Thornton Park, near Lake Eola in the center of Orlando, is a neighborhood with an easy grace that’s survived the passing of the 1920s. Old bungalows sprawl and compact mansions sit tidy behind facades tweaked with decorative Spanish Gothic wrought iron, as if there were nothing more than tourists’ gawking to guard against. Moss hangs from oaks like ripped shawls, fronting streets of old brick that assail the tires on a rented Hyundai Accent, making it shudder all the way to the roof. As my husband and I pull up to our misterb&b at the start of a five-day road trip south through Florida, from Orlando to Miami Beach, we’re literally shook.
If you don’t know misterb&b, it’s basically gay Airbnb. Matthieu Jost, who’s French, had the idea in 2013 after struggling to find queer-friendly Airbnbs. Misterb&b hooks up men in over 130 countries with gay-owned apartments or spare bedrooms, even sleep-time on gay couches. Queer homestays mean avoiding the psychic exertion of hotel-desk disclosures (yes, we’re together; yep, one bed) or coming out as a couple to hosts who might be homophobes. These are small things, but being able to count on automatic acceptance is huge: Like, we get you, you get us, we’ve all been through this shit before. There’s a stack of towels in the bathroom and squeezy packets of lube in the nightstand.
Four years ago in Merida, Perry (my husband) and I rented a room from bearded Canadian retirees, our first taste of misterb&b. One night they cooked us dinner, and as glasses emptied and filled again, told us how they came out: familiar queer narratives of disruption, loss, and getting over it. Misterb&b’s been part of our travel landscape ever since, joining rainbow-flagged sanctuaries we’ve always sought together on the road: lesbian bookstores and queer pubs, gayborhood diners and drag cantinas. They’re the pin drops you can connect to trace the shadow of a queer city on a mainstream map, a place to move freely, without armor.
Even now, as more and more queers are coming out in traditionally hostile space, on the official grid — one afternoon in el Zócalo in Mexico City, with the cathedral looming, I counted three pairs of brave boys holding hands, as people stared — the shadow zone abides. Even here, as Perry and I leave the bricks to pull up onto the driveway of John and Alberto’s misterb&b rental, I have a sense of relief at starting this trip in what feels like safe space, in the graceful old center of Orlando.
I’m aware of the irony. We’re ten blocks from the place where the notion of protected queer zones died in the early hours of a late-spring morning.
On June 12, 2016, 29-year-old Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 more inside Pulse, a gay club on South Orange Avenue, just west of Thornton Park. The club was hosting a Latino Night, and the victims were primarily Latinx. Before Pulse, the only thing I knew about Orlando was Disney World and boy bands (Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and O-Town all formed here). After Pulse, Orlando existed in the geography of my mind as the place where queer space, the shadow city I’d long thought of as safe, would be forever breached. I needed to pay my respects: to the victims, but also — maybe — to the very idea of protected zones.
It’s Friday, the day before Orlando’s Pride parade, the first since Pulse. Perry and I drop our stuff in our room and go find Alberto in the kitchen. On the night of the tragedy, he tells us, his Cuban-born parents were staying in our room. They couldn’t sleep. They were awake at 1:58 a.m. to hear the pop of gunfire and the cry of sirens piercing the lovely old veil of trees. They clicked on the TV. When Alberto got up at his usual time, he found them scared and shaken.
He says he’d been wondering about the sirens.
Perry and I agree we’re not ready to see the shattered nightclub on our first day. We’ll go tomorrow, before Pride.
Instead we spend the afternoon driving through old neighborhoods clustered around still, dark lakes. Even for an afternoon in Orlando, you notice the signs taped up in windows of bakeries, bars, and restaurants. Here, among the food stalls at the East End Market in Audubon Park, thumbtacked to the wall of the cheese shop, La Femme du Fromage: a stylized image of the 1912 Lake Eola fountain (the city’s unofficial symbol), water jets blasting, rendered in rainbow colors over a hashtagged phrase: #OrlandoUnited.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association made the signs for an event just weeks after the Pulse shooting, Dine Out for Orlando United. The FRLA asked hospitality businesses all over Florida to post the signs for a one-day push to raise money for survivors and the families of those who died. (More than 1,500 businesses took part, collecting more than $800,000 to the OneOrlando Fund.) The signs remain, the suggestion of support lingers.
