Born that way? Gay resorts, that is — a look into how rainbow travel destinations got their colors
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Two weeks after his reconnaissance of the coast via helicopter, Artie is leading a meeting of six wealthy, gay developers, explaining the plan about to be hatched. They're going to turn the sleepy seaside town of Long Spit into a hot spot for gay and lesbian tourists — whether the residents of Long Spit agree to this transformation or not.
"Setting couldn't be more perfect," he says, describing the town's protected beach, existing galleries and antique shops, quaint bed-and-breakfast inns and a huge hotel ripe for rehab. " 'Course, this sort of thing has never been done from a standing start. Guess we have to figure how to get it moving on all fronts at once."
That's from the beginning of William Storandt's carefree novel The Summer They Came, and in the rest of his story the developers do get things moving on all fronts — through sneakiness and deception. Basically overnight the rainbow flags unfurl, and hilarity ensues.
In reality, however, gay travel destinations have come out of the closet much more slowly, many of them building on century-old traditions as "artist colonies." But in recent decades, as gays and lesbians became more visible and empowered — and as businesses have developed an attraction to the plentiful gay dollar — they began openly marketing destinations as safe, fun getaways or party zones for the queer as folk and the L words.
In the travel business, this is just good niche marketing: Gays and lesbians travel more than most people. According to a recent survey by the National Gay Newspaper Guild, seven out of 10 U.S. adults say they've traveled within the country during the last year, but those numbers jump to nine out of 10 for gays and lesbians. The survey found they fly more, too: U.S. adults claimed an average of 1.3 flights in the last year; gays and lesbians claimed an average of 2.9 flights.
Few tourist destinations have gone untested by gay travelers, but certain spots are pinker than others. Historians are still offering competing theories as to how San Francisco and its infamous Castro district became the holy grail for gay travelers, pointing to everything from a West Coast libertarian tradition rooted in piracy and gambling to the simple fact that as a huge embarkation point for servicemen during World War II the city was occupied by, ahem, a lot of single and/or lonely men.
From Provincetown, Mass., to Key West, Fla., and from Russian River, Calif., to Rehoboth Beach, Del. — the histories of gay-friendly towns often are similar. In almost every case, it began with an "artist colony." The artists came for waterside inspiration, invited celebrity friends and threw, as one Provincetown chronicler described, "socially lenient" parties. Years after the world wars, when the towns shouldered economic slumps, gays and lesbians usually were the ones who came back, bought depressed properties, rehabbed and renovated, and — often beginning around the dawn of the 1980s — opened the B&Bs. Gay business guilds formed, ads showed up in The Advocate (the national news magazine for gays and lesbians), and old-timers grumbled a bit about all the same-sex hand-holding on the beach — until the new sales tax receipts came in.
From arty to party
In the twin towns of Saugatuck and Douglas, Mich., directly across Lake Michigan, the summer they came was in 1910. That's when the Art Institute of Chicago established its Ox-Bow summer art school in the small lakeside town, says Mike Jones, one of three owners of The Dunes resort there. "That set everything in motion, really," Jones says of the town's gay life. "As a result of that artists' colony, this town has always had a gay presence."
"We were born this way," he adds about the town.
On either side of the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, Saugatuck and Douglas actually were born as fur trading posts and lumber camps. But by the late 1880s, several passenger ships were leaving Navy Pier for the six-hour trip to Saugatuck-Douglas, making the area the perfect getaway for work-weary Chicagoans, many of whom strolled down the gangplanks and into the town's long-gone dockside dance hall, the Pavilion. Weekender cabins popped up soon after. "By then, Saugatuck already had a reputation as a kind of anything-goes community," said Larry Gammons, the original owner of The Dunes resort. "It was a real getaway. That is, people came here to let loose a little bit. It was like Las Vegas — what happened here stayed here. At least they hoped."
Cynthia Marquard, of Chicago's Aqua Terra Travel and author of a travel column for Chicago's Windy City Times gay and lesbian weekly for more than 20 years, remembers going to Saugatuck "as a younger woman" in the 1970s with her partner Darlene. "It used to be terribly tacky," she says. "It was the meeting place between Chicago and Detroit. Gay guys would come over from Chicago on their motorcycles. They got every kind of crowd."
