Pride isn’t merely bestowed; it must be earned, cultivated, and defended. Nobody embodied the complexity of queer existence more fully than Tennessee Williams. In his later years, Williams understated his acclaim, calling himself the “most promising playwright on Key West,” but the writer’s relationship with the exotic island was complicated, to say the least.
Modern LGBTQ+ travelers regard Key West as a Mecca for drag queens and nudist resorts, but its reputation was galvanized by the sacrifices of our forebears. Mr. Williams himself was mugged several times on the streets of his idyllic surroundings, and many of his assailants were overheard tossing gay epithets at the legendary author.
But, with his iconic flair for dismissal, Williams told the local police, “There is violence everywhere.”
The playwright refused to give his attackers any more press than they had already stolen, because “enduring the devil, he will earn, if nothing else, its respect.”
Pivoting from the profound to the comical, Williams added, “Maybe they weren’t punks at all, but instead New York drama critics. That mugging received better and more extensive publicity than anything I ever wrote.”
Williams remained defiant about his home and legacy on Key West. “I’ve been here since ’49, longer than they have. I’ll be back,” he promised a journalist at the time.
Punctuating his statement like one of his fabulous leading ladies as she commands the spotlight, Williams added, “I am not in the habit of retreat.”
Queer culture owes a debt of gratitude to Williams’ casual bravery. Now, Key West is a safe haven for dreamers of every rainbow stripe.
The island is repaying Williams for his example and enduring genius with a retrospective of his work. To commemorate the writer’s 110th birthday, the local historical society is presenting various films based on his plays as well as a virtual tour of Williams’ haunts.
Aspiring scribes can also enter poetry and short story contests to celebrate the occasion. Despite the rough waters that previous generations of LGBTQ+ individuals navigated in the past, the future of Key West is smooth sailing. We are on the cusp of a gay Renaissance filled with passion and pool parties galore.
Our luxurious liberation is due, in large part, to the courageous vision of Tennessee Williams. He once said of Key West, “I work everywhere, but I work best here.”
Thank you, Mr. Williams. We applaud you posthumously and we admire you eternally.
Photo courtesy of Tennessee Williams Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University
Last modified: February 28, 2021