Tybee Island, an idyllic seaside resort community eight hours from Fort Lauderdale by car and a stone's throw from Savannah, Georgia, via a land bridge, threw itself a fabulous gay party on May 3-5th celebrating its first ever LGBT Pride event, Tybee Gay Days. Despite strong wind and rain, the events drew a randy (literally, given that Randy Jones of the original Village People was the festival impresario) crowd of revelers from Savannah, Atlanta and nearby communities including Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Is Tybee Island gay? That is the wrong question. Tybee Island might be the perfect example of the post-post-Stonewall well-integrated gay/straight community in which LGBT visibility, and a sense of fellowship overriding the bigotry of which southern states are usually suspected, and a commonly held economic purpose--welcoming visitors both gay and straight--meant a Pride event that everyone shared and enjoyed. The weather provided a perfect example of how a community can demonstrate that its LGBT welcome mat is real.
When the storm meant that Saturday's HIV/AIDS benefit "White Party" would have to be relocated from Marlin Monroe's, a popular beach bar and restaurant, local officials waived all the usual lengthy permit processes and obstacles that would have prohibited the Tybee YMCA from hosting a large event with alcohol in its gym. The change of venue was deftly managed by a great volunteer team including Marlin Monroe's staff, Larry Hodges of gaysavannah.com and a host of local businesses. The result allowed Randy Jones with barely a sound check to delight the revelers with a medley of Village People hits ending with his iconic YMCA, delivered in an actual YMCA.
The strength and numbers of the lesbian community on Tybee Island is noteworthy. When asked why, most folks just shrugged, but one explained that a few entrepreneurial lesbians started businesses in Tybee early on. Their success makes Tybee Island a woman-friendly community in which lesbians and gay residents and visitors hold equal and harmonious footing.
What will your visit to Tybee Island be like? If the Friday night opening party, held at popular beach bar and restaurant, North Beach Grill, is any indication, expect to be welcomed into a friendly and very casual crowd. At that opener, the boys and girls got crazy kickin' it old school Pride-style, recalling the early 90s in Montreal when the gay Village was new and exciting, or Ptown before it got money or Fort Lauderdale before Mayor Naugle or NYC before it got sanitized. Traveling solo? You won't be for long.
Bring your bike to Tybee Island (or rent one there) where the air is outrageously sweet with thick and fragrant jasmine hedges around every corner. You'll enjoy gawking at the quirky houses built upon tall concrete stilts that seem to expect frequent flooding. You can cover the island's entirety including its attractions--an old fort and a lighthouse--and its long stretches of magnificent sandy beaches in a weekend, but a longer stay will allow you to sink into the totally relaxed atmosphere of an island where cars do more than just acquiesce to cyclists and walkers; they seem to relinquish road rights gladly. Tybee Island is a perfect destination for assembling friends for a group vacation under one roof. Stacye Jarrell, owner of Oceanfront Cottage Rentals, one of the major sponsors of Tybee Gay Days, graciously hosted my visit at an elegant townhouse called "Ocean Queen" directly on the dunes and featuring multiple bedrooms, baths, decks with direct ocean views, and every amenity a group of 14 could hope for.
Stayce handles luxury properties of all sizes, and a quick comparison of listed prices with those of other popular gay seaside destinations confirmed my suspicions that Tybee Island rentals are among the more affordable. This is a destination for those who love a stroll on a quiet beach, but also appreciate the quick drive into historic Savannah for a fix of urban culture.
The Sunday tea dance at the Tybee Island Wedding Chapel drew young men from Savannah and Atlanta who dream of marriage and macarons. The chapel's owner is ready to receive them should DOMA crumble and as soon as same-sex marriage becomes legal in Georgia; and Amy Shippy, co-owner of Savannah's Maison de Macarons is ready to feed them. Shippy, whose partner in business is Laura Hale, joked lightly about their husbands who easily shrug off any erroneous impressions that their wives are a lesbian couple. Are there any straight-owned local businesses that shun gay customers? No one mentioned any.
On Saturday at 6PM just before the White Party was scheduled to begin, the sun broke through the clouds for only five minutes, throwing a fine rainbow over the ocean, an auspicious indication of many annual Gay Days to come for Tybee Island. I am planning my return.
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[This article appears in South Florida Gay News]