Sebastian Beach is packed with gay men of all shapes and sizes on this warm Sunday afternoon. In the middle of the crowd sits a group of five Montrealers. Two of them are fish-belly pale and three are deeply burnt on the shoulders but their burns are turning into tans.
“First we look at the guys and then we look at the view,” says one. They describe the hardships of their life here: sleep, eat, lie on the beach, have a couple drinks in a gay bar. It’s an example of what draws gay visitors to the former Spring Break destination.
In the late 1980s Fort Lauderdale ramped up arrests for public drinking and sent most of the horny hetero students packing. Gay visitors have since provided some recession cushioning to the local economy, and residents have flooded into suburbs like Oakland Park and Wilton Manors. “WilMa” now has one of the highest concentrations of same-sex couples in the US, and nearly 40 percent of the population is gay according to voter registration statistics. The gay presence is equally pronounced on the City Commission, where three out of the five members are openly gay — the mayor and vice mayor among them.
We arrive in Wilton Manors, along with our guide, Josh. The crawl begins at a sports bar called Sidelines at the southwest end of the gay strip on Wilton Drive. The crowd, mostly male tonight, gathers early to watch play-by-plays on 16 TV screens.
Our next stop is Bill’s Filling Station, which is packed at 11 and sweltering from bear body heat. We squeeze past a shirtless man with a back like a shag carpet, while Josh goes around the room, greeting his friends with a belly rub.
We continue to a busy intersection in front of the Shoppes at Wilton Manors. Josh calls it “the corner of gay and gayer.” Among the Shoppes we see Humpy’s Pizza; a thrift store called Poverello supporting people with HIV; a dance club called Boom, and an old eating and drinking standby called Georgie’s Alibi.
Back on the Drive, we pop into a new place called Matty’s, where the paintings are furry and the customers are engrossed in a game of Wii Bowling. We finish at New Moon where we find a diverse group of young women and trans folk dancing.
The community was dealt a blow in 2008 when Simmie Williams, an African-American gender variant teenager, was shot and killed across town on Sistrunk Blvd. According to the South Florida Blade, Williams’ family was denied victim’s compensation by the attorney general’s office because the teen was alleged to have contributed to the crime, reportedly by being dressed in women’s clothing.
Things are not perfect here in Broward, a rare Democrat-leaning county in this state that bans same-sex marriage. Still, Naydi Santana, owner of a gay-friendly store called Lipstick Lingerie, finds it more relaxed and inclusive than her native New York City.
“I live in Oakland Park and my neighbourhood is so mixed: there’s the straight couple, the single dad, the gay boys, the lesbian couple behind us, and everyone’s cool with it.”
— Julia Steinecke
Julia Steinecke’s visit was subsidized by American Airlines, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Riverside Hotel and the Courtyard Marriott.