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social sciences

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Miami and Key West  
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Tennessee Williams first visited Key West in 1941 and several years later bought a house that he retained for the rest of his life. Gay and lesbian writers such as Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Carson McCullers visited him during his stays there.

World War II brought an influx of military personnel to the naval base and a boost to the island's economy.

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President Harry Truman, hardly a bohemian sort, was nevertheless attracted to Key West and made a home there his "Little White House" for vacations while he was in office. Nattily (if somewhat improbably) attired in colorful Hawaiian shirts, he strolled the island's streets.

The closure of the naval base in the 1960s led to another decline in Key West's economy, causing many residents to leave. Gay and lesbian business people would prove central to the island's return to prosperity.

The 1970s saw an influx of gay and lesbian entrepreneurs who opened many guesthouses, clubs, restaurants, and other businesses. The Key West Business Guild, one of the first gay chambers of commerce in the nation, was founded in 1978 to promote gay and lesbian tourism. The organization also offers a trolley tour that teaches visitors about the glbtq history and culture of the island.

In the 1970s, the glbtq community became a force in local politics. Richard Heyman (1935-1994) became one of the first openly gay elected officials when he was elected mayor in 1983.

Gay clubs have long been a mainstay of Key West's social scene. One of the oldest is La Te Da, originally known as La Terraza de Martí but which acquired its more familiar, playful moniker when drag performer Holly Woodlawn mangled the name.

Key West's celebration of iconoclasm is nowhere more evident than in its declaration of itself as the "Conch Republic." In April 1982, in response to the Mariel boatlift, the U. S. Border Patrol set up a blockade on highway U. S. 1 and required everyone on the road to provide proof of citizenship in order to proceed to the mainland. This was a significant inconvenience, and so when pleas for relief were rebuffed, Mayor Dennis Wardlaw immediately took action: he announced that Key West had seceded from the union, declared war on the United States but immediately surrendered, and requested foreign aid.

The Conch Republic--whose motto is "The Mitigation of World Tension through the Exercise of Humor"--still holds a festive annual celebration of its independence day. Key West businesses sell the Republic's flag, stamps, and currency, as well as passports and same-sex marriage licenses.

Key West loves a party and holds a number of annual festivals including FantasyFest, a ten-day event with masquerade balls, pet parades, pageants, and other events that raise money for AIDS charities; WomenFest, which draws thousands of lesbians for art, entertainment, and cultural events; the Queen Mother pageant for drag artists; and PrideFest, always a high point of the year.

In 2003 PrideFest celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the rainbow flag in spectacular fashion. Designer Gilbert Baker was on hand as a three-ton, one and a quarter mile-long version of his creation stretched across the entire width of Key West from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The flag had the eight stripes of Baker's original design, including pink and turquoise, two colors that had earlier been dropped because they were not available in commercially produced flag fabric at the time.

It is believed that approximately one third of male residents of Key West are gay, and a quarter of the women are lesbian. The city has an anti-discrimination ordinance and offers domestic partner benefits to its employees.

In 2004 the Key West City Commission passed a resolution that encouraged Florida and all other states to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, condemned George W. Bush's call for a constitutional amendment against such unions, and supported the provision of domestic partner benefits by both public and private employers.

Key West resident Susan Kent summed up the philosophy of the community and sent a message to the rest of the world. "This island is unique," she said. "It's not tolerance, it's acceptance of diversity. You could do this too."

Linda Rapp

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literature >> Bishop, Elizabeth

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social sciences >> Bryant, Anita

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literature >> Capote, Truman

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social sciences >> Voeller, Bruce

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literature >> Williams, Tennessee

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Ayres, B. Drummond, Jr. "Miami Debate Over Rights of Homosexuals Directs Wide Attention to a National Issue." New York Times (May 10, 1977): 18.

______. "Miami Votes 2 to 1 to Repeal Law Barring Bias Against Homosexuals." New York Times (June 8, 1977): 73.

Buckley, Cara. "Key West, Fla., Residents, Clergy Cheer Resolution Favoring Gay Marriage." Knight Ridder Tribune Business News (Washington) (March 17, 2004): 1.

Fejes, Fred. "Florida." Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender History in America. Marc Stein, ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004. 1, 404-408.

Gilbert, Constance, et al. "Gay Key West: HTA Trolley Tour." Script. 2005.

Lee, Gary. "Where the Boys Are, Part 2; Watch Out, South Beach. Fort Lauderdale Is Making Its Moves as a Top Gay Spot." Washington Post (May 15, 2005): 1.

Minkowitz, Donna. "Miami Heat: An Antigay Ballot Initiative Spurs Some Surprising Coalitions." The Nation 275.8 (September 16, 2002): 22.

Ross, Karl. "Miami-Dade County Fla., Law to Protect People from Discrimination Is Saved." Miami Herald (September 12, 2002).

Rupp, Leila J., and Verta Taylor. Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003.


    Citation Information
    Author: Rapp, Linda  
    Entry Title: Miami and Key West  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2005  
    Date Last Updated December 11, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2005, glbtq, inc.  


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