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Tying the Knot in Key West

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The bachelor party, the rehearsal dinner, the wedding, and the reception
by Dick Dace

Are we legal yet?: Aaron Huntsman (l) and William Lee Jones were the first same-sex couple in the Keys to be issued a marriage license. Photo by Dick Dace.
Are we legal yet?: Aaron Huntsman (l) and William Lee Jones were the first same-sex couple in the Keys to be issued a marriage license. Photo by Dick Dace.

Key West has been a popular destination for generations of gay men and women ever since a 35-year-old Tennessee Williams arrived there in 1941 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to remake the city into a colony for writers and artists. Williams was soon followed by Truman Capote, Terrence McNally, Leonard Bernstein, and their admirers. (It also didn’t hurt that thousands of seaman from the local U.S. Navy base had the run of the island.) These creative types all came looking for something different—sun, sea, each other, and maybe even a feeling of inclusion. Key West rolled out the rainbow flag, and gay men and women soon became innkeepers, restaurateurs, firemen, and elected officials.

In April of 2014, Key West residents Aaron Huntsman and William “Lee” Jones (Huntsman’s boyfriend of 11 years) decided they wanted to get married. When they applied for a Florida marriage license at the Monroe County Clerk’s office in Key West, they were turned down. Right then and there, they decided to fight the decision by suing the State of Florida.

What prompted these two—a hospitality veteran and a retired firefighter—to take on this Herculean task? “We were tired of being discriminated against,” answers Jones, matter-of-factly.

“But we were not prepared for the amount of stress this has caused us,” confesses Huntsman, as he holds up his left hand, visibly shaking.

Husbands-to-be: Huntsman and Jones, whose lawsuit helped pave the way for marriage equality in Florida, are shown here signing their marriage license at Key West’s Monroe County Courthouse. Photo courtesy Florida Keys News Bureau.
Husbands-to-be: Huntsman and Jones, whose lawsuit helped pave the way for marriage equality in Florida, are shown here signing their marriage license at Key West’s Monroe County Courthouse. Photo courtesy Florida Keys News Bureau.

On August 6, 2014, in a packed courtroom in Key West, Bernadette Restivo and Elena Vigil-Farinas, attorneys for the tuxedo-clad plaintiffs, presented their case. They hoped for an immediate ruling and a fast-tracked wedding. Their wish partly came true.

Judge Luis M. Garcia declared Florida’s ban on gay marriage to be unconstitutional, and that marriage licenses should be issued to gay couples in Key West beginning the very next week.

But don’t toss the confetti just yet.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi immediately filed notice of appeal, triggering an automatic stay that prevented any same-sex marriages until after what promised to be a politically charged appeals process. But with antigay marriage laws falling across the country, it was only a matter of time before Huntsman and Jones tied the knot.

Well, it only took them 12 years to get to an altar in Florida! When U.S. Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida’s county court clerks could issue licenses to same-sex couples beginning at 12:01 a.m. on January 6, 2015, Huntsman and Jones were the first same-sex couple in Monroe County (in the Florida Keys and Key West) to get married. Dressed in matching tuxedos with white shirts, electric blue vests, and traditional black bowties, they said “I do” with tears of joy in their eyes in front of hundreds of their family, friends, and media on the courthouse steps in a very public ceremony that was broadcast live around the world. Their private reception was held at Aqua on Duval Street.

Now that these guys have helped right wrongs on the marriage equality front and opened the door for thousands of Florida same-sex couples to legally share an “I do,” what’s next? Well, to plan more weddings, of course! Here are my suggestions for other men in love who choose Key West as the destination for their nuptials.

Bachelor Party

For a rip-roaring bacchanal of a bachelor party, nothing beats the Island House, a true tropical paradise. Opened in 1999 by Key West locals Jon Allen and Martin Kay, this secluded, all-male, clothing-optional guesthouse comes with a well-appointed health club, lush gardens, pool, bar, and a 24-hour restaurant that serves classic American fare with Caribbean flavors. The mistress of ceremonies would have to be the one-and-only drag queen Qmitch Jones. Just imagine what games the guys could play!

Rehearsal Dinner

If the grooms-to-be want to go trendy, I would suggest Jamille Cucci’s SQ1, right off Duval Street. Or The Commodore Waterfront Restaurant, if they wanted steaks and seafood. For a romantic dinner with an amazing sunset, Latitudes on Sunset Key is the perfect choice. For more of an all-in-the-familia meal, nothing beats Italian at Abbondanza! Their amazing food will make you think your Italian grandmother is in the kitchen.

The Wedding

An event this auspicious deserves an equally important venue. For a fancy barefoot wedding on a private beach, there is the Casa Marina Resort, a Waldorf Astoria Resort. However, I would also consider three other equally unique and romantic settings.

The Harry S. Truman Little White House was a Navy command headquarters during the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. The historic building first served as the winter White House for presidents William Howard Taft in 1912, Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 and 1956, John F. Kennedy in 1961 and 1962, Jimmy Carter in 1996 and 2007, and Bill Clinton in 2005. It was the site of international peace talks between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2001. The 1946 Truman cottage has recently undergone a million-dollar restoration, including new paint colors, chair fabrics, and wallpaper that has returned the home to period perfection. Included in the restoration are the beds the Trumans slept in, their dining-room table, and sterling-silver naval coffee service. If you ever wanted to get married at the White House, this is your chance! Imagine sitting at the very same table where the Trumans dined, surrounded by their photos, knickknacks, and glassware. And who knew Truman liked to play poker? Check out the poker table that the Navy created for him, complete with brass ashtrays made from spent cartridges. The details are amazing, and the history is palpable. The recently landscaped garden would make a perfect setting for a wedding and reception under the stars.

The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum sits on an acre of lush landscaped gardens in the heart of the historic old city. With a raised altar and an arbor of trees and century-old brick patios, Hemingway House is, like its namesake, a decidedly masculine venue. A reception for 150 could be spread around the pool area (which cost more than twice as much as the house alone). All 50 descendants of Ernest’s six-toed cats, which are known for the good luck they bestow, would be special wedding guests.

If the men are nature lovers, they could book the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, a Garden of Eden rain forest full of tropical flowers, hundreds of exotic butterflies from around the world, and dozens of brightly colored birds. They could exchange their vows standing on a small bridge over a bubbling brook under an allée of tropical palm trees, with rare blue Morpho butterflies dancing above their heads in the setting sun’s rays. (Who doesn’t want butterflies in their wedding party?)

The Reception

If the guys want to let their hair down and have a wild wedding reception, they should check out the Shameless Lounge, where the Sunday Drag Brunch is anything but a drag. The girls sing, twirl, spin, and strut their way around the room. Or the happy couple might like to take over La Te Da, a hotel, restaurant, and cabaret that has been famous for more than 30 years for its Sunday afternoon tea dances. Also recently renovated, it’s looking better than ever and still packed to the rafters with hot, sweaty men.

With all the choices Key West has to offer, I am sure that whatever couples decide to do, their weddings will be magical and delicious! I just hope my invitations don’t get lost in the mail.

Huntsman and Jones have also established a charity, called LoveIsLoveKW, to provide free legal aid to LGBTQ individuals. For more information, visit facebook.com/pages/Loveislovekw/323830381075174.

Dick Dace was the guest of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.

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