This subtropical city, located 125 miles southwest of mainland Florida at the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys, has welcomed diverse groups of people since the early 1800s.
New England ship captains, southern U.S. merchants, Bahamian shipwreck salvagers, Cuban aristocrats, presidents, pirates and poets have all found their way to Key West — drawn to its rich salty culture, treasured history and eclectic eccentricities.
Playwright Tennessee Williams is credited with first attracting national attention to Key West’s accepting appeal in the 1940s. Since then, the town’s LGBTQ community has lived openly and comfortably, freely welcoming visitors to its fun-filled, sun-drenched society.
Williams was influential in luring friends after he moved to the island in 1941 — attracting artists, writers and musicians who elevated Key West’s emerging national reputation as a gay playground and mecca. In Key West, Williams completed “Summer and Smoke” and wrote “Night of the Iguana,” among other works.
Other gay and lesbian notables — Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein and Elizabeth Bishop, for example — also enjoyed leisure time in Key West, shaping its growing literary and artistic culture.
The creative LGBTQ presence is credited with sparking interest in the island from the 1950s through the 1970s, when architects began transforming the then-shabby Old Town area and renovating significant buildings. It has since been estimated that more than 70 percent of the restoration and renovation effort was undertaken by gays.
The island’s gay and lesbian residents played a significant role in Key West’s commercial revitalization as well as its architectural renaissance. When the U.S. Navy dramatically reduced its presence in the mid-1970s, tourism began to bolster a sagging economy. Attracted by the island’s commercial potential, entrepreneurs began investing in guesthouses, shops, restaurants and bars.
Today, contemporary Old Town is acclaimed as one of the most remarkable historic districts in the United States, with about 3,000 standing wooden structures.
About 30 percent of Key West’s 25,000 residents self-identify as being part of the LGBTQ community. Gay men and women continue to influence and contribute to the island, holding top-ranking political and civic positions and standing at the top of professions ranging from hospitality to medicine.
From a small beginning, fueled by the efforts of a foresighted group, Key West has become an internationally acclaimed tourism destination for gay and lesbian travelers. More than 300,000 LGBTQ visitors flock to the island annually, enjoying its relaxed camaraderie and sunny subtropical atmosphere.
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/gay, fla-keys.com/keywest or 1-800-LAST-KEY
Gay Key West Visitor Center: gaykeywestfl.com, 305-294-4603 or 1-800-535-7797
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