Gay life on the southernmost tip of the USA.
My first visit to Key West, Florida, was in 1977. I hitch-hiked 1,700 miles from Chicago. Getting there took me three days and included the drama of a gun-wielding driver who demanded oral sex.
Within an hour of arriving in Key West, I was seduced by a 16 year old schoolboy. On the pretext of exploring local history, he persuaded me to climb a high wall into the deserted, overgrown garden behind the Spanish baroque San Carlos Institute. This was the place, he explained, where Jose Marti launched the struggle for Cuban independence in 1892.
0nce we were in the garden, the boy’s interest in history evaporated. After brazenly insisting on comparing dick sizes, and deciding mine was of desirable dimensions, he had me screw him on a gravestone under a towering Spanish Lime tree. With the cool marble giving relief from the tropical heat, we talked and fucked the whole night, a mere 25 yards from the main street.
Revisiting Key West 19 years later, the garden has been cleared, the gravestone removed, the wall demolished, and the boy has become a man and moved to New York. But the tree’s still there, and it now shades the rear-end of a gay bar, 0ne Saloon.
Otherwise, surprisingly little has changed. Spared the ravages of over-development, Key West remains an elegant, beautifully-restored colonial-period small town, with gingerbread pastel-painted timber houses surrounded by wide verandas, lush gardens and white picket fences. Its intimacy, friendliness and laid-back tranquillity is a world apart from the overcrowded, crime-ridden, rat-race of Miami.
Down here, a ‘drive-by’ killing is when a car accidentally squashes a lizard basking on the road. The biggest scandal in the last 20 years was Fire Chief Bum Farto’s conviction for smoking pot. This is America as it once was, but with none of the narrow-mindedness.
Key West is America’s premier gay resort, boasting a cornucopia of all-homo beaches, night-clubs, guest houses and coral reef cruises. There’s the Gay Arts Festival (June), the lesbian Womensfest (September), and the outrageous Mardi Gras carnival, Fantasy Fest (October).
What’s not gay-run is made-to-measure gay-friendly, with more businesses flying the Rainbow Flag than the Stars ‘n’ Stripes (which, in the absurdly patriotic USA, says a lot about the power of the pink dollar).
Unlike its brash, rival gay resort of South Beach Miami, where most people seem to be under 30 and have perfect gym-honed bodies, Key West attracts a wider diversity of both gay men, and lesbians. The atmosphere is less showy and competitive. You feel more comfortable.
Plenty of queers evidently agree. A fifth of the 24,000 population is lesbian or gay. Why so many homos have moved here is not hard to fathom. The place has long been a liberal-minded, bohemian haven for all kinds of social outlaws and avant-garde artists (the writers Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams were residents).
Moreover, like queers, Key West defies nature. A speck in the middle of the ocean 150 miles south of Miami and 90 miles north of Havana, it’s a tiny tropical island, one mile by four, in the heart of the hurricane zone. Somehow the place survives, against all the odds. Perhaps that is part of its gay appeal.
Key West is at the far end of the Florida Keys, a necklace of over 200 coral isles strung out into the Caribbean. The best way to get here is by car, travelling south from Miami along the breathtaking 113-mile Overseas Highway. En route you cross 43 bridges – one of them seven miles long – which span the limpid, turquoise waters between the Keys. 0n one side of the road is the Atlantic Ocean and on the other side is the Gulf of Mexico. There’s an awesome beauty, and a hint of vulnerability, about this journey to the isolated, southernmost point in the USA.
Once in Key West, the first thing to do is sort out accommodation. Partly because it’s so out-of-the-way, the town has avoided the despoilation of mass tourism. Much of the accommodation is in small hotels and guest houses; some catering exclusively to lesbian and gay visitors.
I stayed at Alexander’s on Fleming Street, in the Old Town. It consists of three gracious, turn-of-the-century ‘conch’-style wooden houses, painted egg-shell blue and set in verdant green gardens, with a pool and multi-level sun decks.
The interiors are sheer luxury, with all the rooms decorated in their own distinctive style (mine had antique Key Pine walls). Rates are surprisingly reasonable. In the summer (low season in Key West), double room prices start from $69, including an all-you-can-eat DIY breakfast. With only 16 units, Alexander’s has a friendly, homely feel. Guests get personalised attention.
The ever-helpful staff know all there is to know about places of gay interest. They can also quickly disabuse you of any quaint cultural misunderstandings. Like, don’t be fooled by the shop signs: “Food, Beer & Drugs”. Alas, the only “drugs” they offer are aspirin and antibiotics.
