With so many identities under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, it’s easy for some to be overlooked, even in the most gay-friendly of cities. Yet Fort Lauderdale manages to break community barriers, promising a queer destination that’s more than a beach of sculpted, Speedo’d men. In fact, the classic gay stereotype of male pageantry and showmanship is the minority in a city that paints with all the colors of the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Everyone’s represented and welcome in Fort Lauderdale.
It’s no coincidence the city has the highest concentration of same-sex couple households in the country. Or that it receives 1.5 million LGBTQ+ travelers annually, corresponding to an estimated $1.5 billion in economic benefits. Want the proof? Start by visiting Wilton Manors, a thriving gayborhood among Greater Fort Lauderdale’s 31 municipalities. Here, the rainbow flags fly high along Wilton Drive (aka “the Drive”), a mile-long main street lined with novelty stores, personality-driven restaurants, coffee shops, specialty bars, and travel agencies like Freedom Travel, which cater specifically to the gay community.
It’s home to one-of-a-kind haunts like To the Moon Marketplace, a candy store stocked with every vintage sweet imaginable, and Bubbles and Pearls, an oyster and champagne spot by Top Chef royalty, chef Josie Smith-Malave. There’s also Georgie’s Alibi Monkey Bar, a community mainstay known for its drag shows, low-priced drinks (hello, $4 Long Island Iced Tea Thursdays), and laid-back vibe. Across the drive lies more niche retailer Rock Hard, an adult entertainment store that carries harnesses, chaps, whips, and everything you’d need for a visit to Ramrod, the nearby hardcore leather bar.
Beyond the loud and proud panache of the Drive, the rest of Wilton Manors intentionally flies under the radar as a quieter residential neighborhood of spruced up single-family homes, reinvented 1950s duplexes, and new builds scattered along labyrinthine canals. It’s a place where married same-sex couples can plant roots and start families without living under scrutiny or fear of being perceived as “different,” a sanctuary where trans-identifying individuals can shop in the local grocery store and go on dinner dates to places like Rosie’s Bar & Grille without snickers or stares.
Of course, all-welcoming LGBTQ+ life isn’t restricted to Wilton Manors—it spans the entirety of Fort Lauderdale. Take Fort Lauderdale Beach, where the action centers on Sebastian Beach, the most popular of Fort Lauderdale’s three gay beaches. Unlike Miami’s gay “Muscle Beach” reputation, here the Speedo and bikini scenes are shared among the fit and the plus-sized, the smooth and the hairy—and equally celebrated. For visitors, beach lodging choices span big-brand hotels allied with the LGBTQ+ community, like W Fort Lauderdale, to a dozen clothing-optional, gay guesthouses, including the Grand Resort & Spa and Worthington Resorts, a collection of three guesthouses under one management team.
It’s true that not every LGBTQ+ person is looking to fly the rainbow flag and or have sexuality define them. But widespread community and public support speak volumes in creating safe spaces. Housing the largest LGBTQ+ lending library in the U.S. at Stonewall National Museum and Archives is testament to Fort Lauderdale’s commitment to queer culture. Hosting the annual Southern Comfort Conference, the largest annual trans conference in North America, signals acceptance to the trans community. Consistently earning a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index, which examines the likes of nondiscrimination laws and municipal services, indicates Fort Lauderdale’s aptitude for inclusivity. In recognizing the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community and nurturing an all-welcome mantra, Fort Lauderdale shows us there truly is a destination over the rainbow that embraces everyone under the sun.