Second Gayest City: The evolution of Wilton Manors into a queer utopia

Second Gayest City: The evolution of Wilton Manors into a queer utopia

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As the story goes, the gays take a once-run-down neighborhood and transform it into an urban enclave of restaurants, shops, and gay bars. But Wilton Manors is more than a gayborhood in Florida; it’s a vision of gay culture permeating beyond acceptance into societal norms.

If you build it, the gays shall come

A close-up of a map indicating Wilton Manors.

Wilton Manors is far from your typical LGBTQ+ destination; it’s a veritable island of queerness whose rainbow culture sprouted from a single bar. Dubbed the ‘Island City,’ its name reflects its geographical position, encircled by forks in the Middle River.

Although neighboring places like Miami Beach and Key West pride themselves on inclusivity, Wilton Manors is so gay that residents clarify it’s “straight-friendly” as well. 

Two gay men in tuxedos kissing.

This Greater Fort Lauderdale city takes the prize as the “Second Gayest City” in America, right after Palm Springs. It’s a label bragged about by its official website. You’ll find 140 gay couples per 1,000 residents, a statistic that’s only growing. 

There’s plenty of nightlife, but Wilton Manor’s isn’t a party destination. It’s not a seasonal resort town or a bustling metropolis. The city has less than 12,000 residents, but you’ll find the spirit of a small town with urban culture. You can say much of the queer community comes here to spend their golden years (median age is mid-50s), not unlike the Golden Girls, but most of them are just beginning to have kids and start families.  

The allure is in the community 

The rainbow letters "LGBTQ+" on a beach with tanning beds during the sunset.

What sets Wilton Manors apart is the fact there’s nothing remarkable about it. Before locals get offended, hear us out! 

Unlike Palm Springs, which began as a desert sanctuary for closeted celebrities, or Fire Island and Provincetown, which were historic summer retreats for the LGBTQ+ community, Wilton Manors doesn’t boast any overt allure. Its appeal lies in being a genuinely welcoming place to live and visit.

Of course, the nearby beach and temperate year-round weather don’t hurt.

Wilton Drive, the heart of Wilton Manors, had its share of challenges in the past, but one gay man decided it was still preferable to build a gay bar replacing a boarded-up bank branch than have none at all. 

An older man with sunglasses waving a rainbow flag.

Nowadays, you’ll find more than 40 LGBTQ-friendly and LGBTQ-owned businesses, a common thread in gayborhoods. But the gays didn’t just construct a suburb; they forged their own municipality, complete with an all-queer governing body. 

The Human Rights Campaign has awarded Wilton Manors a rare perfect score on its Municipal Equality Index and in Florida of all states. 

One gay bar in Wilton Drive changed history

The gayness of Wilton Manors originated from Wilton Drive, specifically, the Shoppes of Wilton Manors. It was a derelict strip mall until George Kessinger opened Georgie’s Alibi in 1997, the first of many gay bars.

The bar is one of the longest-running gay businesses in South Florida and a current nominee for Best of GayCities 2023 Travel Awards. Queer visitors can rest assured it has not gone out of style.

The cost of living reliably drives the gays to gentrification. The gradual influx of a gay scene encouraged many LGBTQ+ SoFlo residents to move here as the rents were much more affordable than in nearby liberal cities.

“When we came here, this was a ghost town,” George Kessinger told the Herald-Tribune, “We created something, we put a demand on something.”

The bar has undergone new ownership four times by locals eager to keep history alive and tipsy, leading it to be renamed Georgie’s Alibi Monkey Bar.

The evolution of the city’s demographic influenced politics, but it had inclusive roots.

  • In 1988, the City of Wilton Manors elected Broward County’s first openly gay official.
  • In 2000, history was made when the city elected the second gay-majority governing body in the United States. This included a gay mayor, vice mayor, and councilman.
  • History was again made in November 2018 when Wilton Manors became the first city in Florida with an all-LGBTQ+ City Commission – second only to Palm Springs, California.

We’d make a “Make Politics Gay Again” joke, but Wilton Manors has been doing it for quite some time.

Wilton Manor gays have more fun

Say what you want about small-town life, but don’t underestimate one built by queers. There are more gay bars within the two-mile vicinity of Wilton Manors than the rest of Florida combined. The presence of family values doesn’t mean there’s an absence of adult entertainment.

The OG Georgie’s Alibi Monkey Bar doesn’t have plans to slow down

The Manor is where you’ll find a massive circuit party every weekend

Find a better strip club than Johnsons Fort Lauderdale; we’ll wait

The Eagle Bar In Wilton Drive honors the brand’s legacy in full sultry grunge

Hunter’s keeps it more low-key, which means it’s easier to flirt

Wilton Manors is a sunny hideaway for gays

The LGBTQ+ community is like the fairy godmother of neglected real estate, but don’t limit our magic to major cities.

As the years pass on, queer people come to appreciate the beauty of slowing down and surrounding themselves with community. Wilton Manors has evolved into a hideaway and civilization for gays to break away from the hustle and relax into their golden years. For some, that means retirement; for others, that means being a few miles from the beach, and an increasing number is finding their happiness in helping raise the next generation of humans.

You’ll find Zaddies, Daddies, dads, and baddies socializing within the same block.

So, regardless of whatever brings you to Wilton Manors, get ready to experience queerness as the status quo.

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