© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'One human family': Group set to open the Florida Keys’ only LGBTQ+ community center

The Queer Keys Board of Directors including co-founders Janice Rodriguez (center) and Chris McNulty (right).
Courtesy of Chris McNulty
The Queer Keys Board of Directors including co-founders Janice Rodriguez (center) and Chris McNulty (right).

Long hailed as one of the country’s most LGBTQ+ friendly destinations, Key West hasn’t had a true queer-focused, resource-based community center in over a decade. Until now.

The non-profit group Queer Keys is gearing up to open the island chain’s only LGBTQ+ support community center.

Last week, the Key West city commission helped clear the way for the organization to reach its goal. They unanimously voted through a consent agenda to waive over $3,000 in fees for the group to receive a permit to operate.

The organization began as a getting-to-know-you conversation over an astrology reading in 2020. As Chris McNulty, an astrologer, began sharing his background and interests with Janiece Rodriguez, a trans woman, the pair realized they had a couple things in common.

Besides moving to Key West around the same time and being aware of the city’s queer friendly attitudes, the now co-founders of Queer Keys both found themselves searching, to no avail, for LGBTQ+ resources in town.

“(Janiece) found in Key West that there was no one who was able to help her, there was no access to medical care, there was just literally nothing down here,” McNulty said.

READ MORE: LGBTQ+ people are nearly twice as likely to be displaced after disasters, new research shows

Since then, Queer Keys has started several programs, including a Trans Trust Fund, which supports people struggling to find gender-affirming care. Specialized health care in the Florida Keys can be difficult to come by, and without a dedicated medical professional on the island who provides hormone therapy, part of Queer Keys’ work with the fund includes driving people over 100 miles to Miami for their initial appointments.

The organization also has a youth program, bimonthly 18+ meet up for trans and non-binary people and a peer support group for parents and caregivers of LGBTQ+ youth.

But a community center has always been one of their big goals.

“We've just signed a lease for our community center space in January,” McNulty said. “So, dream coming to fulfillment, and sort of like a next phase in our organizational development.”

The space that Queer Keys is leasing is in the middle of the city’s historic district on Truman Avenue. While zoning laws don’t typically allow for community centers to open in the area, the group can apply for what’s called a “conditional use permit,” allowing them to go through with plans.

But the bill for that application amounts to $3,502.09. Queer Keys works solely as a donation-based group. “As a small organization, that's not a small chunk of change,” McNulty said.

Now that the city has removed that fee barrier, Queer Keys leaders expect to go before the city’s Planning Board in April or May.

The inside of the Queer Keys leased space on Truman Avenue.
Courtesy of Chris McNulty
The inside of the Queer Keys leased space on Truman Avenue.

Becoming a resource referral center

McNulty and the group’s board have big dreams for what they’ll offer through the center. “We want to be a referral center,” McNulty said.

They want to be able to tell people where to find resources for health, mental health, housing and social services locally and outside of the community.

Also in the works: An LGBTQ+ library where people can find books and periodicals on queer history, philosophy, fiction and nonfiction; a deal with the health department to provide monthly HIV testing; wellness space; and a space with computer and internet access for users.

“We want the space to be pretty adaptable,” McNulty said. “One thing we're aware of is that the queer community doesn't exist in a vacuum and that queer folks exist across all identities and across all races and abilities and immigration statuses and socioeconomic statuses. And we want (the space) to be responsive to that.”

McNulty said that so far people in the Keys appear excited about the center.

“Our island motto is 'one human family,'” he said. “There is sort of like this environment of, ‘Be who you are, celebrate who you are, be as weird as you want,’ and you are accepted here.”

While pushback isn’t an issue, not everyone in the city sees the need for the center.

Key West has a long-running history of being an LGBTQ+ friendly city. In 1983, one of the country’s first openly gay mayors, Richard Heyman, was elected. In 2018, Teri Johnston had a historic victory as Florida’s first openly lesbian mayor elected.

“But there's a big difference between being open and welcoming and actually providing help,” McNulty said.

In the early days of chatting about Queer Keys’ vision with people, McNulty said he would get one of two answers.

“One being, well, 'I think that's incredible. Yes, we need a community center,'” he said. “And then the other answer I would be getting was, 'Well, we don't need that here. Everyone's already so accepted. The work has already been done.'”

But for many the work needs to continue.

Rainbow crosswalks on Duval Street, in Key West.
City of Key West
Rainbow crosswalks on Duval Street, in Key West.

No community space since the early 2000s

Among those welcoming the arrival of the group is Susan Kent, who has been advocating for the LGBTQ+ community since moving to the island in 1991.

“I was so excited that somebody was going to pick up the torch and take charge to make sure that we had those sorts of resources here because we hadn't had them,” Kent said.

Her work includes serving on the board of the Key West Business Guild, which still operates almost like a chamber of commerce to promote LGBTQ+ travel to the city, and assisting the legal team representing the first gay couple married in Monroe County.

Kent was also the President of the former Gay and Lesbian Community Center (GLCC), which was the last group across the Keys to provide a community center space for the LGBTQ+ community.

The GLCC was a lively group at one point, with book club meetings, movie nights, and a visitor center, according to Kent. The center was behind the iconic sea-to-sea flag event where inventor of the Pride flag Gilbert Baker and thousands of people unfurled a rainbow flag over a mile long that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, casting all of Duval Street in multi-color.

But in the early 2000s, under changing leadership, the GLCC lost the building they operated out of.

Now, Kent is grateful for Queer Keys committing to serve another marginalized community.

“Key West has never been a great resource for our trans community,” she said. “That's one of the things I'm really the happiest about is to see that Queer Keys have started their trans fund and has already been able to provide some grants.”

To Kent, Queer Keys is both carrying on important traditions and paving the way for more people to be uplifted.

“We have to remember that, we're in a little bubble and we're living in a state that doesn't like us very much,” Kent said. “So I'm just happy that people like Queer Keys are around.”

Julia Cooper reports on all things Florida Keys and South Dade for WLRN.
More On This Topic