Gammons and partner Carl Jennings, now semi-retired in Saugatuck and running Bentley's Antiques on Center Street, used to weekend in Saugatuck (which used to be referred to as "the Cape Cod of the Midwest") from their Grand Rapids home in the 1960s and '70s. He said they looked around one day — at all their gay friends in Saugatuck-Douglas, the boat parties they were having, the gay business people who would sigh during their Saugatuck weekends and say things like, "If only we could just live here" — and saw an opportunity. When a piece of property came available, they pounced.
In 1981, they opened The Dunes, which is now the largest gay and lesbian resort in the Midwest. It's on 20 acres in Douglas, has dozens of rooms and its own complex of nightclubs. For gays and lesbians on vacation, it's party central.
The transition wasn't easy, though. "There was a lot of resistance," Gammons says. "Even though this town was accustomed to a gay presence for all those years, all of a sudden here was this large property. Instead of 25 or 30 people at the Blue Temple [gay bar], there were a thousand at The Dunes. It was jarring to some folks."
The arrival of The Dunes was a bit more public than some locals preferred. "There'd been ... let's call them eccentrics in this town for a long time, and that was fine," said a Saugatuck business owner who requested to remain anonymous. "When they opened The Dunes, though, it was a kind of public declaration — 'Here we are!' — and I think most people around here were a lot happier when it was an intriguing town secret rather than a tourist attraction."
The very fact that in 2005 a story about gays and lesbians features a heterosexual requesting anonymity instead of the other way around, however, is itself an indicator of the sea change that's taken place in and around Saugatuck-Douglas. "Really, this is a surprising place for this kind of acceptance to happen," Jones says. "We're right in the middle of right-wing, hunting-lodge hell, but in Saugatuck-Douglas, people just seem to check their issues in the car. Part of that is because it's gays and lesbians who fixed up a lot of the town, and because our tourism helped fuel a lot of the tourism that keeps the town afloat."
Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck-Douglas Convention and Visitors Bureau — which now markets the area as "The Art Coast of Michigan" — is quick to point out that gays and lesbians are a minority among Saugatuck's tourists: 15 percent to 20 percent. She is also, however, quick to credit their importance: "What we like about the gay travelers is that they are conservative, well-educated and they tend to promote the town well and remain quite loyal."
Gammons himself tries not to overestimate the importance of his property, The Dunes. "People think that because there's a gay resort and a gay bar someplace, that all gay people will support it," he says. "The truth is that a lot of gay people travel to places with gay bars and gay resorts — not because they want to go to or stay at those places but because it means that the city itself is gay-friendly. They may end up staying at a quiet B&B and may never go to a bar, but the existence of gay establishments means they are more likely to be comfortable throughout the community, that they'll be accepted at the straight restaurants and other places. That's the side of gay tourism that I think most people don't think about, and that's what's been most important in the development of this little town."
Fortunately, Saugatuck's development has been comparatively slow. We say "fortunately" because that means the town is still somewhat of an affordable getaway. Elsewhere in America, the gentrification engendered by the initial wave of rehabbing gays and lesbians has created an ironic backlash. The same bohemians and gays who breathed new life into many sleepy tourist towns now can't afford to live there anymore.
"It's shock what's happened in Key West," Gammons says. "The gay community there is almost gone now." And in a New York Times article a month ago, writer David Colman noted this about Provincetown: "A real estate boom has spread unease, pitting wealthy newcomers and developers against the townies, artists and free spirits who give the enclave its bohemian character and who now fear it is being gentrified out of existence."
The growth of gay tourism in Key West was a bit more ... intentional, hearkening back to the boardroom in Storandt's novel. Marquard knew a former Chicagoan, the late Walt Malone, an ad man who helped capitalize on the gay tourists exploring Florida in the '80s. "He was part of a group who said, 'If we gather together a bunch of the guesthouse owners and we decide to make this a gay destination, it will become a gay destination.' "
Key West didn't start as an official artists' colony, but it had its share of gay artists. Playwright Tennessee Williams moved to Key West because he enjoyed being able to swim year-round. The nearby naval base and its steady stream of single men didn't hurt, either. He lured like-minded pals, including writer Truman Capote, who bought houses and threw parties. Stephen K. Smith, a sales manager for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, sees this as the foundation that Malone and others built upon with the Key West Business Guild.