Later we come back to East End Market to eat at a stand-alone ramen place, Domu. Waiting for a table at the U-shaped bar, we face groups and couples in their twenties, all skin colors, queer and straight. It’s not hard to picture an Orlando united, or maybe just a tolerant one, where diverse groups co-exist. Tonight it feels like co-existence might be enough.
The first thing you notice about Pulse is how embedded in sprawl it is, across South Orange Avenue from a Wendy’s, down the way from a Dunkin’ Donuts, a quick coffee run from Einstein Bagels. The building is cinder gray, as if it used to be black but softened in the Florida sun. Chain link protects the building’s flank along a parking strip. The fence enforces distance, though the tarps that cover it form a tent-like memorial wall, covered in messages scrawled with Sharpies.
A dozen people — some in rolled-leg cut-offs and tanks, the unofficial uniform of Pride — move slowly along the fence. Random tributes crowd the asphalt: plastic flowers and fresh bouquets, photos, a cherub figurine. Somebody printed out bios of the victims on copy paper, the words and likenesses indistinct from a failing ink cartridge. They could have been people I knew, yes, but they’re also manifestations of our vulnerability, the soft, dark eyes gazing from printouts. They’re the selves queer people risk, every day, to live openly. They’re all of us.
Perry and I pause to read the messages, stoop to examine tributes. We embrace, then retreat to private wells of grief to sob. I can’t control my heaving shoulders.
“Are you going to be okay?” I turn to see a woman in a black tennis skirt, a white tee, and a tan built up over years of Florida afternoons, looking at me with kind eyes. She’s in her sixties. She and a friend have come from Palm Beach to walk the Pride parade with PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
“It’s overwhelming,” she says, laying on my arm a brown hand whiskered with wrinkles. “Isn’t it?” She asks if Perry and I are together. I think she wants to make sure I’m not alone.
Pride has a core that’s always the same, everywhere. Watchers line streets, get hoisted up on fences or metal newspaper boxes to see better. Marchers wear twist-balloon hats and rainbow grass skirts, sleeveless denim jackets, underpants serving the most gestural of functions, or drag. You cheer the same things everywhere, though the streets are different. You walk through resin clouds of weed, past kids who flag themselves as first-timers (too much styling mousse, too many obvious outfit changes in front of too many mirrors over too many days), and middle-aged couples in matching tropical-print shirts. I always cry a little. I always get bored.
I notice a guy standing alone in a Cubs cap, big aviator shades, and a shirt that says Straight Outta the Closet. I ask to take his pic; he raises his arms like resurrected Jesus, a move of genuine swagger.
We trace the march backwards from downtown streets as we move to the rally spot, the path through the park circling the concrete-rimmed waters of Lake Eola. Somehow we miss the Pulse marchers, though we hear the cheers as they move through streets under clouds that start to roll in. It’s sort of weird how normal everything is, considering the horror of the backstory. It’s getting dark — we’re hungry. We walk out through the crowd, to a Lyft that takes us to a restaurant outside the queer zone of Pride, where Perry’s made a reservation. We’ll come back after dinner to watch the fireworks.
The host is telling us she’s sorry, there’s no table for us right now. She asks if we’d like to sit at the oyster bar.
I scan the dining room: It’s a field of couples packed together at two-tops, facing four-tops under the windows. It doesn’t look full, but I can’t exactly tell. But the oyster bar, across the host station from the dining room, is completely empty: six lonely seats facing a glassed-off shellfish station, a cold marble slab with bins of ice and gray, gnarly shells.
“We’ll wait at the bar-bar,” Perry says. He asks how long before a table opens up.
She tells us twenty minutes.
At the mostly empty bar, I’m two stools from a small woman in a red lace dress. She has lithe brown hair that sweeps her shoulder as she turns from looking at us. Her companion, a big man in a sports coat, is wearing jeans with a clutch of fine wrinkles fanning out from the crotch: expensive yet relatable. His hand rests on the back of her stool, his arm brackets her, as if making sure she doesn’t bolt.
As we order food and the bartender slides placemats on the chilly granite before us, Perry notices the host seating a man and a woman who have just come in. We’ve been at the bar thirty minutes.
