endless discovery

This traveler fell in love with a gay tropical haven. Here’s why he never left

Truman Waterfront Park, Key West
Key West local Chris McNulty. Photo by Larry Blackburn for GayCities.

Love is a funny thing. For Chris McNulty, it meant throwing caution to the wind and moving to Key West without ever having visited to support his then-boyfriend. The charming island captivated McNulty, who says, “I fell in love with it right away.”

And what’s not to love? Long known as a queer haven for its welcoming vibe, gorgeous weather, and community-driven sensibility, Key West’s moniker, “One Human Family,” lives up to its name. 

McNulty, now 37, arrived in late 2019, just before the world was about to shut down temporarily. Though the relationship ran its course, the timing allowed him to discover Key West’s natural beauty more intimately. Each Wednesday, McNulty would connect with his friend, Lexi, whom he had met working at Key West mainstay Caroline’s Cafe, and walk the island.

Biking in Key West
At only four miles long and two miles wide, most locals get around Key West by bike. Photo by Larry Blackburn for GayCities.

Beyond the now-famous intersection of Duval Street and Patronia and Key West’s famous “Pink Triangle,” known for LGBTQ+ nightlife, McNulty traversed lesser-known portions of the island, discovering beaches, history, and quiet enclaves to ponder the next chapter of his life. 

After several jobs in the hospitality industry, McNulty turned to his passion for community service. He currently works at the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter, and in 2021, officially launched Queer Keys with co-founder Janiece Rodriguez. The community organization hosts meet-ups for queer youth, adults, and allies.

With a new lease and grant funding recently secured, Queer Keys plans on expanding to include mental health services, free STI testing, and additional programming. 

Despite working two jobs, McNulty still finds time to take advantage of all that Key West has to offer. He recently shared with GayCities some of his favorite finds, from affordable eats to one of the best karaoke bars in town. 

Places to ponder

Sunset in Key West
Truman Annex Waterfront Park is one of McNulty’s favorite spots to watch the sunset. Photo by Larry Blackburn for GayCities.

Known for its queer nightlife, Key West overflows with options for casual drinks, craft cocktails, and entertainment. But there’s so much to discover before the sun sets! One of McNulty’s favorite spots is Truman Annex Park, where benches to relax and take in the scenery and a trickling fountain provide a peaceful backdrop.

“We would sit there for like a good hour and a half, maybe two hours, just telling each other our histories and really getting to know each other,” says McNulty of those early days with one of his best friends. “Lexi is still like my anchor. She kind of keeps me tethered to reality because there’s so much happening in my life.”

It makes sense that the multi-tasking McNulty is attracted to the area, named after the 33rd president of the United States, Harry Truman, known for his ambitious policies presented to Congress, including the expansion of Social Security and a permanent Fair Employment Practices Act. History buffs can visit the Harry S. Truman Little White House, Florida’s only presidential museum, to learn more about Truman’s vision and accomplishments.

Harry S. Truman Little White House
The Harry S. Truman Little White House. Photo: Shutterstock.

The area also offers McNulty’s favorite location to watch the sunset in Key West. 

“It’s kind of removed from Mallory Square,” which McNulty says can become dense with revelers. Truman Waterfront Park, by contrast, offers a more serene spot to take in the horizon. When he can carve out the time, McNulty also likes to hop on a paddleboard or kayak, courtesy of LGBTQ+-owned Lazy Dog Adventures. Key West’s dozens of attractions, beaches, museums, and parks offer plenty of ways to unwind or energize your day, depending on what suits your mood.

Eat like a local

Kojin Noodle Bar
Kojin Noodle Bar is one of hundreds of Key West restaurants offering travelers plenty of options for a great meal. Photo by Larry Blackburn for GayCities.

While travelers will rarely visit the same restaurant twice on vacation, for McNulty, comfort food can be found in a bowl of “totally delicious” ramen at Kojin Noodle Bar. “It’s a smaller spot, totally affordable, and uses super fresh ingredients,” says McNulty. The dragon bowl — a savory broth with chicken, ginger, cabbage, rice noodles, and a kick of chile — is his favorite, as is the setting.

For months, McNulty has been watching the work of local artist Jesse Carson come to life in a massive mural encompassing the restaurant’s walls. Drawing inspiration from manga, tattoo art, “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” by famed Japanese artist Katasushika Hokusai, and even a bit of Tim Burton, the mesmerizing large-scale work has quickly become a Key West must-see.

