A dramatic showdown this month in Key West, Florida between its queer community and the owner of one of its iconic LGBTQ+ bars highlights the toxic cancer currently impacting the LGBTQ+ community– one that queer citizens and their allies must recognize, call out, and excise.
It also highlights a significant problem within the LGBTQ+ community on how and who within this community is elevated to be spokespersons, its leaders, and, sadly, its security.
Key West is a community long known for its colorful residents and globally renowned “live and let live atmosphere,” where you can experience every niche in the human canvas, with a history so rich at one time it was the wealthiest town in the USA per capita.
This island community at the farthest Southern point of the continental United States has been a welcoming place for the LGBTQ+ community going back to the twentieth century.
With severe economic pendulum swings throughout its history, the LGBTQ+ community was one of the island’s saving graces beginning in the late ’70s thru the ’90s and continuing into the present day.
But I’ll save that story for another time.
As the LGBTQ+ community’s march toward equality in legal marriage was moving at an accelerated pace, states were scrambling to codify discrimination against those that didn’t conform to heterosexual ‘norms’.
When on November 4, 2008, voters approved Amendment 2, the constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage in Florida, those on the ‘right’ started in earnest, their brand of authoritarian governance.
In Hillsborough County FL, where Tampa is located, several ‘conservative’ county commissioners, now having a ‘super majority,’ banned any LGBTQ+ pride events in the entire county.
They celebrated the fact that with their supermajority it would be almost impossible to overturn.
This is where Key West with its history of being a shining light or beacon on the hill to the LGBTQ+ community, stepped up and offered to host Tampa/ Hillsborough County Pride celebration as “Pride in Exile.”
THAT’S the Key West I came to love.
Then last month, on October 29th specifically, a local member of the LGBTQ+ community posting on Facebook exposed Tammy Lynn Hernandez as the outspoken right-wing co-owner of JMD Development Inc, the company that leases and operates the local 801 Bourbon Bar, a wildly popular spot that has been part of the gay Key West landscape for decades.
Being a small island (2 miles by 4 miles), news travels relatively fast via the infamous ‘coconut telegraph’.
801 Bourbon Bar, its building, and its state liquor license are owned solely by another individual, according to state records.
Hernandez is a staunch right-wing MAGA internet ‘influencer’ with, as she states, “1.5 million followers”, “the top 10 percent of Google reviewers” and “top 3 percent of reviewers on TripAdvisor.” Her original Twitter account was suspended, but she has a new one and, well, go see for yourselves.
Not many locals were aware of this before, but some in the community knew this individual was “a Republican.”
That wasn’t a concern, as I myself had for years, stated that the “Republicans here aren’t the same as those in the rest of the country” in light of those on the conservative side that the LGBTQ community battled daily with.
Daily headlines these days are filled with attacks on the LGBTQ+ community by conservatives, MAGA Republicans, and evangelistic leaders.
I won’t go into the paradigm shift in attacks after the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his subsequent loss in 2020, however, the increase since 2020 is unprecedented and well-documented.
The Key West LGBTQ+ community started asking questions and trying to understand how the 801 owner could use her huge internet platform to post and re-post some of the most vile anti-LGBTQ+, anti-transgender and anti-drag queen misinformation, memes and rhetoric.
801 is also home to the world-famous drag queen, “Sushi,” also known as Gary R. Marion, who runs cabaret drag shows on the second floor of the bar.
Sushi has been an icon here locally for years and is annually showcased on CNN’s New Year’s Eve in New York City coverage with Anderson Cooper, hence her being the national/international “face” of Key West, its LGBTQ community, and more so the drag community at large.
In that original Facebook posting, Marion (a.k.a. Sushi) participated by admonishing those questioning Hernandez and her behavior toward the LGBTQ community and defended Hernandez’s postings as “flawless” and “humorous” and the reaction toward Hernandez was “hate”.
During this period, Hernandez threatened another business locally with a boycott on her internet platforms because that business happened to employ the individual who created the Facebook post.
There were initial plans for a picket of 801 by many members of the local community, but the protest was halted by the mass shooting in Colorado Springs at the LGBTQ+ nightclub Club Q and the ongoing reaction to the serious up-tick on attacks nationwide on the drag community by those being “whipped up into a frenzy” by the right-wing pundits and social media internet influencers.
There were also recent attempts at dialogue with the principal owner of JMD Development, James Gilleran II, concerning this issue that had the queer community in an uproar.
Those conversations were about his knowledge of his business partner’s behavior, the attempts to educate Hernandez on the dangerous damage to the community (local and national), and her participation and complicity with the numbers of deaths, suicides, uprooting of families, increased concern within the LGBTQ+ community for its security, etc.
Those attempts were fruitless, as Gilleran channeled the Roman prelate Pontius Pilate who crucified the carpenter and basically washed his hands of any involvement.
After seeing a post on 801’s Facebook page by a concerned individual in another state who was watching this unfold publicly, Gilleran privately messaged the poster that Hernandez was being “Removed from ownership pending the state’s processing of the documents.”
She is still being listed by the state of Florida as a co-owner.
Asked why he hadn’t or refused to publicly state that fact, Gilleran went silent. No response.
Last week, Marion posted a graphic depicting the attacks on the drag community nationally with his statement “What is going on, why are people attacking drag queens?” prompting the community to unload on him.
This nationally known and promoted drag queen questioning why they’re being attacked, all while defending the co-owner of the bar he runs his drag cabaret in posting anti-drag propaganda, rhetoric and promoting the hate and extremist groups instrumental in those attacks? Yeah, boggles even the simplest of minds.
In the now-deleted post, Marion stated that Hernandez’s vile posting of her anti-transgender rhetoric was “funny” and “can’t you see the humor?”
Many observers outside of the Key West community witnessed this scandal as it transpired and have commented that this is an issue facing several LGBTQ+ communities in many metro areas across the country.
There is a recent opinion piece written by Wayne Besen of Truth Wins Out, where he questions how the LGBTQ+ community vetting process fails concerning its leaders, spokespersons, and “faces’ ‘ of its community and the failure to call these people out.
We must take a VERY hard look and be willing to admit the many times we look the other way, for reasons that frankly are ridiculous, dangerous and plain asinine.
The issue I’d like to raise is that a human life is far more valuable than your income, your tips, your conscience, or your reputation.
We as a community must remove these faces, leaders, employers, friends, and family from our community before we ‘normalize’ the LGBTQ+ attacks, deaths, and suicides promoted, encouraged, and supported by these people.
If these people cannot be taught of the danger they create in their actions or inactions, they need to be banished from the community and forgotten but never ignored.
801 Bourbon Bar is co-owned and operated by a hard line MAGA internet influencer peddling her vile rhetoric and propaganda, and the other co-owner who refuses to take action and values making his fortune off the backs of the LGBTQ+ community without consequences.
As such, this establishment puts the safety of any member, family, or friends of the LGBTQ+ community in jeopardy just by the actions of the operational ownership alone.
I for one will call out loudly and continually those who promote or encourage hate towards any group or groups.
I do not want to deal with one more human casualty of this dangerous and deadly hate campaign being waged.
“If you know the enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle,” wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War.
Mark Ebenhoch is a retired US Marine and a local and national LGBTQ activist. He is a producer, actor, and military technical consultant in Hollywood and is currently the Director of the Sacred Cloth Project (flag) currently in Colorado Springs, CO. He resides in Key West FL.