I have been coming to Key West for 30 years. Bought my home 20 years ago. In all that time, Key West has been One Happy Family.
Not so 10 years before I first came. The winter of 1979-80 was a time of flux. Straights versus gays. Violence commonplace. The gays generally on the losing end.
A bigoted man of God resided in Key West. A Baptist minister. His goal was to drive the deviates out of town. He bought an ad in the Key West Citizen. His position simple. He recommended 100 men with baseball bats walk down Duval Street and hit the “freaks” in the head.
The good minister claimed that was the way it was done in Key West in the days he loved and remembered.
One of Key West’s leading citizens at the time was Tennessee Williams. Thirty years a resident. Resided in a quaint bungalow on Duncan Street.
Williams had a gardener who cared for his grounds. The man was found in a pool of blood at his home. He had been killed by point blank shots to the head and neck.
The man was a friend. Williams took his death badly.
Six days after the gardener had been killed, William’s home was broken into. Vandalized, some minor thievery.
Williams was further disturbed. First time in 30 years anyone had invaded his home.
One month later, Williams and a house guest friend were coming out of the Monster. A gay disco off Duval. Late at night. Both men feeling no pain.
Williams and his friend were jumped by 4-5 guys. Williams struck and thrown to the ground. His glasses broken. His friend knocked down from a blow to the jaw.
The friend shouted they may have knives! Let’s get out of here! Williams refused. He stood his ground: “I am not in the habit of retreat.”
Some time thereafter, a group appeared in front of Williams home. They threw beer cans at the house. Shouted, “Come out, faggot.” Then threw fire crackers.
Williams and his friend were in the house. The fire crackers sounded like bullets. Williams and his friend thought they were under attack.
A little history.
Beginning in the mid 1960’s, Key West began becoming economically depressed. The Naval Base had significantly down sized, businesses were closing down. Many left.
It was then that the gays began arriving. They sensed Key West was a place for them. A place they could make home. They were like immigrants. Worked hard from day one to make Key West a better place.
With the gays came problems. Not just the disturbed minister. The gay improvements to the community caused real estate prices and taxes to go up. The gays were buying more and more property.
Some of the gays were not typical of non-gay Key West residents. For example, Williams’ gardener who was shot in the head several times was an eccentric. He would walk around Key West shouting, “I am a woman.”
Male prostitutes arrived on the scene. I find this fact amusing. If the new residents were gay, why did they need male prostitutes?
Drugs and crime accelerated. Assaults and battery common place. The gays were under siege.
Key West was Williams’ home. Had been for 30 years. He refused to leave. He also withdrew from sex at the time saying “I’ve retired from the field of homosexuality at present…..because of age, I have no desires.”
Williams understood why the gay community was being warred upon. Bad gays had followed the good gays to Key West. The bad ones were giving the good ones a bad name.
Key West soon became known as the Fire Island of Florida. Williams said the name did not fit. He viewed the bad gays and others as punks and predators.
Williams was possessed with foresight. He believed this anti-gay sentiment would pass. He firmly believed the violence would be gone by the next year. He was correct.
In the meantime, the Baptist minister kept ranting and raving. He threatened to bring Anita Bryant to Key West to assist in his anti-gay crusade.
The minister thought things would go one way or the other. He gave it 5 years. He took the position by the end of that time, there would be a revival of a “normal society” or the homosexuals would have taken over.
The good guys won.
During the winter of fire, Williams became exceptionally careful. He stopped walking or riding a bicycle down Duval late at night. He claimed he was “more frightened” in Key West “than I am in New York.”
Williams refused to leave Key West: “I have been here longer than they have and I’m not leaving.”
I never sensed the war like atmosphere when I arrived in Key West for the first time 10 years later. Gays owned businesses. Gays were in business with straights. No feeling of discrimination existed. Everyone loved everyone else. One Happy Family.