TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida‘s Key West is one of the most gay-friendly places in the country. The Florida Panhandle — many locals call it the Redneck Riviera — is a different story.
The massacre of 49 people in a gay nightclub happened between these extremes, forcing many Floridians to reconsider their assumptions about the state’s evolving culture.
Key West has a gay police chief, a lesbian county mayor and was the nation’s first city to elect an openly gay mayor. It attracts 450,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender tourists a year. Bumper stickers reading “One Human Family” appear on all city vehicles, including police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.
“It’s a safe place; they know that they are free from judgment, free from hassle, free from physical violence,” said Guy Ross, who heads LGBT sales at the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. “We do not tolerate gay bashing down here. It just doesn’t happen.”
Drive 780 miles north and west to the gleaming, white-sand beaches of the Panhandle, and you’ll find “family friendly” towns that aren’t known for welcoming gays.
After gay marriage became legal in Florida in 2014, the Santa Rosa County clerk stopped performing any wedding ceremonies — gay or straight — to avoid marrying same-sex couples. In Pensacola, a small LGBT community center called Equality House closed for lack of funds after less than three years.
The attack in central Florida on June 12 — Latin Night at the Pulse club in Orlando — has drawn an outpouring of solidarity, but also fear, particularly among people who saw the tourist mecca as a refuge from hatred.
The shooting also created awkward moments for some of Florida’s Republican and conservative Christian leaders, who tried to show compassion even as they defended positions gays and lesbians find hurtful.
“There are two Floridas,” and between them there’s a “patchwork,” said Nadine Smith, CEO of the gay and transgender rights group Equality Florida.