“My name is Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you.”
Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay men ever elected to public office in the United States, started many of his most famous speeches with that line. He had a clear plan for LGBTQ progress: come out, be visible and take an active role in your community. And if you feel unsafe, seek refuge in the “nearest biggest city.”
Forty-one years after his assassination in 1978, I think Harvey would be very proud that a festival bearing his name—with the mission of “fostering the arts as a catalyst for social and political change”—marked its 10thyear in the not-biggest-city of Sarasota, Florida.
This May, the Harvey Milk Festival (HMF) celebrated the milestone anniversary with an art show and photo exhibition showcasing American LGBTQ+ history from the 1890’s to the times of Harvey Milk; a panel discussion with queer professors, historians and authors; an evening of dance, music and spoken word; and an all-day music festival in Downtown Sarasota, featuring 10 emerging musicians.
Beyond the yearly festival, HMF [a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit organization] launched a Youth Outreach Program in 2014, with scholarships and internship opportunities open to all LGBTQ+ students in Sarasota County between the ages of 13 and 25.
According to HMF: “The most significant benefit to participants in the HMF Youth Outreach Program is the encouragement and financial support that youth are given to continue their education… Many of our youth have experienced alienation and discrimination from family, friends and schoolmates and lack the essential network of support they need when they are in school. HMF Scholarship and HMF Internship programs offer participating youth opportunities to connect with the LGBTQ+ community through their work, receive feedback from youth, artists, mentors and allies, and further their professional development with support and encouragement from their community.”
Sarasota County borders 40 miles of shoreline on the Gulf Coast of Southwest Florida and includes the City of Sarasota, several neighboring cities and a string of eight barrier islands. With a population of about 417,000 permanent residents and many more snow birds during winter months, it’s an area often associated with an older, affluent demographic.
But today’s Sarasota is expanding, evolving and enticing LGBTQ travelers of all ages to visit its powdery-sand beaches, world-class art institutions and growing gay (and gay-friendly) social scene.
Sarasota’s beaches are world-renowned. Perhaps the most famous, Siesta Key, has enjoyed multiple years on TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Award for the 25 Best Beaches in North America, including a coveted spot on the 2019 list. And it is welcoming to all.
The popular gay beach with the locals, however, is North Lido Beach. Walk about 10 minutes north of the main Lido Beach entrance, off St. Armands Circle, for a less-trafficked shore and dune-hidden trails that might embrace more private… conversations.
Should you work up an appetite from all that spirited sea-splashing (…and conversation) make your way to the south end of Lido Beach, where the no-frills Lido Beach Restaurant serves delicious beachside food and drinks. Try the Lobster Roll and sip on a cocktail while you tan. It’s legal to drink alcohol on Sarasota beaches
Culture aficionados will love that Sarasota is home to nine performing art organizations less than a mile from Downtown Sarasota and a private art collection that rivals European capitals. First, head to the Ringling Estate. The Godfather of the American Circus (Ringling Bros. and later Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus) fell in love with Sarasota in the early 20th century and chose the city for the 66-acre estate that houses his winter home Càd’Zan, a waterfront mansion completed in 1926 and built to resemble a Venetian Gothic palace, and the expansive Ringling Museum of Art and Ringling Circus Museum. You truly can spend an entire day roaming around these gorgeous grounds.
Don’t miss the Rubens Galleries and the Howard Bros. Circus Model, the largest circus model in the world, with 42,000 miniature pieces. On site is also the Asolo Theater, an 18thcentury playhouse dismantled from the Italian original and reassembled in Sarasota in the 1950’s.
Beyond The Ringling, Sarasota is home to the Florida Studio Theatre, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe of Florida, Sarasota Ballet (the only professional ballet company on Florida’s Gulf Coast), Sarasota Opera House and Sarasota Orchestra, to name a few of their cultural institutions. And there’s more on the way. This December, the Sarasota Museum of Art will open its new home at the historic Sarasota High School, with 15,000 square feet of gallery space showcasing rotating exhibits of contemporary art.
Got your culture? Good. Let’s dance.
I always say I need my cities to have at least one gay bar. (Sarasota has two). It’s important for me to interact with my community and I usually learn much from half-drunken conversations with the locals. Lucky for us all Sarasota has Oasis. Oasis is owned by adult entertainer cutie Hunter Vance and features some very attractive go-go boys (and girls too!) on weekend nights. And what’s better than a really hot go-go boy? Well, a really friendly, hot go-go boy. And I’m happy to report the dancers of Oasis are lovely in every way. Catch a glimpse on my Instagram below (including a video peek when you click through).
Beyond the performers, the crowd at Oasis was a true mixture of our LGBTQ community and allies, all coming together for a great time. And it was at Oasis that I met the “gay mayor” of Sarasota, Joshua Beadle. I would later learn the title is unofficial but well-deserved. In 2016, Joshua launched SarasotaOUT.com, to promote Sarasota as a welcoming LGBTQ destination for visitors, businesses and residents alike. He partners with community organizations, local non-profits and the tourism industry to host events throughout the year. According to Joshua: “Sarasota is coming out of the closet.”
SarasotaOUT.com’s Gay Group Happy Hour (G2H2)takes place the first Thursday of every month at a new LGBTQ-friendly location. G2H2 brings the community together to network and have a great time—all while raising money for local and national charities. On June 9, SarasotaOUT.com is taking the party to North Lido Beach for its annual Big Gay Beach Party, a day of fun-in-the-sun, with beach games, contests and, yes, even jello-shots!.
Sarasota, Florida, may not be the first place you think of when planning a gay vacation. But with gorgeous beaches, a thriving cultural scene, and a growing LGBTQ community focused on activism and a good time, Sarasota will make you rethink Florida’s Gulf Coast.