At the dawn of the new millennium, the city of Key West adopted the inclusive, equitable slogan “One Human Family” as its official philosophy. Now, Janiece Rodriguez and Chris McNulty are putting that philosophy into much-needed practice with the formation of their LGBTQIA+ youth group, Queer Keys.
The team maintains that despite its reputation as a gay tourist destination, Key West is lacking resources for the local queer population, youth and otherwise. McNulty, who relocated pre-pandemic from Cleveland, where he served as the community engagement coordinator at the city’s LGBT Community Center, was surprised to learn Key West did not offer similar programming. “I was shocked. Key West is gay friendly but it’s not LGBTQIA+ friendly.”
Rodriguez, who moved to Key West from Miami in 2019, was similarly dismayed by the island’s lack of services and support. “When I got here, I got the LGBT resource book and I started calling the list of health care providers. I was uninsured and looking for mental health work and hormone therapy and no one provides that.”
When McNulty, an accomplished astrologer, read Rodriguez’s birth chart, all signs and stars pointed to the potential for collaboration and meaningful change. “We were having conversations about wanting to do something to help the community and decided we were going to make this happen because it didn’t exist,” said McNulty.
Rodriguez and McNulty are joined at Queer Keys’ weekly meetups by Becky Kavoussi, a licensed therapist and social worker. “The fact that we have a safe space for these kids to gather is so inspiring,” said Kavoussi. “I love that the youth who show up are shaping the direction we are heading as an organization.”
Youth outreach is only the beginning of what Rodriguez and McNulty envision. “Our goal is to have a fully programmed LGBT Center with senior programming, trans wellness programming, education, legal resources, training for businesses, a clothing closet, everything. But you have to start somewhere. We started the youth group because those are the people that need help.”
Rodriguez’s own youth has been a catalyst for her involvement with Queer Keys. “I have that real life experience on the frontlines of social injustice. Being trans, I’ve been through sex work and I’ve been incarcerated, I’ve been through that system. Getting to this point was an insane, intense experience. This life can either make you a phoenix or completely destroy you.”
Having risen from the ashes, Rodriguez is heartened by what she sees as forward momentum among the younger generation. “I’m so surprised by the kids. They’re so comfortable with their labels and being fluid. That confidence, that comfort, that’s brand new to me and it is so beautiful.”
For Rodriguez, providing a safe and encouraging space for that beauty is of critical importance. “There’s nothing for youths to do in Key West. It’s a bar town and kids get sucked into that lifestyle. We offer something to do and somewhere to be social. It’s what’s needed here.”
The drop-in group offers free food, open discussion, creative activities and absolute acceptance. “Here in this hour and a half, you can be yourself. You don’t have to worry about us judging you or questioning you or making you answer for anything,” added McNulty
The freedom to be extends to the freedom to do for Rodriguez and McNulty, “We let the kids run the meeting. At the end of each one we ask them what they would like to do next, and we make it happen.” So far, the group has experimented with karaoke and makeup application with tie dye, soap making, slam poetry, knitting and a Halloween dance on the calendar ahead.
Built on the foundations of confidentiality, respect, a pledge to agree to disagree, the absence of shame and the dedication to self-love, the group meets at 6 p.m. Thursdays at their temporary location at the Old Stone Coffee House at 600 Eaton St., on the grounds of the United Methodist Church.
While they search for a permanent location, Rodriguez and McNulty are grateful for the space and advocacy of the United Methodist Church. “Bridget Thornton, the pastor, is really cool. At her last parish, the last thing she did was baptize a trans person with their new name. She was like, ‘I’m all about this, use our space, whatever you need, it’s all for you.’”
That generosity of spirit mirrors the response the pair have received from Key West as a whole. “There’s something special about this island. It has held me through really hard times. I was broken and this island was like, ‘We see you’re going through a hurricane, what supplies do you need?’ That’s the mentality of this place. When I started talking about this project everyone was like, ‘What do you need?’ The more I talk about it the more people want to help,” said McNulty.
The decision to use the word queer in the naming of the organization was an important one for Rodriguez and McNulty, “You don’t have to identify yourself as something while you’re figuring it out. … The fluidity in queer is important, especially for young folks.”
Interested young folks can drop into Queer Keys at 6 p.m. every Thursday at the Old Stone Coffee House behind the United Methodist Church at 600 Eaton St.
More information, including how to donate, is at the Queer Keys’ pages on Facebook or Instagram.