By Kim Hoffman

The author (right) with a friend outside of Mardi Gras, a now defunct gay bar in Fort Myers, Florida

Florida is a place that either looks like paradise or the nation’s worst pariah. People flock to the Sunshine State for its eternal summer, but for Floridians, there remains at all times an uphill battle in the popular imagination. Amid the bizarre headlines that appear nightly on national news, the zany folks who end up on mugshot websites and an inevitable flurry of chaos during election season, there is a day-to-day reimagining of what Florida should be in pockets of the state cradling the Gulf of Mexico. The ongoing transformation of a once desolate LGBTQ community reveals the sentiment: Change is here, and it’s written on a postcard from Southwest Florida with a big rainbow stamp.

Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Naples, Sanibel and Captiva Islands, Bonita Springs and Sarasota — Southwest Florida is a region just two hours south of Tampa and a shot across Alligator Alley from Miami. In 1990, my parents uprooted us from the suburbs of Chicago and moved to Fort Myers. Regular trips to the beach blanketed forgotten winters. We visited swampy sloughs, we pet baby alligators. Plenty of the city was overgrown and yet to be developed with the many gated neighborhoods, malls and restaurants that sit there now.

As a kid, I was bullied for simply being “weird.” I had a best friend I became close with during high school who eventually introduced me to a world of hidden gay bars I thought were offices or warehouses. Tubby’s was a cozy bar that sat lonesome in a strip mall, a regular gaggle of older gay men dangling their feet on worn leather bar stools while enjoying a bucket of afternoon cocktails. The industrial district is the underbelly of Fort Myers, an area that doesn’t see much thru-traffic, but there lay The Bottom Line, affectionately referred to as TBL, an LGBTQ nightclub with a whopping seven bars and a handful of dance floors. For years, it seemed impossible to pull in a full Friday night throng. Drag queens performed weekly, and the sparse turnout consisted mostly of gay men. Nothing was progressing, there was a lack of informative support, the vibe was stagnant and, at times, grimy. The bar-goers had glints of Studio 54 in their eyes, but up and out merely meant making it to the next morning and doing it all over again the following night.

I moved away and forgot about the scene or lack thereof. I went to big city Gay Prides and even had the chance to walk in Seattle’s 2010 Pride Parade with a host of floats, organizations and bead-wearing trailblazers, who linked hands and danced across the streets. There, a woman holding a “God Loves You” poster smiled at me with the kind of understanding and lightness you’d expect from your own mother. I met amazing people who taught me that it was OK to be myself.

Crowd at Tubby’s in 2011

In 2011, four years after leaving Florida, I found myself back in Fort Myers on a hot Saturday night. I had caught wind of an LGBTQ event: A new girl in town had started a company — a burlesque and drag king troupe run by Buffalo, New York native Jodi Hahn. I went to the show, where momentum was thick in the air, a crowd of women filling Tubby’s like I’d never seen. I was enamored. I was proud.

Jodi Hahn at the 2012 Gay Pride

“I joked about how I was going to start a company called Hen House and have drag kings, since no one knew what a drag king was, and I would do burlesque because I simply missed it,” says Hahn. “It was just a dream. There seemed to be really no lesbian scene at all.”

Hen House initiated new conversations about how a small LGBTQ community could truly be stimulated. Supporters were showing up by the numbers to Hahn’s shows.

“I have seen more women coming out — literally and figuratively — because now they feel that there is a place for them,” says Hahn. “I think it has to do with the fact that they are being ‘catered to’ more than before.”

Today, three years later, Hen House is an evolved act featuring a monthly vaudevillian styled circus show, Cirque Du So Gay, that Hahn says pulls together “different, freaky and extraordinary performers” from all over Florida.  

Steph Mold (far left) in 2011

Steph Mold, who’s lived in Florida for nine years and is former co-president of the Gay Straight Alliance based out of Florida Gulf Coast University, was hesitant to join the organization at first. In 2008, Mold was the youngest organizer by 30 years on a board of people whose aim was to create Southwest Florida’s first-ever Gay Pride. Around 400 attendants showed up that year in support.

2013 Gay Pride in Southwest Florida

“I decided to dedicate the rest of my collegiate career to the organization,” says Mold. “Through the people I met in the community and on campus, I realized that they really didn't believe that there was much of an LGBT presence in Southwest Florida at all. That changed, however, when we started encouraging and successfully bringing people out of hiding and into the community, via events like Pride, nightlife venues, on-campus events and so on.”

Hahn became involved in Gay Pride in its second year, at first as an entertainer, then gradually as a coordinator and, this past year, as a board member. In a record-breaking fifth year, there were 6,500 people donning beads and making memories at Pride.

Hahn and Mold agree that the presence of Pride in Southwest Florida has given LGBTQ locals an unprecedented haven.

“The argument against the fight for equal rights and safe places has become obsolete, and truthfully, the only opposition I have witnessed has been in the form of older retirees who write to the newspapers in disapproval,” says Mold.

The icing on this layer cake is the new Center of Southwest Florida, an LGBTQ resource center that opened its doors on October 5, 2013. Other organizations in the area include Visuality, an LGBTQ teen center, and the Kaleidoscope Project under the suicide awareness organization C.A.R.E.S. Prevention. Places like this are vital to any community, but especially in a place where people can be divided by politics; while locals in Southwest Florida swing between liberal and conservative, the latter is most prevalent.

“I believe that every citizen of Southwest Florida should feel lucky that they are able to witness such a monumental change in history,” Hahn comments. While the LGBTQ hubs of the world are paving new paths for the community every day, so is Southwest Florida making waves. At the Florida Collegiate Pride Conference in 2011, Mold saw firsthand how effective schools and universities can be and called the feedback “heart warming,” fusing a dialogue that remains in motion as people come and go — graduate, travel out of state, anchor themselves in the eye of the storm and remain open to change.

TBL in 2013

It’s a Saturday night, and Hen House is putting on a show at TBL. You’ll think you’re at a rock concert — the parking lot is spilling over into alleys and open fields. Inside, you can barely push your way through the packed house, and there, under the spotlight, is Jodi Hahn. She is a mix of smiles and tears, commanding the night with one important message: “It really is possible to change the world in which you live.”

Kim Hoffman is a writer who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her writing has been published in print for Curve Magazine and PQ Monthly, as well as online publications, including AfterEllen, Bitch Flicks, Wetpaint Entertainment and MV Remix. She is currently the managing editor at Full Circle Journal. Follow her on Twitter: @the_hoff

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