For a sweet treat after a spicy bowl of ramen, a five-minute walk will lead you to Mattheessens, a local favorite for ice cream, key lime pie, and marble slab fudge for more than 30 years. 

And for those looking to indulge in Key West’s local seafood, Little Pearl offers a four-course menu featuring the day’s fresh catch and an impressive wine list for a memorable meal in the heart of Old Town.

From karaoke to drag, Key West is full of surprises any night of the week

Bobby's Monkey Bar
Pictured here with owner Bobby Walker, left, Bobby’s Monkey Bar has become McNulty’s favorite hangout to meet up with friends and step up to the mic for a night of karaoke. Photo by Larry Blackburn for GayCities.

McNulty found his family of choice in Key West and with it, a newfound love for karaoke. Bobby’s Monkey Bar delivers both in spades, where locals and visitors alike converge for good times and a turn at the mic. 

“If you were to drive by, you wouldn’t even really notice it,” says McNulty of the light pink building with a small, simple sign. Opening at 12 p.m. and offering an all-day happy hour until 8 p.m. (cash only), it’s an ideal spot to step out of the sun, but when 9:30 p.m. rolls around, McNulty says, “It turns into this karaoke party where everyone is supporting everyone who’s singing.”

“It’s a mishmash of all the people from the island,” says McNulty. “I know that I can walk in there by myself and see four or five people who I can catch up with. Usually, the owner Bobby is hanging out at one end of the bar, he’s a super sweet dude who’s always happy to see you.”

Packed with memorabilia and stuffed animals, the bar’s eclectic setting matches its clientele, which celebrates all walks of life. “Everyone’s welcome there,” says McNulty of the supportive environment. And if you’re lucky enough to catch him at the mic, expect a unique rendition of “The Neverending Story,” Cass Elliot’s “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” or “Skid Row (Downtown)” from Little Shop of Horrors.

Aqua Club & Bar
Aqua Club & Bar. Photo by Paul Harris/Getty Images.

From live vocals at La Te Da, drag and dancing at Aqua Bar & Nightclub, and famed dragpreteneur Sushi’s roster of queens at 801 Bourbon Bar, Key West boasts a full roster of drag performances seven nights a week. 

“They all have a completely different vibe,” says McNulty. La Te Da, known for headliners Randy Roberts and Chris Peterson, presents impersonations of some of our favorite divas from Bette Midler to Cher. “They’re highly produced and very polished — they know what they’re doing.”

McNulty bartended at 801 for six months and “had a great time,” sharing that most drag queens on the island, at one time or another, have played the venue. Whether you’re catching a veteran performer or a newbie queen donning heels and painting her face for the first time, McNulty says, “You never know exactly what you’re going to get.’ And that’s the magic that keeps people coming back for decades.

“Aqua is sort of like a Vegas-style show,” says McNulty. “They practice together and are on point. It’s always a flashy, polished show. You can pick from any of those places, kind of like a choose your own ‘drag’ adventure.” 

The future of Queer Keys

Chris McNulty is part of the next generation of Key West locals making their mark on this legendary island. Photo by Larry Blackburn for GayCities.

McNulty has found both play and purpose in Key West. Also an astrologer, he connected with Queer Keys co-founder Janiece Rodriguez while giving her a reading, during which the pair shared their backgrounds and interests in LGBTQ+ youth advocacy. They remained friends, and the conversation planted a seed that, years later, would eventually grow into the incorporated nonprofit it is today.

McNulty, who previously worked for the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, knew what similar services could bring to Key West’s community. The meet-ups, youth programs, and trans trust fund for gender-affirming care are among Queer Keys’ core offerings, which will continue to expand as the organization moves into its first permanent home this winter. 

“Our goal is to create a community-centered space,” says McNulty. Coincidentally, the venue is located in the same building as a drop-in center for the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter. Together, the organizations can create a synergistic space that offers a wide range of LGBTQ+ support services. 

Queer Keys represents the island’s continuing LGBTQ+ visibility, whose legacy includes literary icons like Tennessee Williams to hundreds of everyday folks who rallied support during the height of the AIDS crisis. (The Key West AIDS Memorial is the first municipal AIDS memorial in the world.)

Travelers may visit Key West for the free-spirited energy of Duval Street and the alluring tropical climate, but will undoubtedly discover that the true heart of the island destination is its people.

Ready to start planning your Key West vacation? Visit fla-keys.com/key-west/lgbtq

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