KEY WEST, Florida Keys — Imagine a subtropical island paradise in the continental United States that requires no passport for visitors. A destination where rainbow flags fly proudly at homes and over businesses. A place where wildly colorful and fragrant flowers — royal poinciana, hibiscus and bougainvillea — frame historic homes that once sheltered gay and lesbian literary legends including Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill.
Imagine a Florida Keys island where year-round temperatures average 77.8 F. A destination where more than 225,000 self-identified lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender travelers visit each year.
The place is Key West, at the tip of the Florida Keys coral archipelago, 159 miles southwest of Miami. Two turquoise-hued bodies of water — the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico — surround this scenic 2-by-4-mile island.
Key West's accommodations are appealing and diverse, with choices ranging from luxury hotels to historic inns and quaint bed-and-breakfasts that are either LGBT-oriented or all-welcome. With small-town friendliness that embraces all, Key West is widely acclaimed as an international destination.
First settled in the early 1800s, the island was a renegade seaport, home to Caribbean pirates and Prohibition-era rumrunners. Authors Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, perhaps the town's most famous residents, arrived in the 1930s and '40s and helped establish the rich cultural community that still draws writers and artists today.
Famed for a live-and-let-live atmosphere, Key West consistently is ranked as a top LGBT resort destination. Many visitors who self-identify as LGBT say they feel more at ease on the inviting island than anywhere else in the world.
Even the city's political arena reflects this easygoing, free-spirited attitude. Key West was the first city in the United States to elect an openly gay mayor, and the rainbow flag stands beside the American flag in city commission chambers.
The official Key West city motto, One Human Family, proclaims equality and acceptance for all people and is recognized throughout the world. Monroe County, encompassing the entire Florida Keys island chain, also adopted One Human Family as its official unifying motto.
Today, Key West has a gay police chief and many other gay or lesbian elected and appointed officials. One Human Family bumper stickers can be seen on public vehicles such as police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.
Key West's architectural heritage is as enticing as the island's natural beauty. Lovingly restored Victorian frame houses with wraparound verandas often are flanked by charming cottages. The island's historic district, with more than 3,000 wooden structures, is considered the largest predominantly wooden designated historic quarter in the United States.
Famed Duval Street, Key West's main thoroughfare, stretches from the Atlantic to the gulf and features thriving art and photography galleries, tropical boutiques, shops and restaurants. LGBT nightlife centers around Duval's "Pink Triangle" district with lively bars, drag shows and entertainment.
Rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker's famed 1.25-mile-long Key West flag made history on Duval Street as the world's longest symbol of gay pride in 2003. More than 2,000 people joined to unfurl the flag when it debuted at that year's Pride celebration.
Key West also is home to a city-sponsored AIDS Memorial, where visitors can gather for reflection near the White Street Pier beside the Atlantic Ocean. Other scenic outdoor reflection spots include Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park and the Key West Garden Club's headquarters at West Martello Tower, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Along the harbor front, a nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square draws visitors and residents of all ages to applaud colorful street performers and browse local artisans' wares while watching the sun sink below a watery horizon. Many hope to glimpse the green flash, a phenomenon in which part of the sun suddenly and briefly changes color.
As appealing as the island itself are the waters that surround it. Just 7 miles offshore lies the continental United States' only living coral barrier reef, offering unparalleled diving and snorkeling.
For LGBT visitors, the relaxing and warmly accepting destination of Key West is a place to be honest and open. It's a place to make new lifelong friends, dress up or dress down, play from dawn to dusk, party into the wee morning hours or simply luxuriate in laziness.
In fact, the subtropical island of Key West — easily accessible but exotically alluring — is an LGBT vacation venue unlike any other.
Tennessee Williams, perhaps one of the town's most famous residents, arrived in the 1940s and helped establish the rich cultural community that still draws writers and artists today.
A mammoth flag that stretched from the Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean (top of photo) was created by Gilbert Baker and in 2003 commemorated the 25th anniversary of the gay and lesbian icon that Baker, a San Francisco resident, conceived in 1978. The flag required 17,600 linear yards of fabric and weighs more than 5,000 pounds. Image: Andy Newman
For LGBT visitors, the relaxing and warmly accepting destination of Key West is a place to be honest and open.