FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — You can’t get much gayer than the Wilton Manors suburb of Fort Lauderdale. The only place with a higher concentration of LGBTQ+ households in the country is Provincetown. But even Wilton Manors, an oasis of tolerance and home to internationally celebrated drag queens, an entire strip mall of gay businesses, and a clothing store called GayMart, is beginning to feel the economic fallout of Florida’s latest anti-gay law.
Last month, the Parental Rights in Education Act, more widely known as “Don’t Say Gay,” became law here. It’s faced criticism from President Biden, the American Bar Association, and hundreds of corporations, including Apple, Target, and, most famously, Disney. Don’t Say Gay prevents Florida teachers in kindergarten through third grade from discussing gender and sexual orientation in class and restricts what they can say in upper grades to what is “developmentally appropriate,” without defining what developmentally appropriate is.
Critics argue that the bill will effectively silence students from talking about LGBTQ+ family members and friends, make school more challenging for LGBTQ+ students, and spark more homophobic and anti-trans bullying. Florida schools opened this month, so it’s still too early to determine what effect the law will have on students and teachers.
It’s not too early, however, to say that the law is already affecting the state’s $97 billion tourism market. A three-day tech conference hosted by Vox Media announced it was pulling out of Miami because of Don’t Say Gay. The Writers Guild of America West is urging Hollywood to reconsider filming in Florida; Los Angeles County, California, has barred official travel to Florida; and organizations ranging from rowing clubs to presidents of higher education institutions are either canceling or reconsidering holding events in the state.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other state Republicans have said that boycotts will not change the new law. In a statement, DeSantis’s press secretary said, “If anyone actually boycotts Florida because they’re upset about the lack of sex and gender theory instruction in our kindergarten through third-grade classrooms, I’m confident that our state is better off without them.”
Caught in the political crossfire are gay-owned businesses in Florida that are still catching their collective breath after two years of COVID-19 losses. Now they’re facing the very real possibility of losing LGBTQ+ tourists. Fort Lauderdale and, in particular, the city of Wilton Manors, which is the LGBTQ+ epicenter of Broward County, could get hit hard if regulars opt to spend their vacation dollars in other gay-friendly destinations such as West Hollywood or Palm Springs, Calif.
Keith Blackburn, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale LGBT Chamber of Commerce, has already heard from vacationers who say they are not returning to Florida until Don’t Say Gay is rescinded. At a tourism trade show in New York this spring, he spoke with people who said they love Florida and Fort Lauderdale but have no intention of spending money in the state.
“That’s when I get into a defensive posture,” he said. “I understand that you don’t want to support someone who doesn’t support you, but it’s much more complicated than that. You have the state that’s dictating the laws, but there are counties, and cities, and businesses that are not in agreement with what’s happening. This law is by no means a reflection of us. What the boycotts and trip cancellations are really doing is hurting the businesses that need help the most.”
Boycotts have been a popular tool for politically-minded travelers and businesses to try to change laws. In 2017, North Carolina rescinded a 2016 law that prohibited transgender people from using restrooms that align with their gender identity after it lost billions of dollars in business and tourism.
In 2015, then-Indiana Governor (and later vice president) Mike Pence signed a “religious freedom” bill that many critics warned could empower businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ customers. After companies such as Salesforce threatened to reduce their footprint in the state, Pence signed a new bill barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, causing boycotters to stand down.
But LGBTQ+ advocates in Florida fear that a boycott will do little to sway DeSantis.
Anticipating the potential economic fallout from Don’t Say Gay, Fort Lauderdale’s tourism board took the unprecedented step of releasing a statement days after the controversial bill was signed into law that said, “Travel transcends politics, and decisions made at the Florida state level do not always align with the mission and values of Visit Lauderdale.”
The organization also released a promotional video the same day to let vacationers know that Fort Lauderdale is inclusive and welcoming. Privately, some in the community say the move was necessary. The statewide tourism bureau, Visit Florida, has yet to speak out against the law. When contacted by the Globe, a spokeswoman for the tourism bureau said it had no comment on the Parental Rights in Education Act.
Fort Lauderdale and the surrounding Broward Country sit between a rock and a conservative place. It is, as Visit Lauderdale’s Richard Gray explains, “a minority-majority county.”
