Beyond breathtaking sunsets and sour, gelatinous pie, Key West, Florida, has historically been famous for its gay culture. Queer icons from Divine to Leonard Bernstein used to slut it up at the many gay bars and men-only guesthouses the island was known for in the 1970s and 80s. Tennessee Williams, the ultimate daddy, lived for years in a small house on Duncan Street with his "secretary" Frank Merlo .
"Now please don't hurry down here: the island has finally run out of coral rock extensions into the sea," Williams once wrote of Key West. "Almost no one plays bridge, and there is almost nothing to do but drink or swim or —."
But many are claiming this historical gay paradise is no longer the hot hangout for homos it used to be. In 2005 the New York Times accused Key West of "going straight," and in 2012 The Advocate dropped Key West from its list of America's top 25 gayest cities. So I went down to the island's Tropical Heat festival, a weekend of nude pool parties and fetish balls engineered to draw a big gay crowd, to see for myself just how hetero Key West has gotten.
Related: Can Young Gays Enjoy Fire Island?
That question was easy to answer—Key West is so fucking gay. The sky there literally shits out a rainbow every time it drizzles. As soon as I arrived at the airport, which was decorated like the set of Golden Girls, I turned on Grindr and started asking questions. Immediately, a VGL local bear told me I needed to talk to Gary "Sushi" Marion, the grand dame of Key West's thriving drag scene who descends from the sky in a giant red shoe each New Year's Eve. Her authority was confirmed by many others throughout my time in Key West, where Sushi is revered for her sharp wit and fishy realness.
I found her presiding over the 801 Cabaret on Duval Street, one of the three gay bars left on the island's main drag, where she is house queen. Within moments of talking to her, she cut to the heart of the problem facing Key West's gay scene: "Young gay culture here is dying because it's so expensive to live here. It's much cheaper to go to Fort Lauderdale or Miami," Sushi explained. "When I first moved here 21 years ago there were eight or nine gay guest houses. Now there are two." My question then became not whether the island is still a gay destination, but if young gays could still enjoy it.
The most well known of these remaining gay guesthouses, the Island House, was to be my home for the week. It's been open since 1976, making it the longest-running men-only guesthouse in the country. When I arrived there late last Tuesday night, I was greeted by Gordon Ross, the night desk clerk. Gordon moved to Key West in 1970, and has witnessed the shift in gay culture firsthand. This experience is documented in his self-published book, Key West: Dancing at the End of the Rainbow 1970–1990, which chronicles the local gay scene leading up to the AIDS crisis, which decimated the island's gay population and led Ross to organize 19 years of annual fundraisers for AIDS help.
The Island House is a clothing-optional resort that features a swimming pool, two hot tubs, a gym, a restaurant, and in-room TVs that play gay porn 24/7 on three different channels. The inn is known locally as "the gay country club." To get a membership, townies only have to spend $60 in food and drink per month, and that gets them access to all of the facilities, including the gym. It's a place where locals and visitors mingle by the pool late at night, and many consider it a main hub of gay culture in Key West. Still, it has had some trouble attracting younger clientele, as have other gay-centric businesses on the island.
Part of my question in coming to Key West was this: As homosexuality becomes acceptable in the mainstream, what is the purpose of places like Island House? Since the 1940s the island has been marketed as a gay destination, a remote place where undercover homos could go to be themselves. But in a time when gay people can get married just like breeders, are places like this that are specifically gay still necessary? I became interested in this subject last summer, while on a similar assignment on Fire Island with VICE's Mitchell Sunderland. "I wanted a gay mecca because I was sick of being one of maybe three faggots everywhere I went," was Mitchell's answer. "At work, at school, often even at home, gay people live in straight people's world." Amen, sister.
Another reason I can think of for no-hetero places to exist is that permissive gay sex is still not permissible in the mainstream. Try rimming a hairy stranger by the pool at the Hilton in broad daylight, and I'm sure they'd show you the door. But this kind of activity is allowed and even encouraged at Island House. Upstairs there is a dark room divided by black rubber curtains like a kinky version of those you'd see in a grocery store's meat department. Inside, an assortment of gay porn plays from four screens on loop, and all the furniture is covered black vinyl.
"The video room is 24 hours a day, all gay porn going on TVs—it's very much the bathhouse aspect of Island House," Jeff Smead, director of marketing at the resort, told me. "This scares young gays. They freak out. They don't know what bathhouses are, they don't understand. They've been labeled gross. They come to Island House and they figure this out, they have a few cocktails and decide, I shouldn't judge this, this is just like any day out at the gay bars in West Hollywood. It's not different. It's just easier. And you don't have to do anything. You can have your steak and lobster downstairs, or you can have a dick sandwich. It's whatever you make of it."
Jeff was right. For me and other gays of my generation, if you mention a bathhouse, you might as well just call it an AIDS buffet. But this one was immaculately clean, bowls of free condoms were everywhere, and lube could be purchased at the front desk and charged to your room. As far as rooms dedicated to sex go, this one seemed relatively innocent. I wandered into the video room a couple of times during my stay (because journalism), and decided it was kind of fun to watch strangers fucking in the shadows. I wasn't allowed to photograph, but I did bring my notebook. Once, the outline of a short, spherical man drifted over my way, and I could see his hand beginning to reach out for my crotch. This was the only unsolicited advance anyone at the hotel ever made, but it was totally harmless, and easily sidestepped by lightly swatting his hand away and whispering, "No!"
The next day I went downtown to the offices of Key West's Business Guild, which doubles as the town's Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Behind the front desk was Lacey Camper, who agreed that friskiness might be part of the reason all-male guesthouses still had a purpose. "I think men might be more open-minded sexually," she suggested. "You don't see a lot of female-only places. But we do have Womenfest in September!"
After being stationed in Key West during her service in the military before Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed, Lacey decided to stay in Key West. "They don't care what your sexual orientation is so long as you're good to other people," she explained. She works two jobs, helping organize at the Business Guild and as a night guard at the courthouse.
I wanted to find more people around my age (I'm 27) to talk to about their experience as gay tourists. So I went back to the hotel for their kickoff party for Tropical Heat, a naked pool party. The average age of the crowd of guys in the pool ("man soup!" as one patron described it) was probably 40, but there were really all ages of gay people in attendance—lots of shapes and sizes—which is really rare in the gay community, or at least it is in Brooklyn, where all the gays seem to be young, emaciated part-time models. Across the pool, I spotted a cluster of younger guys who had sort of a "Broke Straight Boys" appeal, and decided to ask their opinions.
They were in town from Atlanta and staying with a friend who runs a vacation rentals company and had a free house with a pool. They'd come last year for Tropical Heat, and were back a this year for more. "The attention is not bad, if you're a younger guy, from the older crowd," one of them, named Tristan, admitted when I asked them why they'd returned. "It gives you an idea of what's to become, you know what I mean?"
Another, Kyle, liked the instant community aspect of the events: "I'm in college now, and I'm involved with the student gay groups, and a lot of people pass you up. Over the summer we've been doing tabling to try to recruit new members. You see these gay boys, totally gay, and they just walk right by because they're like, I don't need that anymore.I have Grindr or I have whatever. I miss that family camaraderie aspect of the gay community that was necessary in the past, but now it's kind of going away now that gay is becoming mainstream."
Do we gays no longer want to be part of any club that would have us as a member, or is the club just no longer members-only? I thought of myself as a Carrie Bradshaw–esque figure typing that last sentence into my laptop last night while sipping a bright pink cosmo at the pool bar, my feet dangling in the tropical breeze. Then I thought, God, I'm such a fag . And this place is so, totally down with that.
801 Bourbon Bar