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Pride in Paradise: Key West’s LGBTQ+ History and Culture

History of Key West Pride
Photo by Lazy Llama from Shutterstock

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Key West, Florida, is synonymous with a laid-back, island lifestyle that’s second only to its amazing sunsets. However, it’s the island’s LGBTQ+ history and culture that truly define its character. Known as a welcoming refuge where individuality is celebrated, Key West lights the way for diversity and acceptance. In this article, the colorful history and thriving culture of the queer community is explored in this tropical, “no shoes, no shirt, no problem,” Pride in paradise.

Key West’s Early Days

Key West’s history as a “port in the storm” for the gay community dates back to the early 20th century. Its geographical isolation, combined with a tolerant and open-minded local population, made it an ideal place for a discreet escape from the societal norms of the mainland. By the 1970s, the island had become a popular destination for queer tourists, drawn by its reputation for openness and arts scene.

The 1980s Marked the Growth of a Community

The 1980s marked a significant period of growth for Key West’s queer community. The island not only attracted tourists but also saw an influx of artists, writers, and creatives who were drawn to the bohemian atmosphere of the island and wanted to live openly and authentically. This decade also saw the establishment of gay-owned businesses, bars, and guesthouses, further cementing Key West’s reputation as an LGBTQ+ friendly destination, where many businesses proudly display rainbow flags and actively participate in Pride events.

During this period, the community also started to organize more formally. One of the earliest organizations, the Key West Business Guild, was founded in the early 1980s. It was one of the first chambers of commerce in the United States dedicated to promoting LGBTQ+ tourism, playing a major role in shaping the community’s economic landscape. 

Key West’s Culture Celebrates Life & Identity

Inclusivity permeates every aspect of Key West’s contemporary culture. Duval Street, the island’s main artery, is a kaleidoscope of bars, shops, and drag queen performances. These shows are not just a source of entertainment but a celebration of self-expression and individuality. Key West’s drag scene is known for its creativity and humor, with local legends like Sushi (famous for the iconic New Year’s Eve “Red Shoe Drop”) leading the way.

Beyond the shiny exterior, lies a deep commitment to social justice and activism. The Key West AIDS Memorial is a poignant reminder of the fight against HIV/AIDS, while organizations like the Key West Equality Alliance continue to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights.

The Fight for Rights & Recognition

Despite its reputation as a gay paradise, Key West was not immune to the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ communities across the country, especially during the height of the AIDS crisis. The community rallied together, establishing support systems and healthcare resources. This period also saw a rise in activism, with locals and transplants fighting side-by-side for equal rights and recognition.

One key moment in the fight came in 1983, when Richard A. Heyman was elected as the mayor of Key West, becoming one of the first openly gay mayors in the United States. His election was a significant victory for the LGBTQ+ community and highlighted Key West’s role as a leader in LGBTQ+ rights.

The city’s government and various non-profit organizations continuously work towards greater legal protections and societal acceptance for LGBTQ+ individuals. Efforts include education programs, legal assistance, and partnerships with national LGBTQ+ rights groups, making Key West a model for small-town LGBTQ+ advocacy.

Key West’s LGBTQ+ Celebrations

In the early 1980s, a group of locals began organizing informal gatherings to honor diversity and promote equality. What started as small, grassroots efforts soon grew into a more organized event, drawing people from far and wide who sought a safe and welcoming place to be themselves.

Today, Key West Pride is a week-long extravaganza filled with parades, parties, and cultural events that draw thousands. The island comes alive with color as the community celebrates not just their identity, but also the progress made in the fight for equality. The event honors the trailblazers who paved the way and reminds everyone of the importance of standing up for love and inclusion. 

It’s a celebration of the queer community’s culture and contributions to the island’s history. The event is a mix of parades, drag shows, parties, and other community events, all set against the backdrop of Key West’s natural beauty and historic architecture.

Key West Pride not only attracts visitors from around the world but is also a reminder of the struggles and triumphs of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s a time for reflection and, most importantly, pride, not only in self-expression, but in how far the community has come.

The island also hosts other LGBTQ+ events from the annual Womenfest to the Tropical Heat festival, each highlighting the creativity and individuality of the community.

Arts and Entertainment

The LGBTQ+ community has been instrumental in shaping Key West’s cultural landscape. The island has a storied history of artists, writers, and performers who have contributed to its reputation as a cultural mecca. Perhaps the most famous LGBTQ+ resident was Tennessee Williams, who lived in Key West during the 1940s and 50s and wrote several of his renowned plays there.

Today, the island continues to celebrate its artistic heritage through events like the Key West Film Festival, featuring LGBTQ+ themed films, and through art galleries showcasing the work of local LGBTQ+ artists.

Education, Outreach & Building Bridges

Education and outreach are central to Key West’s approach to LGBTQ+ advocacy. Local organizations host workshops, talks, and seminars to educate the public about LGBTQ+ issues. These efforts help bridge gaps between diverse groups and promote understanding and allyship within the broader community.

Schools and community centers often collaborate on projects and events, especially during times like Pride Month or in observation of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. These events have a dual purpose. They educate the youth and broader community while also giving a platform for LGBTQ+ voices to share their stories and experiences.

Key West’s efforts extend beyond local outreach. The community engages with national LGBTQ+ organizations to bring in resources and speakers that can offer fresh perspectives and expert insights. Through these initiatives, lives are transformed and a community that stands together is built.

An Ongoing Legacy

Key West continues to evolve and remains at the forefront of advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, with local businesses and the tourism industry actively promoting inclusivity and diversity.

The community’s commitment to supporting one another and advocating for equal rights is what Key West is all about. Not only is it a refuge from the outside world, but it’s also a loud and proud example of what a community can achieve when it comes together with acceptance and love.

It’s important to remember the lessons of inclusivity and diversity that this small island teaches the world. Key West is a community leading the way in showing how each other’s differences enrich us all. Whether you’re a first-time visitor to the island or a returning veteran, Key West continues to embody the true meaning of pride in paradise.

Looking Ahead

As Key West looks to the future, there is an emphasis on nurturing the next generation of LGBTQ+ residents and visitors. Initiatives aimed at youth involvement and leadership ensure that the legacy of the community’s pioneers continues. With ongoing developments in LGBTQ+ rights and social norms, Key West remains committed to creating a more inclusive world.


**Disclaimer: There is a good chance that this post contains affiliate or sponsor links. If you make a purchase through them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you (for which we are extremely grateful).

Also, while we do our best to highlight LGBTQ-friendly destinations and businesses, info provided is based solely on personal experience and recommendations by community partners. We hope that nobody experiences discrimination or homophobia while visiting Florida and beyond, but we make no guarantees. Please inform us if you experience discrimination or homophobia while visiting any destination so we can make updates to our recommendations.

Events are subject to change. Please check the events webpage for updates and schedules.

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