If you’re straight, you probably still think of Fort Lauderdale as a trashy town in Florida, full of drunk college-age guys leering at barely-dressed – and barely legal – women in dive bars where tequila shots cost a dollar. In fact, Fort Lauderdale is almost exactly the opposite: a trashy town in Florida full of drunk middle-aged guys leering at barely-dressed – and barely legal – men in dive bars where vodka drinks cost a dollar.
The transformation of Fort Lauderdale from spring break mecca to an assisted-living facility for gay alcoholics and their enablers is indicative of many aspects of gay guy culture.
Back in the 1980s, the good citizens of Fort Lauderdale, an enclave wedged between the banana republics of West Palm Beach and Little Havana, decided that enough was enough, and they were tired of making headlines only when drunk cheerleaders were raped by football teams every spring. Like any smart town or neighborhood looking for a way out of crass economic despair, they targeted a more upscale market.
Initially this didn’t work, because only an hour south of Fort Lauderdale lay South Miami Beach. South Beach was in the process of vacuuming away from Key West the kind of cute young gay guys that draw less cute but higher spending older gay guys to warm-weather tourist destinations. Key West doesn’t have much in the way of beaches, and even less in the way of fashion photography, so in retrospect it was probably doomed. But what goes around comes around, and eventually straight people figured out that South Beach was cool. When they started coming, hotels became more expensive, and the same cute gay guys who couldn’t afford Key West couldn’t afford South Beach either. So they migrated north to Fort Lauderdale.
Like South Beach and Key West, Fort Lauderdale is in Florida, so it’s warm in the winter, has palm trees, and doesn’t have anything in the way of bookstores, historic sites, or theater to make hedonistic tourists feel guilty for spending seven nights in a row at strip clubs. But unlike Key West, with its colorful past and darling Victorian houses, or South Beach with its colorful present and Art Deco hotels, Fort Lauderdale looks like it was sprayed out of a can by a team of developers in 1975. In Key West, a gay guy might pay $150 a night to stay in a Victorian guest house with gingerbread trim where Ernest Hemingway once beat someone up. In South Beach, a gay guy might pay $300 a night to stay in a bright aquamarine hotel where an elderly Jewish woman from Brooklyn once heard Henny Youngman ask the crowd to take his wife – please. But in Fort Lauderdale, that same gay guy might pay $215 a night to stay in a hotel that had once been, say, a dog kennel or a U Haul dealership.
Finally, as everyone knows Florida’s official state nickname is God’s Waiting Room. (The more common nickname of The Incompetent Election State is purely informal.) This holds for gay guys as much as for straight guys. Key West and South Beach draw their share of older gay toursts: chiefly gay guys from smaller towns in the former and gay guys from big East Coast cities in the latter. Key West is famous for its clothing-optional resorts where middle aged gay guys from Tulsa and Lansing can get pretty feisty and grabby when they’ve had a few pina coladas. South Beach has New Yorkers of a certain age with skin like raisins and sunglasses like bats’ wings who let it slip that they have a suite and a lot of cash. The genius of Fort Lauderdale is not just that it combines both these entertaining types of gay guys, but that it combines them with bars in strip malls, which means those same gay guys have to drive from their clothing optional hotels and high-end suites, get drunk and leer, then drive home, making Fort Lauderdale by most standards the capital of mai tai-related car accidents involving powder-blue Chrysler Sebrings.
When gay guys talk about going to Fort Lauderdale, however, it’s best not to bring up criticisms. Gay guys love the place exactly because it’s warm and sandy and cheap enough for 20 year olds. Rather than ask them if their hotel was once a dog kennel or whether they got that bruise being jostled at the Denny’s early bird special, stick to polite questions like: how were the bars, did you ride bicycles on the beach, and were there are cute guys there. Gay guys will go on for hours, and you too may find yourself seduced by Fort Lauderdale’s charms.