Celebrating Key West, where the Rainbow Flag flies year-round

Sat. December 16, 2017 12:00 AM
by Ross Forman

Key West offers 'a small town atmosphere that welcomes everyone.'

Pass around the Pina coladas, savor the coconut shrimp and blast some classic songs of Jimmy Buffett ...it will be a grand, rainbow flag-waving celebration in 2018 here in this popular city that serves as the home to the Southernmost Point in the U.S., where the sun shines year-round and the slogan is, "One Human Family" to embrace unity, equality and diversity.

The Key West Business Guild was started in 1978 by eight business owners on the island. Forty years later, there are about 500 businesses, making the Key West Business Guild, quite possibly, the oldest LGBT marketing organization in the nation.

The year-long KWBG celebration kicks off in January with an anniversary party that will be, 1970s-themed. The year will be filled with seminars and more to educate on the history of the KWBG. Plus, KWBG executives will recognize many who have been an important part of the success of the organization over the years.

"This island has historically been very LGBT-friendly," said Matt Hon, KWBG executive director. After all, Richard Heyman was one of the first openly-gay public officials in the U.S., having served as the mayor of Key West in the 1980s.

"Key West city officials have been very good (at) making the island LGBT-friendly by having laws that give the LGBT community the rights and protections that we deserve. Many of the laws were created long before many cities in the nation even gave them consideration. The rainbow flag flies all across the island. We are one of the only cities in the nation that has a rainbow flag that flies in front of city hall 365 days a year. The city commission also has a rainbow flag in the chamber meeting room, alongside the American flag, the flag of the State of Florida and the Conch Republic Flag.

"Key West was also the first city in the nation to have permanent rainbow crosswalks on our main (street). Key West is a unique city, offering a small town atmosphere that welcomes everyone.

"The LGBT community is a very important piece of the fabric of our island. We have had elected officials who identity as LGBT; our police chief is openly gay. And LGBT citizens hold very important political and community positions. You will find LGBT individuals in almost every establishment on the island. All of the businesses are LGBT-friendly. Folks who are visiting our island can feel comfortable to go into any of our businesses and be who they are and be respected as who they are."

The KWBG is a non-profit, member-based organization whose mission is to market Key West as an LGBT travel destination. It works closely with the local Tourist & Development Council to produce LGBT-specific marketing. Plus, they produce three major events annually for the LGBT community -- Key West Pride, Tropical Heat (for the boys) and Womenfest (for the girls). "We also work with our local elected officials to make sure our city is the most accommodating city in the country for LGBT individuals," Hon said. "Some folks refer to us at the Key West LGBT Chamber of Commerce, but we do so much more."

Hon, 50, started with the KWBG in 2011 as the Event Assistant and was appointed Executive Director in 2014. He is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and has called Key West home for the past 14 years. Hon also has served as a community coordinator for the Gay Straight Alliance at Key West High School.

"I believe it is important that the youth of our community have mentors to help them be successful, open LGBT individuals," Hon said.

Here's a look at eight must-see events in Key West, starting with some that fall under the LGBT banner:

Key West Pride: The five-day event is held in early-June. In 2017, it featured an Underwear Dance Party, Glow Party, Foam Party and an event titled, "Hot Naked Sundays Pool Party."

Tropical Heat: The August event attracts gay men from all over the world, and with the sun beaming down and the temperature shooting up, not too much clothing is worn at this event.

Womenfest: Sorry guys, the gals take over the island for a week in September filled with comedy shows, drag shows, concerts, pool parties and more.

Fantasy Fest: The annual Halloween-time event features a week of costumes and fantasies. "Some of the most imaginative costumes you will see and some costumes that don't leave much to your imagination," Hon said.

Bone Island: Another event geared for gay men, particularly those who choose to skip the clothing. The event happens twice a year – in July and December. Hon said Bone Island is the perfect event for those that like to pack lightly.

Hemingway Days: Every July, the island celebrates the famous writer, complete with a zany 'run with the bulls' down Duval Street and a Hemingway look-alike contest.

Conch Republic Days: Key West celebrates its Independence Days in April, complete with drag races (not fast cars mind you), bed races, a re-enactment of the great Conch Republic battle, and more.

Brewfest: It's all about beer – tastings, dinners and more. The annual event happens in late summer.