Key West is one giant party town. We see festivals practically every month, celebrating everything from mouthwatering Key lime pie and succulent Florida lobster to Gay Pride and the biker spirit (both Schwinn and Harley).

An entrant high-steps through tires during a past year's Great Conch Republic Drag Race, part of the annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

An entrant high-steps through tires during a past year’s Great Conch Republic Drag Race, part of the annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The 34th annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration is upon us (April 22-May 1), when locals and visitors celebrate our “independence” from the mainland. During the festival, we embrace the “eccentrics” that make Key West so special: drag queens running obstacle courses outside our gay bars, decorated beds mounted on wheels in a race up the famed Duval Street and a long parade of costumed sailors and pirates. For anyone who can catch a plane or a ride down the Florida Keys in the next couple of weeks, the fun is well worth the effort.

Of course, Fantasy Fest is our biggest celebration of the year. This year’s festival runs Oct. 21-30. I just checked out the list of events and, as expected, it’s going to be spectacular.

Fantasy Fest kicks off with the Royal Coronation Ball each year, recognizing the men and women who volunteer to run fundraising campaigns in the weeks leading up to the festival. The top fundraisers are crowned king and queen of Fantasy Fest, with the runners-up serving as their court. A total of 55 men and women have been crowned king and queen since the annual campaigns started in 1989.

The funds raised benefit AIDS Help, the local organization that has been serving the needs of our HIV/AIDS population for more than 30 years.

In 27 years of campaigning, kings and queens and their courts have raised more than $4 million (last year’s court alone raised more than $173,00).

Fantasy Fest king and queen photos

AIDS Help’s Scott Pridgen is seen here with images of Fantasy Fest’s past kings and queens.

The funds, which help make up for cutbacks in state and federal funding to HIV/AIDS support organizations, have been used in the past for treatment and hospice care, construction and purchase of facility-based housing, supportive programs and substance abuse and mental health counseling. Today, AIDS Help puts most of the money into testing, prevention and educational outreach programs.

One of Ghandi’s most famous quotations comes to mind: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

Sure, the race for king and queen is about having a good time while raising funds for a good cause. But it’s also about community.

I met AIDS Help Executive Director Scott Pridgen recently and we spoke about the vital importance of the royal race not only to AIDS Help and the HIV/AIDS population, but also to our community overall. We were sitting in the multipurpose room at the Poinciana Royale housing complex, with one wall covered in photographs of kings and queens past and present.

“This wall is a tribute to the kings and queens who contributed to the fight during the past 27 years,” Scott told me.

One of our past kings inspired this edition of the LGBT blog. Gregg McGrady, who passed away last month, was king of Fantasy Fest 2006.

Key West rainbow flag

The late Gregg McGrady (left) and activist Mark Ebenhoch display an iconic section of Key West’s sea-to-sea rainbow flag.

Everyone in our community knew Gregg, a local activist who helped bring the sea-to-sea Pride flag project to Key West in 2003.

I’m told that I was the last person to photograph Gregg. We met on South Beach during the final days of February for a photo shoot with a section of the sea-to-sea Pride flag that was about to travel Down Under to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras celebration. Gregg and fellow activist Mark Ebenhoch stood on the beach in ankle-deep water, holding up both ends of the flag. It was a beautiful day, with the Keys sunshine lifting the colors out of the flag and warming Gregg’s smiling face.

Gregg told me before he stepped into the warm waters of the Atlantic that he still got goosebumps remembering the day the 1.25-mile-long flag was unfurled the full length of Duval Street from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.

“How cool was it to see so many people from all walks of life come together to make this one moment in time happen?” he marveled. “Key West is attached to this for the rest of our lives.”

Long live our kings and queens.

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