Ask Lois travel questions: Is it safe for LGBT couples to travel in Florida?

South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS
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Note: We asked for your questions about travel in Florida, and this one sure is timely. Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law has brought national attention to our state, and some people are wondering whether they should still visit.

Dear Lois:

For years, my husband and I have enjoyed vacationing in South Florida. We’ve been together 22 years, and six years ago we got married in Fort Lauderdale. We have many pictures with Jennifer, the lovely woman who married us during our civil ceremony. I don’t think she bargained to be a part of our family, but we love her just the same!

My question is: Can we still visit South Florida even though Ron DeSantis and many legislators have decided (once again) that we’re not worthy of equal rights? Cutting to the chase: Can we still vacation in Florida even when the state is legislating against us?

— A Florida lover

Hello Florida lover!

The past few months have been a confusing, complicated, emotional time for those who love Florida but wonder about the signals the state’s new culture-war laws are sending not only to LGBTQ residents and members of other minority groups but to tourists who have been loyal visitors for decades.

The most famous new law, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics, curtails discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten to third grade, “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” This is the law that brought Gov. Ron DeSantis into conflict with Disney World, which opposed the legislation. In response, DeSantis ordered the Legislature to dismantle Disney’s system of self-government known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, created by the Legislature in 1967.

Another new law, the so-called “Stop Woke Act,” restricts how schools and businesses address race and gender.

These new laws have placed Florida in the national spotlight and made tourism officials shudder. They are fielding many questions such as yours from people who are concerned about whether they are welcome in Florida or will face prejudice during their stay here.

I spoke to several tourism officials and LGBT community activists, and they had a consistent message for you: Come.

“Visiting Florida is safe,” said Rachel Covello, publisher of Outcoast.com, which explores LGBT travel in Florida. “I’ve traveled all over Florida for many years. There has never been an issue. A few people at the top are misleading people to think other things.”

Covello, who lives in St. Petersburg, said LGBT travel in Florida is actually being more widely marketed than ever. Beyond the traditional gay gathering destinations such as Fort Lauderdale, Tampa-St. Pete, Orlando and Key West, smaller cities, such as Delray Beach, Crystal River and Naples, and counties such as Volusia and Seminole, are trying to attract gay tourists.

Covello said no one has called for a boycott of Florida, and no one should. She said a boycott would only hurt businesses and residents who are trying to make sure the state is tolerant and hospitable.

“I get that there may be concern,” Covello said. “But there are a lot of gay people in Florida. We’re not a homophobic state. We’re angry, but we’re fine.”

Surveys show about 4.6 percent of Florida’s population identifies as LGBT, the same as the U.S. population. And there’s no question that gay guests are a mainstay of statewide tourism: Think of Disney World’s Gay Days, the Winter Party Festival in Miami Beach and Fantasy Fest in Key West. Or take a look at Visit Florida’s LGBTQ Travel in Florida page, which lists the state’s LGBTQ chambers of commerce, Top 10 Gay Beaches and “gaycation” destinations in surprising locales, including Ocala, New Smyrna Beach and Mount Dora.

But you asked about South Florida, and it won’t surprise you to hear everyone desperately wants you to come back.

“How sad we have to ask this question in 2022,” said Stacy Ritter, president of Visit Lauderdale, which markets Broward County tourism. “We know we have to prove ourselves after what people have been hearing.”

Ritter said it’s not just tourism officials who are emphasizing the state’s open-mindedness. She said the mood among the grass roots is similarly sympathetic. She said she has never heard or heard about a bigoted comment in her 48 years in the Sunshine State.

“I have never seen anyone use hurtful language in public based on how someone identifies,” she said.

Julia Murphy, chief development officer at the Compass Center, an LGBT community center in Lake Worth, said she also has seen nothing to show a rise in Palm Beach County hate crimes since the legislation passed.

“There is a lot of fear right now, and rightfully so,” Murphy said. “But from Palm Beach County south, you are extremely safe.”

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Upcoming events

Here are some upcoming LGBT gatherings in Florida:

Sexacola Girl Fest, Pensacola Beach, May 26-29. More than 200,000 partiers expected.

Gay Days, Disney World, May 31 to June 6.

Many gay pride festivals, including Key West Pride, June 1-5; Captiva Island Pride, June 3-5; Naples Pride, June 4; Dunedin Pride, June 11-18.

Floatarama, Fort Lauderdale, June 11, a boat parade along the New River and Intracoastal Waterway that ends with a hotel dance party.

Key West Tropical Heat, Aug. 10-14, a party for gay men.

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Send your Florida travel questions to AskLois@sunsentinel.com.