Key West is hot. So I hired a bicycle and set off exploring the gay beaches. My favourite is Fort Zachary Taylor, otherwise known as “Elizabeth Taylor” in the local gay argot. Situated adjacent to an old Civil War fortress, the homo section is around the rocky breakwater. There is also Higgs Beach. The wooden pier at the end of Reynolds Street is nick-named ‘dick dock’, presumably because of the endless parade of male genitals barely concealed in skimpy, skin-tight swimwear. Mmm!
The beaches are fab, but the key attraction for me is offshore: the world’s third largest coral reef. I took day trips on the Sebago and Fury catamarans to snorkel on the outer keys (instructions, equipment and lunch provided).
With crystal clear water, I had a spectacular submarine panorama of coral mountains and canyons. The sea teemed with exotic, multicoloured fish. Some playfully swam alongside and fed out of my hand. It’s easy and safe; although when a reef shark came close it was a bit unnerving, until I remembered they are harmless.
Most memorable of all, was a school of giant sting rays swimming in graceful formation like a choreographed corps de ballet. For those who prefer snorkelling in all-gay company (and why not?) the Southern Comfort, a 47 foot deluxe yacht, offers all-male, no-clothes cruises. Women on the Water runs similar trips for dykes.
Most gay life in Key West revolves around bars and beaches. The Atlantic Shores Resort combines both. Overhanging the ocean, the bar is built on a raised wooden platform, with large sun deck and pool. Swimsuits are optional. It’s wall-to-wall flesh. A 50-foot jetty juts out into the sea, giving access to party-goers arriving by speed boat (they moor their sleek Rainbow Flag-flying boats to the landing bay). On Sunday nights, the whole place becomes a huge, open-air, pool-side night-club.
Of the other bars, my favourites are 801 (downstairs it’s cruisy with porno flicks, upstairs there’s a jazzy cocktail lounge) and One Saloon (brilliant dance music inside and a luscious tropical garden out the back).
The gay party boats are also great fun, offering a range of sunset and late-night disco cruises. I went on the Rumrunner Key, a kitsch palm-thatched tiki boat. The upper deck is open to the stars, with tables and chairs laid out among potted palms and a miniature sand beach. Once the boys were a bit juiced up, several stripped off and piled into the on-deck hot tub, where various unspeakable acts were (allegedly) committed.
There was also a stripper and lap-dancer who, when we got beyond the three-mile limit and the jurisdiction of Florida law, cast modesty and discretion into the suitably sultry sea breeze.
One of the most interesting and unique gay places in Key West is the cruising area at the Salt Ponds. It’s located at the end of Government Road next to the now defunct nuclear missile silos (don’t gay men have an uncanny knack of choosing perverse places to cruise!). The Ponds were built in 1830 to harvest sea salt. Long unused, the area is now overgrown swamp, forest and lakes.
At sunset, it’s beautiful – and busy. Most of the action is concentrated in the section
known as Little Hamaca City Park, a wetlands nature trail consisting of wooden boardwalks that zig-zag through the mangroves. It’s wild in there (and I’m not referring to alligators!).
If you want a break from sun-bathing, sex and swimming, Key West offers plenty of alternatives. It’s got a fascinating history of smuggling, piracy and shipwrecks. The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum tells the story of the recovery, since 1973, of over $200 million worth of gold, silver and jewels from the sunken Spanish galleons, Atocha and Margarita, which went down in a hurricane in 1622 (thought to be treasure looted from Latin America by the conquistadors).
You can also visit the original office of Pan American Airways, which in 1927 began the first scheduled air service in the USA (from Key West to Havana). The little white timber house is now Kelly’s Caribbean Bar & Grill. Owned by the actress Kelly McGillis, who starred alongside Tom Cruise in Top Gun, it serves gorgeous portions of the taste bud-tingling local dessert speciality, Key Lime Pie (a cross between cheesecake, sorbet and cream custard!).
The not-to-be-missed, top event in the Key West calendar has got to be Fantasy Fest in late October. It’s ten days of non-stop bacchanalian carnival, beginning with the Afro-Caribbean celebration, the Goombay street party, in the Bahama Village.
This is followed by an endless whirl of Headdress Balls, Masquerade Parties, and even a Pet Costume Carnival. The grand finale is the night-time technicolour madness of the Fantasy Fest Parade, when nearly 60,000 people cram Duval Street to cheer the procession of floats, samba bands and costumed marchers. Fucking brilliant! One thing for sure, I won’t be leaving it another 19 years before I revisit Key West.
Copyright Peter Tatchell1996. All rights reserved.
Published as “Chain of Desire”, Gay Times, August 1996.