By Erin Stover Sickmen
Most cities in 2019 have awakened to the fact that equality matters and that, well, rainbows and glitter are the perfect formula for summer fun. Key West has the distinction of being an early adopter of the Pride celebration. Gay culture in Key West reaches back more than half a century, about when Tennessee Williams came roaring onto the island. The bars he frequented became the city’s first unofficial gay bars, and the parties he threw carried the most coveted invitations in town. History would ultimately remember Williams as the “Gay Grandfather” of Key West, ushering in a community that, thankfully, never left.
The first Pride celebrations began in New York, following the Stonewall Riots of 1969. The early “celebrations” were more protest than party, fighting for LGBT equal rights. Key West wasn’t far behind in joining the movement — the first Pride parade took place on Duval Street in 1982.
JT Thompson, creator of the nonprofit “One Human Family,” recalls the early days of Pride in Key West.
“The first year, it was announced, two days beforehand, that the parade was canceled,” he said. “People said it wasn’t needed since gays were so accepted in Key West.” Thompson, whose friend had recently been assaulted because of his sexuality, knew the march was actually very necessary. “We put balloons on our dogs’ collars and marched anyway”, said Thompson. That year, roughly 20 people, without permission or a permit, started what would become Key West Pride.
The island’s gay culture blissfully tore through the next few years until the AIDS crisis brought tragedy to our close-knit community. The ever-persistent Conchs preserved through illness and grief, advocating for greater awareness and support through groups like AH Monroe (formerly AIDS Help), which was founded in 1986 by a small group of individuals using their time, and their own money, to take on an invisible Goliath. Scarred but strong, a new generation picked up the torch and turned Pride into an opportunity for steadfast visibility and a celebration of life. The AIDS memorial at White Street Pier reminds us of that turn.
The Key West Business Guild was founded in 1978 to ensure that gay-owned businesses would receive fair and equal representation and to promote Key West as an LGBT vacation destination. Around the same time, the island elected one of the nation’s first openly gay mayors, Richard Heyman, and followed the precedent by appointing trailblazers like former Police Chief Donie Lee and several commissioners. The legacy continued this past November, when Key West elected its first openly gay female mayor, Teri Johnston. Immediately after her election, Johnston spoke to the Miami Herald about her place in Key West gay history.
“It’s such a different inclusive environment in Key West,” she said, “those things don’t come to mind.” Johnston’s lack of concern echoes the desires of a generation of advocates.
“Back when I started with the gay lib movement,” Thompson said, “the goal was to be able to tell someone you’re gay and have them say, ‘So what?’” To someone “coming out,” a shrug can be even better than a hug.
Some worry that this quieter reaction signals that Key West is no longer the LGBT mecca it once was. Thompson feels strongly that Key West remains a vital LGBT home space and travel destination. “Key West is not less gay. We’ve just achieved what we wanted — to be fully integrated,” said Thompson.
Key West Pride returns this week in full force and is a perfect culmination of years of struggles, setbacks and successes. Key West Business Guild Events Coordinator Fritzie Estimond said that she appreciates “the closeness of it all”, compared to celebrations in larger cities. She also loves that the community embraces Pride as the family-friendly event it’s meant to be. Estimond said she always tells people to bring their kids and “raise them right, with as many rainbows as possible.”
Pride Key West is filled with activities for everyone, ranging from the family-friendly parade, which sees kids fringing the sidewalks waiting to catch candy, to the very adult parties that rage each night long after the sun sets. Even the most well-prepared, highly-caffeinated gay would have a nearly impossible time hitting every event. Instead, the best plan of attack is to pick a few daily highlights to fill those dance cards.
Start with a little education. After all, the existence of this event is owed to some brave predecessors. Key West Film Festival and The Tropic make education easy with a screening of “The Lavender Scare” on Thursday, June 6. The film pays homage to the federal employees and civil servants who endured a 40 year “ban” on employment. The film will be shown in New York the next evening, making Key West its official premiere city.
The next day, it’s time to fully immerse. BAM and KAT throw one for the ladies with their famous pool party at Alexander’s while the guys can head to the “Naked Pool Party” at Island House. Later that evening, musician Steve Grand welcomes the weekend with a concert at Key West Theater.
Hydrate. Saturday is a big day. Revelers can start the day wandering the street fair, which fills Duval Street with vendors, food and merchandise. With attention-worthy stalls every few feet, this may take a while. Luckily, the fair ends near Bourbon Street Pub, depositing festival-goers at the location of the Stoli Cocktail Classic Finale. The annual event calls on bartenders throughout the U.S. to embark on a multi-week competition to see who has the best skills with a shaker. Think Tom Cruise, but with more sparkle and better commentary. The final showdown is always an impressive spectacle. This year, Lance Bass (of NSYNC fame) lends his celebrity factor to the affair.
Sunday is the main event. Key West Pride eases everyone into the day with a gay trolley tour which illuminates history through sights such as the homes where literary greats like Tennessee Williams and Elizabeth Bishop lived.
After a spin past Key West’s best LGBT sights, it’s time to shake your limbs at the La Te Da Tea Dance. In the 1950s and ’60s, in the U.S. and U.K., tea dances became the “speakeasies” of gay culture. A tradition that began as a festive gathering to accompany afternoon tea, the dances died away as times changed. They were revived as part of gay culture, creating an environment where men could dance with men, women with women. If the dances were raided, participants would simply swap partners. La Te Da keeps the tradition alive in Key West.
The weekend officially wraps with the Pride Parade. The parade traverses the length of Duval from Front Street to the southernmost end of the island. The parade typically scatters around the 800 block of Duval Street as the pull of Bourbon Street Pub and 801 Cabaret are too powerful for most to resist. There’s no shame in ending the march a few blocks early to follow the siren sounds of shirtless bartenders and gorgeous drag queens. Enjoy.
Thursday, June 6
Pride Pool Party at Equator Resort
822 Fleming St
“The Pride” at The Studios of Key West
533 Eaton St
tickets at www.fringetheater.org
Ms. Pride competition
801 Bourbon Bar Cabaret
801 Duval St
Applications to participate available at door – 305-923-9296 for more info
“The Lavender Scare”
416 Eaton St.
Friday, June 7
Installation of Pride Flag on Vandenberg
Captain’s Corner Dive Center
125 Ann St
*must be certified to dive to install flag, 10 free non-diver spots on boat, must reserve
Steve Grand performs live
Key West Theater
512 Eaton St
tickets at keywesttheater.com or 305-985-0433
Ultimate Neon Party
700 Duval St
Saturday, June 8
Key West Pride Street Fair
700 & 800 blocks of Duval St
10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
BAM and KAT’s R U Wet Pool Party
1118 Fleming Street
$10 donation at the door to benefit the Gay Straight Alliance at Key West High School
Key West Pride Uni-Crawl
Scavenger hunt begins at I.C. Doubles
203 Duval St.
The Stoli Key West Classic Championship Finale
Main Stage in front of Bourbon Street Pub.
Sunday, June 9
Unity of the Keys Pride Service
1011 Virginia St.
Gay Trolley Tour
Meet at the corner of Angela and Duval
Drag Queen Bingo
801 Bourbon Bar
801 Duval St.
Key West Pride Parade
Runs the length of Duval Street