by Jesse Monteagudo
“The Key West Wreckers: salvaging a community”
According to the dictionary, a wrecker is a person “that searches for or works on the wrecks of ships (as for rescue or for plunder).” In 19th century Key West, where shipwrecks were a weekly occurrence, wreckers were active and legendary. “In Key West, shipwrecks were [a] thriving business,” wrote Harry Shattuck in SouthFlorida.com. Wreckers would take advantage of the ships’ plight to salvage their cargo before they were lost at sea. Once ashore, friendly “wrecking courts” would often award the booty to the wreckers on a “first come, first serve” basis. “In many eyes, wreckers were heroes - and, indeed, they often saved humans, not just cargo. And they risked their lives, especially during hurricane season, to do so.... Others saw wreckers...as pirates or unscrupulous profiteers. Legend holds that a few would set up false beacons to lure mariners into harm’s way.” Nevertheless, “whether through valor or villainy, the most successful wreckers built and furnished opulent homes thanks to others’ misfortune. And Key West, so far removed from the center of civilization, became the riches town in the nation.”
Considering the place that wreckers played in the history of the Conch Republic, it is fitting that Key West’s premiere leather club should take that legendary name. I had the opportunity to spend time with members of the Key West Wreckers last month, when they joined my own Saber Leather Club to host a “Brothers in the Woods” run at the Sawmill Campground in Central Florida. (The Sawmill Campground, the largest GLBT campground in Florida, is surely a topic for a future “Jesse’s Journal.”) Though Key West’s GLBT community does not come to mind when one thinks of leather, the Wreckers have made a name for themselves by raising the profile of the Key’s otherwise low-key gay leather/SM/fetish population. In fact, the relative small size of Key West’s kinky community might have worked to the Wreckers’ favor, drawing towards it leathermen who, in larger cities, would have a wider choice of groups to participate in.
According to Gary Gethen, the Wreckers’ Club Historian, past President, and a full member since 1994, the Key West Wreckers Leather/Levi Club came to life in July of 1991, when 13 leather men got together to start “a club for men interested in the leather lifestyle.” The goals of the Wreckers of Key West Charitable Association, Inc. (the group’s legal name) are to raise “charitable contributions to the community and [to promote] the leather lifestyle.” Though the Wreckers faced their share of anti-leather prejudice on the part of Key West’s gay community, they succeeded on both fronts. “The Wreckers didn’t care if they were subject to unflattering cocktail party conversation as long as the money raised went where it was really needed. The club was designed as a helping organization, not out for self promotion....The club also served the members by offering a means for like minded individuals to express and live their lifestyle comfortably and out of the closet, so to speak.”
According to Wrecker J. T. Thompson, “the Key West Wreckers initially started as a club that was to promote understanding of the leather/Levi lifestyle - but it has become much more than that. In addition to making the leather/Levi lifestyle less intimidating to the public...the Wreckers have expanded the scope of beneficiaries of the funds raised at club events. Groups that have received vital support from the Wreckers include: the American Cancer Society, Pediatric AIDS, AIDS Help, Help Line, children in theater programs, Take Stock in Children scholarship assistance, holiday meal vouchers for the needy (through MCC and the KWPD), and the One Human Family Foundation.”
Unlike some other groups, the Key West Wreckers have the knack for doing good deeds while having fun doing so. According to Gethen, “the Wreckers annually hold several major fund-raising parties, typically surrounding holidays including Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Fantasy Fest, and an end of year “holiday” party. The club also holds a “bar night” the third Thursday of each month at Saloon One with a 50/50 raffle for cash and prizes.” Add to this the Wreckers’ biennial “Shipwreck” run - subsumed this year by the Wrecker/Saber “Brothers In the Woods” - and a “Mr. Key West Leather” contest held on alternating years. Needless to say, the Wreckers’ “largest fund-raising time of the year is Fantasy Fest. For several years, the Wreckers have hosted a private party during Fantasy Fest week,” formerly at the Light House Court (of blessed memory) and now at the Island House for Men. “The Wreckers also regularly participate in many Fantasy Fest events, such as helping to host the 801 Bourbon Bar’s Dungeons and Dragons Fetish party, performing the closing number at the Headdress Ball and of course entering an entertaining parade float that has earned the club a few awards in past years.” Wrecker-sponsored parties are truly memorable, as I can attest from personal experience.
According to Thompson, the Key West Wreckers “have demonstrated how a leather/Levi club can be a vital and helpful force in the community at large - not just in the leather segment. The Wreckers have shown a positive model for community support and gained the respect of the community in the process. Our town now embraces the leather segment [which is] quite a change from a decade ago when leather men were intimidating and mysterious to many.” The Wreckers, agrees Gethen, “are a respected organization within Key West and around the country. They continue to raise funds, promote education and have fun while doing it.”
Recently there has been much talk about the so-called “decline” of Key West’s GLBT community; of historic guest houses “going condo” and straights replacing gay partygoers on Duval Street. Though gay Key West will never be what it was 20 or 30 years ago, the presence of groups like the Wreckers guarantees its survival. This July the Key West Wreckers will celebrate their 14th Anniversary, a major milestone for a group of men who, like their historic namesakes, have made a great impact upon their community.
For more information about the Key West Wreckers, visit the Wreckers’ Web site at www.keywestwreckers.org. Contact Jesse Monteagudo at email@example.com.
Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance writer and activist who has been working for GLBT rights in South Florida for thirty years. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.