Episode 23: From Where We're From: Wilton Manors is the Gayest Island in the World!
Today is another edition of our series “From Where We’re From” and since today—the day we’re recording this episode—is the last day of Pride month, I’m going to be talking about South Florida’s famous gayborhood: Wilton Manors.
Well, it’s certainly no secret to anyone who listens to this podcast that I grew up in South Florida, in Broward County, in Ft. Lauderdale specifically. I know that bothers a lot of people for some reason, but yes, people do live in and grow up in Broward County.
When I was really young, of course, I had no idea Wilton Manors existed. My parents are straight, unfortunately, and I don’t have any out queer people in my family who live in Florida. Like for all I know, we could’ve passed through it on the way somewhere, and I wouldn’t have known we were in THE Wilton Manors, you know? And truly, I can’t remember seeing the 100s rainbow flags that are around Wilton Manors now.
As far as I can remember, the first time I heard about Wilton Manors was my freshman year in high school. You remember how high school was? Freshman year is pretty much that time when you’re making the friends that you’ll be friends with for the rest of high school. And I was a pretty outgoing kid. I loved to talk to people and make jokes, so it was easy for me to make friends quickly and I even made some in the grades above me.
I went to a Catholic high school, which as you and probably most of our listeners know, can be kind of a bummer of a place to be. For me, it wasn’t so bad…I had a lot of opportunity there that I took advantage of, I liked my friends a lot, and even though I was openly gay, no one seemed to give a shit about it. None of the teachers who knew tried to out me to my parents. It was all pretty normal with the exception of having to go to mass once a month and us getting talks about staying abstinent and not giving into sin every few months. This is also the early 2000s so shit was a lot different than it is now, obviously. Not many adults around us were openly gay, but we speculated. And at school, we speculated a lot.
That was the first time I remember hearing about Wilton Manors, because there was supposedly a small group of teachers at our school who lived there. And because they didn’t wear wedding rings or have pictures of their partners in their classrooms, everyone thought (knew?) they were gay. The equation was basically Wilton Manors PLUS no wedding rings PLUS no pictures PLUS being well-dressed or, for the females in this group, dressing more masculine EQUALLED gay. Turns out, we were right about them but that’s a story for another time.
So, in my mind, Wilton Manors was the GAY place. And I was correct…it is, in fact, easily one of the gayest places on the planet. When my friends and I started driving, we would drive down the main drag of Wilton Manors to see other gay people. Yes, the early 2000s were that fucking bleak for mainstream representations of queerness. The first time I went to a gay bar was in Wilton Manors, and I was 17 years old. We snuck in with the help of a friend’s older brother. Now, after moving all around South Florida for a few years trying to figure out where I really wanted to be, I live in Wilton Manors, and I’ve been here for about 6 years.
You’re not from here, brother. What’s your experiences with Wilton Manors? How did you hear about it? What we’re your expectations?
The thing is, though…how did it become the GAY place?? You know? Like what brought all these gay men here in the first place?
Wilton Manors Fact Blast 5000:
The name Wilton Manors was coined in 1925 by Ned Willingham, a Georgia transplant and land developer. Wilton Manors was incorporated in 1947.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 1.94 square miles.
Haters (like my girlfriend) will say it’s fake BUT Wilton Manors is technically an island: Wilton Manors is bordered on the north by the North Fork of the Middle River and the city of Oakland Park; to the south, the boundaries include the South Fork of the Middle River and the city of Fort Lauderdale; the eastern terminus of the city limits extends to near Federal Highway (US 1); and the westernmost boundary reaches Interstate 95. Wilton Manors completely surrounds the separately incorporated village of Lazy Lake. Since it is surrounded by water, Wilton Manors has gained the nickname "Island City."
As of the 2020 United States census, there were 11,426 people, 6,577 households, and 2,042 families residing in the city. This is probably a bit higher now because, as we’ve talked about many times, there has been a huge surge in population all over Florida since the pandemic began thanks to that asshole Ron DeSantis.
The demographics are what you’d expect: it’s 67% white, 10% Black, 16% Hispanic and/or Latinx, and 2.5% Asian, with other races and ethnicities represented in very small numbers in between. Anecdotally, though, I can tell you that this is shifting a little bit. I have noticed more Black people and people of color moving into the area, so I think these demographics will be a little different as the city continues to grow.
Wilton Manors is known as a gay village. Wilton Manors ranks 2nd in the U.S. for its percentage of gay couples as a proportion of total population, with 140 gay couples per 1,000 residents or 1,600 persons or 14% of the inhabitants. This is second only to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the percentage is 15%. So we’re literally like right there. Wilton Manors has approximately 1270% more resident gay couples per capita than the national average of 1.1% of the population.
And I want to be clear here about something that the statistics don’t directly mention: yes, there are tons of gay people here, but I’d say about 75% of those people are cis males. In terms of a diversity of LGBTQ experiences, you’re not really getting that here as much. Similar to the demographics, though, I can see that changing, but it’s not as if it’s changing rapidly. However, as a visibly queer non-cis male person, I still feel very comfortable here, and I know other people who live here who are women or visibly not cis feel the same way. So that’s good at least but we could use more dykes and gender freaks around here, I’ll tell you that.
