Whether in brochures, online searches or even the Broward tourism publications, it is easy to find listings for gay-friendly hotels.
But 50 years ago, there were none.
When the Marlin Beach Hotel opened its doors in 1972, it was the first. And the reaction wasn’t all that pretty.
According to Gay Weekly News contributor Fred Fejes, after a few years of operating under the radar, the Marlin incited the wrath of Mayor E. Clay Shaw, Jr.
“If a family from the Midwest comes to Fort Lauderdale and sees men making love on the beach, what will they think?” Shaw said. “They’ll never come back.”
According to the Fort Lauderdale News, the mayor’s goal was to eliminate every vestige of homosexual activity from the beach: “If he had his way, the Marlin Beach… will go straight.”
Fejes quotes the head of the city’s Hotel Resort and Hotel Association as chiming in, claiming that the presence of a gay hotel was “a social stigma and it will drive families away.”
But the Marlin survived.
According to Fejes, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, Fort Lauderdale had previously tolerated the gay and lesbian community. There were gay-friendly neighborhoods in Riverside Park and Sailboat Bend. There was a gay community church, plus gay-owned bars and clubs.
But the Marlin Beach Hotel “was America’s first explicitly gay resort hotel.”
Built in 1954, the Marlin was among the first group of large beach hotels that grew the city’s tourist market, according to the Sun-Sentinel. But with the Marlin becoming a gay destination, it “quickly built a persona as party central, known for a rocking disco and weekend afternoon tea dances.”
A 1977 Washington Post travel story said this of the 88-room hotel: “Today, the Marlin Beach ranks as one of the most attractive hotels on the strip, and grosses over $2 million a year.
“The resort includes a heart-shaped pool with three outside bars, one of the better restaurants in the area, a hair salon, elegant disco and a boutique.” The hotel also had a large indoor aquarium (sans fish), where swimmers could be seen from a surrounding bar.
The writer noted that the staff was trained to inform those “who look out of place” that the Marlin Beach is a gay hotel. “Some stay anyway, and some decide to leave.”“Pre-AIDS, almost every gay man’s dream was to take a trip and stay at the Marlin,” said one travel expert in the Sun-Sentinel.
But at some point the Marlin lost its way. Ten years after its opening, there was more competition. In addition, a succession of new owners let the place deteriorate. In 1986, management sought to attract Spring Break college students, thereby losing the gay trade. The Marlin went bankrupt.
In 1992, it finally went under. “The gay community is losing absolutely a landmark,” said Penny Present when doors closed. President of Broward’s Gay Business Association, Present said, “If the gay community were a wheel, the Marlin would be the hub. The grand old lady, that’s what we called it.”
The hotel was torn down to make way for restaurants, bars and shops on the site that is now Beach Place. Yet, as many of our citizens know, the hotel is not forgotten.
In March of this year, near the Sanctuary Church, an event called Marlin Beach 2.0 celebrated the hotel’s famous Tea Dance parties, advertising a “full-on party with music, men, muscle and more.” In the outdoors along the banks of the Middle River, festival-goers danced to the music of the day and recalled once again the history of an iconic venue.