How LGBTQ entrepreneurs rescued Key West’s economy—and helped invent a new kind of tourism.

By John Sotomayor

For an island only four miles long and two miles wide, Key West looms large in the American psyche. Some 159 miles south of Miami, at the end of a curving chain of small islands set in a vast expanse of turquoise waters, Key West forms the southernmost point of the United States. Remote and untamed, the island was the historic refuge of smugglers, pirates and other mavericks, and for most of the 20th century it attracted few visitors and little attention from the American mainstream.

But during an economic downturn on the island in the early 1970s, a new wave of settlers—LGBTQ entrepreneurs, artists and professionals—arrived. Together, they began to restore and rebuild the town, and in the process, they rebooted its faltering tourism industry. In large part thanks to their efforts, this city of only 28,000 year-round residents has today become one of the top five tourist destinations in the country, attracting more than 2 million visitors a year, about 20 percent of those from other countries. In 2019, those visitors spent $1.1 billion on the island—44 percent of all spending throughout the Keys. Visitors are drawn by the tropical beauty, the spectacular fishing and coral reefs, the charming Conch architecture, the freewheeling bar scene, and perhaps most of all, the mellow, live-and-let-live atmosphere. 

Discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1531, ruled for periods by Spain and England, and claimed for the United States in 1822, Key West has alternated between prosperity and poverty for much of its modern history. Fishing; the salvage, sponge and salt industries; and a short-lived reign as the U.S. capital of the cigar industry provided economic energy during various periods, as did the ongoing presence of a U.S. Naval base, which was commissioned in 1823 as a bulwark against Caribbean piracy and played an important role during World Wars I and II. But by 1970, activity at the base had waned, and rumors circulated that the Navy intended to close it. An article in the New York Times that year warned, “Key West Faces Crisis as Navy Pulls Out.”

Detailing the economic collapse such a pull-out would bring, the writer posed a prescient question: “[The possible closing] led some in Key West to question why this splendid island, with its beauty and history, should remain dependent upon the military payroll instead of developing its tourist industry.”

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John Sotomayor is the publisher and editor in chief of Embrace Magazine, an LGBTQ+ magazine based in Ocala, FL. In its two years of publication, the magazine has earned six national awards including the NLGJA: Association of LGBT Journalists 2022 Excellence in Journalism for photojournalism; and many statewide awards, including Best New Magazine, Best Overall Magazine, and Magazine of the Year from the Florida Magazine Association.

2022 Fall Vol. 46 Issue 3

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.