Perry goes over to the host stand, to hear the host’s explanation about not wanting to seat us among the two-tops because she thinks we’d appreciate having a bigger table of our own, over by the windows, where other diners wouldn’t crowd us. Perry asks to see the manager.
Ten minutes later, as we’re halfway through our entrees, the manager finds us at the bar.
He’s tepidly solicitous. He says, as if we’ve offended him, that it’s wrong to think the restaurant would ever discriminate against anyone. And if, somehow, we did feel we’d been treated badly, he’s sorry we ever got that impression. No doubt it was all just an unfortunate miscommunication — they’ll do better next time, they’re always striving for that! Anyway, he’ll get to the bottom of it and come back to tell us what he’s learned.
We never see him again.
After we wave off dessert, the bartender sets two small glasses in front of us and fills them with sherry so cold it’s essentially rigor-mortised.
“On the house, guys,” he says. “Our way of saying sorry for the confusion earlier.” Only the sherry’s free. The rest of the bill we have to pay.
I think, maybe it’s an honest mistake. I think, maybe it isn’t. Are we just paranoid, or is a queer couple dressed for Pride unsuitable to dine among heteros in a respectable bistro?
I think about the time some unseen hand whipped a rock at our golf cart as Perry and I tooled around the back streets of Caye Caulker, Belize. The sharp ding of stone against the metal roof was a warning, a message that we didn’t fit there, from a source we didn’t see and couldn’t confront. The invisibility — in the restaurant’s case the deniability — was the point. We’d wandered out of the shadows. It was all on us to read the state of things and go back to the place we belonged.
As we walk back to the parade zone to watch the fireworks, amid a thinning crowd and a wail of sirens, we see the pyrotechnics barge in the middle of Lake Eola. Something’s gone wrong; the barge itself is on fire, a distant ball of flame surrounded by black water. Pride was over. Tomorrow we’d head south.
The distance from Orlando to Miami is just shy of 240 miles. We’ve seen parts of the Gold Coast before — the Atlantic shore north of Miami — so instead we set out to slice Florida through the middle, en route to Lake Okeechobee. First we take a 17-mile detour west to Winter Garden, a town of wide streets and wider lawns on the edge of Lake Apopka. It rose in Victorian brick in the late nineteenth century, along with the fortunes of the citrus barons.
We check out Plant Street Market, a two-year-old food hall surrounded by huge mossed oaks. It has the modern requisites: beer from Crooked Can Brewery, coffee from Axum, meats from The Local Butcher. Perry buys take-away quinoa salad and a veggie wrap — in case we need a snack on the road — from the juice place, Press’d. (Perhaps unaware of the historical irony of its existence, it sells “local, farm fresh cold pressed juices” in a town built from canned and frozen OJ.)
Soon we’re on the Ronald Reagan Turnpike, driving south through cattle pasture on a highway named for the man who presided over the first six years of the AIDS crisis and thousands of gay lives lost before ever mentioning the disease. It’s Sunday morning and the car radio picks up a station playing Southern Gospel: songs of Jesus and the life to come, radiant and mournful, fluttering on FM’s weightless treble. As we pass into Okeechobee County, a homemade plywood sign hoisted up on fence posts greets us with WELCOME TO GOD’S COUNTY, only it feels more like a warning.
Okeechobee is a city of just under 6,000, a sprawl of low-rise buildings sliced through by U.S. Route 441, at the northern bump of huge Lake Okeechobee. From the passenger seat, Perry scrolled through restaurants on Yelp and found Lightsey’s, which specializes in fried gator, here in God’s county seat, a landscape so flat and sun-bleached there doesn’t seem anyplace to hide.
Lightsey’s fronts the highway. It’s a modern structure with a suburban gloss of Spanish Colonial, anchoring what’s got to be two acres of parking. It feels like the restaurant version of a megachurch. Vehicles clog Lightsey’s lot on this Sunday. I wait for a king cab pickup to back out before snagging a spot.
