What: Queer Keys Coming Out Party

When: 5-8 p.m. Sunday, June 26

Where: Key West Theater

Tickets: $40 at thekeywesttheater.com or call 305-985-0433.

A question must be asked before it can be answered. And answers aren’t always easy or obvious, but the nonprofit group Queer Keys, which launched in August 2021, wants teens to have the courage to ask questions, about themselves and the world around them, in a safe and inclusive space.

Chris McNulty (who also writes Keys Weekly’s horoscopes) and Janiece Rodriguez created Queer Keys as a weekly, evening drop-in center, where kids of all identities, orientation and preferences — and those who haven’t yet answered those questions — can be themselves, said Rodriguez, a trans woman who wants to see more trans health care available in Key West.

“Our focus is not about them figuring out all the answers to some huge questions,” Rodriguez said. “It’s about providing a place where they can come as they are and take their mind off concerns they may have.” Questions or doubts about gender identity and sexual orientation can become all-consuming, especially for teens, Rodriguez added.

“We really view this as the youth component of our overall goal, which is a fully resourced LBGTQ+ center in Key West,” McNulty said. “We started with kids aged 12 to 18 because it’s such an underserved population. We want to provide a safe, fun space for queer or questioning kids.”

But wait, you ask, isn’t the term “queer” derogatory? Not anymore, McNulty said.

“Young people are all about the word ‘queer’, but obviously, be conscious of how you’re using it,” he said. “‘Queer’ implies a fluidity and has become a sort of catch-all to include the whole LGBTQ+ community. Basically, it means you don’t identify as heteronormative.” (Heteronormative is “the assumption that heterosexuality is the standard for defining normal sexual behavior,” according to the American Psychological Association.)

Health expert Elise Schuste said in a May 2022 article in Cosmopolitan magazine, that the LGBTQ community adopted the term “queer” in the late ’80s as a form of pride. “I like to think my queer identity is me saying, ‘You thought you were insulting me, but this is actually something I love about myself,’” she said.

McNulty and Rodriguez maintain that despite its reputation as a gay tourist destination, Key West is lacking resources for the local queer population, youth and otherwise, Reda Wigle wrote in the Keys Weekly in October 2021.

“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,’” Wigle writes. “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.’”

The group had been meeting weekly at the Key West United Methodist Church, but is taking the summer off as attendance drops during spring, winter and summer breaks. “The church has been absolutely great and so generous with us. But we want to find a more permanent meeting space,” McNulty said.

Queer Keys participants are encouraged to use whatever name and gender pronouns they prefer, regardless of what they use at home or in school, Rodriguez said, adding that a certified mental health counselor also attends the meetings. “Due to the prevalence of mental health issues in the queer community,” Rodriguez said, we want someone who’s trained and equipped to identify and handle potential red flags among sensitive adolescents.

“The kids now feel that they have each other,” McNulty added. “Most of our participants are teens who were assigned female at birth, but are now questioning, but really all kids are welcome.”

Queer Keys has relevant group discussions and activities, including movie nights, tie-dying shirts, yoga classes and art projects. “We’ve also had the health department come in and talk for Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, since they’re not allowed to do anything about it in public schools,” Rodriguez said. 

Youth outreach is only the beginning of what Rodriguez and McNulty envision,” Wigle wrote. “‘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.’”

The Queer Keys Coming-Out Party takes place 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday, June 26 at Key West Theater, 512 Eaton St. it will be hosted by drag queen Puddin’ Taine, featuring comedy by Gwen Filosa, music by Glass Cates & 3Sum, a silent auction and queer education “in a fun way,” McNulty said. Tickets are $40 at thekeywesttheater.com or call 305-985-0433.

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.