“There are more people of color, more Latinos, and more Asian people here than there are white people,” Gray said. “We have a population of around 2 million people. Historically we’ve been an inclusive destination where everybody has commingled.”
Combine that with data from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law that found Wilton Manors is the second-gayest city in the country, and that Fort Lauderdale is the gayest midsize city in the nation, and you get a clear picture that Fort Lauderdale is a unique place. In addition to the high concentration of LGBTQ+ households, Fort Lauderdale also draws more than a million gay tourists who spend $1 billion annually.
But those demographics may not matter to travelers who don’t want to feel as if they’re supporting DeSantis by coming to Florida. His platform has included a litany of anti-gay legislation.
“I know we’ve already lost some group business,” Gray said. “They’ve chosen not to have their conference here for political reasons. I would say the losses run into millions. It’s not as if it’s a $100 million or $50 million, but I would say it runs into the millions.”
On a Thursday night earlier this summer, the happy hour crowd at Hunters Nightclub in Wilton Manors was chatting about “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the Miami Marlins’ three-game losing streak, but brows furrowed and expressions darkened when DeSantis’s name was brought up.
“I think the law is an embarrassment,” said Caleb Johnson, who was visiting Fort Lauderdale from Atlanta. “I feel bad for the gay community here. I have friends who are worried about what’s going to happen next. I think most tourists will still come here because this is Fort Lauderdale and, you know, it’s super gay, but I would understand if people decided not to.”
At the other end of the bar, Jalen Robinson, who works as a waiter in Miami’s South Beach, bemoaned the new law, saying it does little to help the state’s reputation.
“Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, and other places that are more progressive end up getting hurt because when people think of Florida, they immediately think of things like Don’t Say Gay. If I’m a gay person, or a trans person, and I want to take a vacation, a place that doesn’t allow school kids to talk about their gay relatives probably wouldn’t be my first choice.”
Some Wilton Manors business owners, such as John Zieba of the popular Rosie’s Bar and Grill, say they have yet to see a decline in business, but are concerned that could change if DeSantis continues to target the gay community. Last month DeSantis filed a complaint against a Miami restaurant after a seeing a video on TikTok of a young girl dancing with a lingerie-clad drag queen at a drag brunch. The complaint cited a 1947 Florida Supreme Court decision that found that “men impersonating women” in a “suggestive” performance constitutes a public nuisance.
“I think he’s definitely going down a direction that is going to make things much more difficult for anyone who is in a gay neighborhood, or has a predominantly gay clientele,” Zieba said. “As things progress, I think it will become part of people’s decision about where they want to go for vacation.”
At Bubbles and Pearls, another Wilton Manors restaurant, owner and former “Top Chef” contestant Josie Smith Malave is looking beyond tourism. She’s concerned about Florida’s future. She said a number of her friends are actively discussing leaving the state.
“This is a moment that’s gotten so convoluted that LGBTQ people are thinking they no longer want to be here,” she said. “But we can’t just surrender and leave. I think it’s important that we stand our ground against extremists. I’m not going to fuel their fire and let their agenda divide us or scare us off.”
Equality Florida, the state’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights group, is fielding calls from potential tourists feeling scared by the news out of Florida. Callers are wondering if the state is safe for LGBTQ+ vacationers.
“Some of the things that have been shared are absolutely heartbreaking,” said Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida. “The people who always brought their LGBTQ kids to Disney, for instance, and now just don’t feel safe bringing them here. This has international ramifications as well. We have had people who visit from European countries who are horrified at what’s happening. We’ve seen people going to Disneyland instead of Disney World.”
Wolf said the idea of people abandoning their Florida vacations is sad but understandable if they have safety concerns. But like other LGBTQ+ Floridians we spoke with, he said that a boycott of Florida would do little to change DeSantis’s mind-set.
Rachel Covello, the CEO and publisher of the gay travel website OutCoast.com, said she’s heard that some LGBTQ+ groups are already canceling events, while others are insistent on coming specifically to support gay-owned businesses and to say “gay” as much as possible. She is hoping that others come to Florida to say “gay” as well. Meanwhile, she’s planning an LGBTQ+ travel conference for next summer to show that, despite the law, Florida is still welcoming gay tourists.
“My main message to all is that if we give up and avoid Florida, it doesn’t help anyone,” she said. “It hurts so many LGBTQ people and business owners in Florida. I say put down the white flag, and show up with rainbow flags, and wave them proudly.”