Inside, families fresh from church crowd the foyer, waiting for eight-, ten-, or twelve-tops. The foyer’s a large space between, on one side, the kitchen, a fish counter, and the self-serve seafood freezers, and on the other a muddle of dining rooms. The servers, all of them women, cross this liminal zone ceaselessly. They wear a uniform — jeans with tucked-in Lightsey’s tees in different colors (none of them particularly sunny, as you might expect them to be in such a light-washed place). The backs read:
You, too, can get fried cooter here (nuggets of river turtle, FYI), where the fryers never rest. From their depths come fried catfish fingers, fried gator, fried green tomatoes, and fried hushpuppies, made, like the fried frogs’ legs, according to a recipe from 1977. That’s the year when, 130 miles south, Anita Bryant led a campaign called Save Our Children that crushed Miami-Dade County’s lesbian and gay anti-discrimination ordinance. No doubt a proud moment up here in God’s county.
Perry’s looking at the dining room tiled with the taxidermied heads of glass-eyed mammals and whole fish with gaping mouths, their tails tensed in spasms of mock escape. I’m looking at the hostess with the stuck-on smile, and thick men in John Deere caps and double-XL tees looking back.
Perry says to get whatever I want. He says he’ll wait in the car.
I order stuff to go from the hostess: fried wild alligator (I’m going for it — fuck farmed gator), hushpuppies, Seminole pumpkin bread. Amid the waiting families, I settle on a bench in the foyer to wait, under a photo of a hunter holding a rifle and a brace of lifeless ducks, with a caption: “I got these sons-a-bitches about 9:00 this morning.” A hunter’s joke? I don’t get it.
I spot a server — the only person of color I’ve seen so far in Lightsey’s — a trans woman, in super-faded skinny jeans, a ponytail, and the cooter shirt in blue.
She crosses the foyer. Our eyes meet. Maybe I don’t look away fast enough; probably she’s wondering why I’m staring. But she sticks out here — doesn’t she? We look at each other a couple more times, as she crosses to the kitchen and back. I want to tell her I’m queer — an ally — glean her story, ask how she survives in a place like this.
But what the hell do I know? I’ve never lived in a small town — certainly never in the South. I’m trapped in the traveler’s bubble, at a random place we found on Yelp, working through my own fears of feeling vulnerable outside the walls of the gay ghetto. Isn’t travel supposed to be about leaving yourself, your tight zone of habit? How does that work when there’s a potential for danger outside?
Twenty minutes go by. I ask the hostess about my order. With the same fixed smile she says she’ll check, but stays at her station, dealing with the families still arriving. Ah crap, not this again — but this time, I think it’s just because I’m alone in a bustling restaurant, ordering food to go: the lowest priority. I wait five more minutes, then slip out to the parking lot without even bothering to cancel: the dick move of the secretly wounded.
On the console, Perry’s laid out the quinoa salad and veggie wrap he bought in Winter Garden this morning. “That place was freaking me out,” he says. Safe in our car in the Lightsey’s lot, we share the furthest thing from cooter, and the queerest meal of the trip.
The afternoon sun casts shadows that make dimples in the sand look like mini moon craters. Miami Beach is a gloriously alien landscape, a line of lounger pads and shade umbrellas color-coded to the hotels lining Collins Avenue. Our budget room at the Marseilles has the faded ’80s glam of a posh-tacky resort in the last days of the Soviet Union, all purple linens, chunky old Deco-revival furniture, and a spa tub near the bed — but the hotel’s patch of beach is pristine. It’s day three of our five-day trip. I’m ready to kick back in the gay zone of South Beach.
We’d planned to stay at a queer hotel, like we usually do, but proximity to the ocean won out. It’s mixed here on the beach — a little queer, mostly not. Still, hanging out on my beach lounger, pretending to read a paperback, I spot two women in front of us and to the right, holding hands, lounger to lounger. Soon I’m aware of something stirring to our left, people sitting up to look at a man with pink wings setting up his lounger.
He’s probably in his sixties, a guy in a white fedora, wire-rimmed sunglasses, and a lacy choker dangling pearls. He has fluorescent pink fishnets that stretch three-quarters of the way up his thighs, a frilly white corset that could be a Danity Kane castoff, a tween girl’s pink tutu, and fingerless white mesh evening gloves. He’s a leathery-skinned, deeply tanned fairy, Tinkerbell trash crossed with Disney princess skank.
I introduce myself. In a gravelly voice that throws me, he says he’s Jim, from Key West. Jim says he makes it up here to South Beach sometimes, to hang out. He asks where I’m from. I tell him Oakland.
