Sometime in the years after Stonewall but well before same sex-wedding announcements in the newspapers, my husband and I spent a winter week in Key West, Fla. The weather was lovely and warm: we stayed on Duvall Street, and we had fun walking around, looking at flowers, eating outdoors, enjoying the sunsets and exclaiming how nice it was to be away from the snow.
After bicycling around the island several times and visiting the southernmost rock, the winter White House, the Hemingway Home, various gardens and some of the T-shirt shops, we were looking for something new to do. We saw a sign in front of a hotel announcing an outdoor tea dance at 4 p.m. that very day. My husband and I were teenagers in the 1940s, when everybody our age danced to the big bands: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James. We still enjoyed dancing. It was about 4:30, we could hear the music and it sounded like our kind of event.
As soon as we walked into the pool area behind the inn we felt uncomfortable, out of place, too old, too middle class, too square. Then we realized that we were the only heterosexual couple. We were not naive; we knew that Key West was a popular hangout for gays and lesbians.
We worked with people and had friends and relatives who were gay. But we had never been in their world before. Neither of us had ever heard of tea dances. So there we sat, very quiet, trying to make ourselves invisible.
I can still picture us sitting there watching the dancers, wondering whether we should simply leave. Just then, a man about 40 years old came to our table and asked me to dance. Perhaps I hesitated a moment, I don’t recall. I do remember that I didn’t like abandoning my husband, but the man led me out to the dance floor, and we started to move to the music.
Meanwhile, back at our table, another man – evidently my dance partner’s life partner – had come over and, with a mischievous look, asked my husband to dance. Taken aback momentarily, my husband quickly recovered, thought “why not?” and stepped out on the dance floor. He was soon “cutting a mean rug,” as our generation used to say.
When the music stopped, other people on the dance floor swarmed toward us, welcoming us, introducing themselves, asking us where we came from and if we liked Key West – the usual kind of tourist chitchat. Two of the younger people asked me for advice about problems, one with his partner, the other with her parents. When we returned to our table, our dance partners joined us and we had a fine time over a drink or two, and a long discussion about who they were, who we were, and why we all were in Key West.
The next day, strangers on the street would smile at us, nod and say “hi.” One evening we went to a drag show at the hotel, and after the star performed he sat at our table chatting with us. Over our mild protests, he picked up our check.
Perhaps the two gay men were initially trying to ”put us on,” maybe for the fun of discomfiting the two innocent straights. Whatever their motives, our matter-of-fact response to their invitation was a leap over a chasm between their world and ours. This story may be dated, but there still is a lesson here. A simple straightforward acceptance on a person-to-person level may allow us to appreciate each other’s humanity more fully.