a mainstream gay life. The sun shines equally bright on South Beach and Sebastian Beach.