“You must be familiar with San Francisco then,” Jim says, pronouncing the city’s name like it tastes bad, pink wings bobbing as he speaks. “There’s so many liberals there, they let the homeless do whatever they want so they can be politically correct.” He says politically correct like it’s between quotes. Clearly, Jim’s politics are complicated.
I go back to my lounger and watch Jim strip off his fairy drag, down to a white string-like thong that doesn’t support in front so much as it cantilevers. To queer onlookers this is raw bitch power, smashing gender conventions — the very idea of gender expectations — challenging the ideals of beach-body hotness, the rules about who gets to show off in public and the acceptable way to present: We laugh because we’re in on the joke. For gawking straight people, like the middle-aged Russians — two women and a bulky man — sitting up in their chairs and growling jokes I can’t understand, pointing and chortling, it’s a freak show. Young women, mugging exaggeratedly straight faces, take selfies with Jim. He doesn’t seem to notice they’re making fun of him, or doesn’t care.
I think, “Hey gurrl! We’re here, we’re queer, we’re … at the beach!” And I also think, “Jesus, Jim, not here. Not in the open, exposed to random ridicule on Instagram.” I kind of want to slink off to the shadows, and I feel guilty for even having the thought.
That night we go to the bar at Hôtel Gaythering. In 2011, Stephan Ginez and Alexander Guerra took over a 1950s stucco apartment building in Miami Beach, west of Lincoln Road. “We chose the location” Guerra told The Boston Globe soon after Gaythering opened, “because it put people into a neighborhood so they feel like they are part of a neighborhood.” It calls itself “straight-friendly,” flipping the familiar condescending phrase.
After a couple of years they opened a place that’s a mix of hotel, bar, and spa. It has a buffed industrial look with rusticated edges, part summer-camp lodge, part bathhouse, an Ace Hotel with cum towels. There’s a hate-deflector shield around the perimeter — steampunk lettering on the glass of the front door spells out a warning, as pointed as a sign at a queer dance-off protest party: “If You Are Racist, Sexist, Homophobic, or an Asshole, Don’t Come In!” Inside, there’s a sense of humor about the situational absurdity in the thirstier parts of gay life (a vending machine in the lobby sells dildos, cock rings, and bottles of juice). We’d planned to stay here, until the beach seduced us.
And that’s the thing about Hotel Gaythering, a place embodying the ambivalence of LGBTQ safe space: It’s a warm and charming little foxes’ nest, a retreat from the mainstream. Sitting at Gaythering’s bar, watching a couple of Colorado bears meet some big, smiling dude from San Francisco (originally Cameroon) and his twunk friend from Paris — it wraps up all the joy and alienation I feel as a queer person on the road. We’re safe in here to meet each other, to listen in and let our eyes linger, and we were isolated from the big, roaring city outside. Those letters on the door promises protection from the scary people who want to hurt us. But it seals us — gay men, seemingly cis, mostly white — in a bubble.
Outside the queer zone of Orlando Pride, or our misterb&b, in Okeechobee, we’ve tried keeping to the shadows, our own private zone of safety. I realize how much work we all do as queers to enlarge the bubbles we live and move in, make them nice, fill them with friends and allies. But being on the road makes it clear that, fifty years after Stonewall and the active struggle for LGBT civil rights, so much of our lives still exists in isolated safety zones that don’t always keep us safe.
We finish our drinks and pass out through the door, to leave the shadows of Gaythering’s residential neighborhood and merge with the strolling crowd licking gelato under the lights of Lincoln Road. Maybe learning to be queer outside the bubble is the only way to travel beyond what you think you know about yourself. If Pulse broke a notion of safe space that was always only a myth, perhaps it’s time to move on from mourning; to live without the illusion. Miami Beach might not be the riskiest place to make a start, but maybe learning to be fearless in a world of risk is a thing that has to start small.
John Birdsall is a food writer in Oakland, California. He's received two James Beard Awards for food and culture writing, and is currently working on a new biography of James Beard, to be published by W.W. Norton and Company.
Header art by Melissa Deckert and Nicole Licht
All other photos by John Birdsall
Art direction by Nicole Licht
Copy edited by Jaime Green
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