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Why Key West Endures as a Gay Paradise

The Southernmost Spot Bounces Back

The mainland's southernmost tip has long been a haven.

They have a motto in Key West: "One Human Family." Coined by James Thompson -- an HIV-positive activist, organizer, and designer -- it represents Key West, the tiny island best known for its queer inclusiveness.

"Inclusiveness is part of our heritage," one tour guide told me when I visited last August. Its embrace of diversity and willingness to set itself apart from the Florida mainland goes back to its origins as a haven for an eclectic blend of Native Americans, Spanish, freed slaves, seafarers (including pirates), queers, and creatives. The island known as the "southernmost point in the continental U.S." sided with the North during the Civil War and later served as home to famous writers like Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, and Judy Blume.


The charm Key West offers is so unlike other Florida cities that many locals call it "Unflorida" and consider the island to be "more Caribbean than the United States." Its reputation as a refuge for LGBT people has been reflected in local politics: The city was one of the first in the U.S. to elect an out gay mayor (Richard A. Heyman in 1983).

A month after my visit, Hurricane Irma tore through Florida, forcing thousands of Florida Keys residents to evacuate, scrambling into crowded shelters and onto jammed highways. Key West was fortunate to avoid a direct hit from the hurricane and suffered little structural damage or storm surge flooding. However, the Keys north of the island bore the full brunt of Irma's fury -- CBS Miami reporter David Sutta described it as a "war zone."

According to the Florida Keys Tourism Council, across the region more than 70 percent of lodging units are back in business. In Key West and neighboring Stock Island, those numbers are even higher, with 95 percent available. Famous queer escapes -- like the men-only, clothing-optional guesthouses Equator Resort (, Alexander's Guesthouse (, and the Island House ( -- are also open for business, as is the lesbian-owned Southernmost Inn ( for two decades it was the all-women resort, Pearl's Rainbow, but became open to men too in 2010).

Most of the LGBT-friendly guesthouses are near Old Town's Historic Duval Street, putting Azur Restaurant ( on Grinnell Street within easy walking distance. Azur provides a unique dining experience featuring Mediterranean specialties as well as an annual block party hosted by community organizers. While you're there, get a taste of their beef gnocchi. It's to die for!

Key West is Ideal for weddings and romantic getaways, and part of its charm is its easygoing way of life. There's a sense of c'est la vie, where friendship, loyalty, and community are top priority. Most locals work multiple jobs in various realms (the man who checked my luggage was also running for mayor!) to be able to afford to live in paradise. United by their love for the island, they support each other's ventures, and -- especially those in the hospitality industry -- are willing to do nearly anything to make your visit an experience you'll never forget.

Venus Charters ( will customize a charter boat to fit your expectations. Whether it's snorkeling, fishing, dolphin watching, or sea burials, the independently run company will cater to your particular interests. They'll even marry you! La Te Da ( the famous hotel and restaurant on Duval Street -- known for its cabaret, piano bar, and Tea Dance parties every Sunday--offers a superb merging of daytime-nightlife nuances with a pool, hotel guest rooms, and one of the oldest trees on the island, growing in the center of its restaurant. What's not to love?

Pay a visit to Barefoot Billy's ( for one of uts cruises or jet ski tours; or rent a kayak, paddleboard, jet ski, or catamaran and create your own adventure. Rent a bike from Key Lime Bike Tours ( and its affable tour guides will lead you on a historical journey around the island, including to the Hemingway House, Mallory Square, Margaritaville, and the Key West AIDS Memorial (built in 1997 with private funds and donations) before ending the tour with a mouthwatering slice from Key West Key Lime Pie Co. While tooling around town, watch out for the wild chickens that roam free, wandering into roads across the island! By law, they're a protected species, and the fine for hurting one can set you back a whopping $200, which is money you'd rather spend drinking margaritas, daiquiris, mojitos, or pina coladas at at the Green Parrot (, while rocking out to live music.

Cap off your trip with one of the nighttime outings offered by Ibis Bay Beach Resort ( Explore the hidden world of the ocean at night, with an illuminated paddleboard or clear-bottom kayak excursion where LED lights allows you a unique glimpse of creatures that only come out at night. Nothing says Key West more than that. (

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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David Artavia