Wilton Manors has an all-gay and lesbian city commission, which is pretty cool considering the rest of this state and the rest of the U.S. in general.
Since the early 2000s Wilton Manors has voted overwhelmingly Democratic, higher than the state and county average. This is largely due to the city's large LGBT population and minority residents. In 2018 the city became the second city in the United States (after Palm Springs, California) to have a gay mayor along with that all-gay and lesbian city commission.
2019 MEDIAN AGE = 52.8
2019 MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME = $70,465
2019 MEDIAN PROPERTY VALUE = $326,600
My rent currently is 1,275 a month, and I know that’s on the low end for the space I have here. Grateful my landlord has an actual job so he doesn’t raise the rent every goddamn year.
Mostly, the people living in Wilton Manors are what we call DINKS. Double Income No Kids. Add that to the fact that most of the people living here are white and highly educated or have high-paying jobs, there’s a lot of money in this place. So you can see that in the stats for incomes and property values and everything.
Wilton Manors is also a hot spot for nature heads…like I said, it’s surrounded by water so there’s a lot of kayaking, small boating, and paddle boarding. There’s Hagen Park, Richardson Historic Park and Nature Preserve, Island City Park Preserve, Donn Eisele Park, Snook Creek Park and Boat Ramp, and Colohatchee Park. Colohatchee Park in particular has tons of natural mangroves and is a good place to see animals and birds and shit.
A lot of shit going on!
Wilton Manors as gay paradise:
So, here’s the story I heard from a gay elder like 10 years ago in regards to how Wilton Manors came to be a gay paradise.
He told me that in the 1970s, there was a huge influx of gay people moving to South Florida from North Florida, other places in the South, and from California and NYC. From what I know about queer history, this tracks. South Florida had quite the scene for the gays back then…there was a lot of movement in terms of queer activism down here, as well. And I can see people wanting to take advantage of that and be part of it. According to the story, a lot of the guys who came down ended up settling in the Victoria Park neighborhood, which is about a mile south of here. Victoria Park has been, historically, a very family-oriented, kind of conservative spot down here, so you can imagine how this went for the queer people that moved there. The people of VP began complaining to the commission and began finding ways to make it hard for the gays to rent and buy property and just generally live their lives. It really came to a head when the HIV/AIDS crisis began because then the straights could use the virus as a coverall for their homophobia and claim that it gay people were unsafe and blah blah blah. So, a group of gays got together and were like “This shit sucks, these straight people are crazy, we need to find a place for us.” Well, Wilton Manors had lower property values and places available to rent and buy so they slowly started making their way a mile north. In the late 80 and early 90s, the people who moved here began opening businesses and bars that specifically catered to gay people (some of which are still here like Ramrod, which opened in 1994, and Georgie’s Alibi, which opened in 1996). And that changed the face of the area entirely. Wilton Drive, which you should think of as like Main Street in a small town, became a gay haven of sorts with all kinds of places that were safe for people to be openly gay in.
It’s a pretty dope story, also one that raises a lot of questions for me like…where did the original residents go? Were they priced out? What‘s the deal? But still, amazing that they were able to pull this off and escape the oppression they were facing in other parts of Ft. Lauderdale and Florida as a whole.
Here’s the thing, though, aside from demographic info and stories from people around here, I cannot find anything concrete that corroborates this story. Like not a single thing that says “Yes, this happened.”
It’s a bummer because there is no oral history or anything that shows how the second gayest city in the U.S. got that way. I have looked high and low for it. I got so frustrated at one point, I had to stop looking for a few days because it doesn’t make any sense to me.
But you know what?? Whatever. I’m going with the story because it’s all I got. Let’s talk about some shit that makes Wilton Manors gay as hell….
I already told you about the demographics and the all-gay and lesbian city commission.
Wilton Manors is also home to a large Pride Center, the World AIDS Museum and Educational Center, and a branch of the Stonewall National Museum & Archives.
The majority of the business owned Wilton Drive are owned by LGBT people. Some even have gay ass names like Sushi Song Gaysha and Thai Me Up.
Of course, we have the Stonewall Pride Parade & Festival, which attracts over 30,000 people every year (that’s more than 3 times the population of the city!).
Out of the 30ish non-shopping establishments on Wilton Drive, 12 of them are bars or clubs. So, over a third. Drag shows happen somewhere in one of these places nearly every single day of the week. There are bars specifically bears and the bear community, leather bars, and other places for kink.
One thing about it though……NO BARS FOR WOMEN. All of them close. (Elaborate on this.)
In article on Visit Florida, some of the residents of Wilton Manors that they interviewed described the city as “straight-friendly” with one elaborating that There are places that gays don’t feel comfortable. I would say the opposite is not true here. Breeders are treated equally.”
So, I guess that’s a lot…Wilton Manors is a very gay place but it’s history is obscured.
Why? Why is it important for us to uncover it???