"It was a targeted effort," Smith says. "We bought space in the Advocate's old pink section, where all the co-op ads were, and started selling Key West as a gay destination. Daytona Beach had been a gay mecca in the early '70s, drawing a lot of the New York and D.C. crowds. The Parliament House had popped up in Orlando, with a drag bar and a dance floor. Then Marlin Beach [south of Miami] drew the Daytona crowd, and it just kept moving south."
Smith works this gay and lesbian history into the trolley tour he has scripted, and he cites figures from his office of up to 625,000 gay and lesbian tourists visiting Key West every year. But even Smith reluctantly acknowledges the island's shifting fortunes — that gentrification, while good for the economy, has driven up prices on the island and moved the demographic of those tourists up the economic scale.
At the end of curling Cape Cod, Provincetown has gone through several transformations since the Pilgrims landed there — from Yankee whaling town to Portuguese fishing village to bohemian artist enclave to, today, one of the world's most popular gay resorts.
Surprisingly, each of those segments of society contributed to the "P-town" of today. Karen Krahulik, a former Duke University professor who starts as a Brown University dean in January, turned her dissertation on this subject into a book, Provincetown: From Pilgrim Landing to Gay Resort, published in June (NYU Press, $29.95).
"The turning point in Provincetown was not so much in the '80s, when the real marketing began, but in the post-war era," Krahulik says. "This is when a group of town leaders attempted to get rid of the gay element in town" by adopting ordinances designed to shut down gay and drag bars, "and negotiating that struggle was pivotal in terms of Provincetown's success as a gay community. Some towns succeeded in those efforts, but in Provincetown that didn't happen ... The town debated back and forth, and in the end I don't want to say the gay community succeeded as much as I'd say that Provincetown succeeded as a community and became an accepting enclave. ...
"Provincetown markets itself heavily as 'the landfall of freedom.' This, after all, is where acceptance and tolerance came ashore."
During the last two decades, the same process of gentrification has swept across the cape, much of it spearheaded by gay and lesbian entrepreneurs and business people. And now that the town is rehabbed and renovated, the property values are through the roofs.
"But now the average price for a single-family residence there is about $650,000. That tells you right there who can afford to live there," Krahulik says.
And where's the next gay and lesbian hot spot? A cool place, actually.
"Given the political climate here and there, I'm booking a lot of trips for gays and lesbians to Canada," Marquard says. "Everyone wants to go get married. And now they can."
IF YOU GO
Just a 2-1/2-hour drive around the lake from Chicago, these twin towns are chiefly a summertime escape, but the fall foliage is turning around the harbor and along the beaches — and most shops and restaurants stick it out through the holidays.
Gays and lesbians are, of course, welcome to stay at The Dunes, 333 Blue Star Highway in Douglas (269-857-1401, www.dunesresort.com). Rooms and cabins are available, and with a nightclub, bar and cabaret in the complex, you may never have to leave the place. Except to grab great grub at the Kalico Kitchen across the street, featuring fried catfish good enough to make a Southerner weep.
The Belvedere Inn, 3656 63rd St. (269-857-5777, www.thebelvedereinn.com), is gay-owned, if not gay-marketed; it does a brisk business in weddings throughout the summer. Vacationers of every stripe will find this converted mansion on the edge of Saugatuck a rewarding respite — the friendly charm of a B&B, the amenities and style of a boutique hotel. Tea on the terrace (look at those gardens!) and dinner in the restaurant (one of the co-owners is the chef) make for one splendid evening.
While strolling Saugatuck's shops and galleries, stop into the Pumpernickel's, 202 Butler (269-857-1196), for tasty and affordable sandwiches, brunch items and a glass of wine. For dinner, you might avoid the dark, foreboding seafood dives and sports bars in Saugatuck and cross the river to Douglas for the chic notions of Ameri-can cuisine at the Blue Moon Bar & Grille, 310 Blue Star Hwy. (269-857-8686), or the "comfortably upscale but never uptight" Copper Grille, 24 Center St. (269-857-7100), with a great patio and refreshing menu.
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.