Megan Heil and Renee Jeffreys Heil don’t always get to be themselves.
They’ve learned to keep their relationship from being on display until they know it’s a safe place to be.
“There are environments we don’t act like a couple until we get a sense of the place,” said Renee.
But on Fort Myers Beach? They’ve never had to worry.
“We don’t even think about it,” Megan said.
If you ask most people, they’ll say Fort Myers Beach is a friendly place to be. And while there may not be a large LGBTQ community here, for most that live here, it’s been welcoming and comforting to live life exactly as yourself.
“The beach culture is, if you’re a decent human being no one cares,” Renee said.
The Heils have been together for eight years – or maybe nine, they can’t quite remember. They moved to Fort Myers Beach together three years ago and were legally married on the beach. Now, this is the place they call home. The live here with their two daughters, Kathryn and Victoria. Renee works at Florida Gulf Coast University; Megan is on the Local Planning Agency and started a social club for Jeep enthusiasts to support local business, 7 Slot Social Club.
The Heils say they’ve never felt the need to hide who they are here on the beach, and they’ve never felt uncomfortable being out together.
It’s not the case everywhere; Megan said she can get a “gut feeling” if a situation could be unsafe for them to be seen as a couple. The pair attended the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014. With all the backlash the LGBTQ community was getting in Russia, Megan and Renee made sure not to act as a couple while they were there.
But here, the Heils have stopped worrying.
“A lot of older couples are more closeted because of the discrimination they faced,” she said. “The younger generations, they don’t care.”
Ken B., a friend of Megan and Renee, also said he feels safe being himself on Fort Myers Beach. Ken’s originally from Iowa, and only a few close friends and family there know he’s gay. To protect his identity, he’s only identified with a last initial.
Ken didn’t come out until he moved just off of Fort Myers Beach.
“Here, I’m out – yep, that’s me,” he said.
He’s always felt safe on Fort Myers Beach, but things happen sometimes. He was at a bar last week and he heard someone say “faggot,” although it wasn’t directed toward him. He gave the speaker a look, and said the guy actually came over and apologized to him.
But in the area, Ken said, finding eligible bachelors is a struggle for life as a middle-aged gay man. While there may be a population of people who are out, there isn’t much for the gay community to do here, he said.
“In a nutshell, it’s not a huge gay community. It’s hard to find someone,” he said.
Fort Myers holds a pride event in October, but not in June during Pride Month. It’s small, but Ken said it’s been growing each year. But compared to St. Petersburg or Orlando, where the LGBTQ community is alive with parades, clubs, events and organizations, Fort Myers is quiet.
“Fort Myers Beach doesn’t have anything, and Fort Myers’ (scene) is small,” he said. “They had three gay bars and now we’re down to one. Now where do I go?”
Fort Myers Beach resident Heather Lodovico found herself in a similar position when trying to meet other women, but she took to technology.
“I’m not a ‘go to the bar to meet people’ kind of person,” she said. “I seriously had to Google, how to meet people.”
She’s tried several dating websites and has had the most luck on PlentyOfFish.com – after weeding through the “crazies” that every online dating site, gay or straight, has.
Lodovico moved to the beach with her girlfriend three years ago, but they split up. Because of the nature of her former girlfriend’s job, they sometimes had to hide being a couple in certain situations, but Lodovico’s always been okay with keeping her personal life private.
“Some people display their pride flag, some people don’t,” she said. “I don’t say ‘hi, my name is Heather, I’m from Connecticut, I’m a teacher and I’m gay.’ I’m a private person in general, so it wasn’t a big deal.”
After the shooting in Orlando at the Pulse nightclub last year, Lodovico did feel afraid. She had a similar feeling after the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
“I felt these things very deeply,” she said. “At Pulse, (the shooter) was targeting gay people. I looked over my shoulder for a while.”
Lodovico’s been the target of hate speech closer to home, too. Someone on the beach took to social media platforms to call her an “angry lesbian” and many other horrible things, she said. It was more than a year ago, but she can remember not feeling safe. She asked the Sheriff’s Office to patrol around her house, concerned for more attacks.
The climate of the current presidential administration is also a cause of concern for her. While President Donald Trump hasn’t said anything against the LGBTQ community, Lodovico noticed he didn’t make any remarks about Pride Month, and his choice in Mike Pence for Vice President was a slap to the community as he is known for his past anti-LGBTQ views.
“I feel targeted,” she said.
Lodovico decided to attend the Pride Fest in Naples on Saturday with a group of friends from Fort Myers Beach. She said it was the first time she had attended a Pride event, and her first time being around a large group of the LGBTQ community.
Walking into the event, held in a park off of Fifth Avenue, she said she was struck first by the diversity of the crowd. Young, old, black, white, hispanic, families – everyone was there, and with the same vendors she’s seen at countless other festivals such as Taste of the Beach or the Shrimp Festival, it could have been just any event. Only the rainbow flags and the drag queen performance made the day symbolize something else.
“There were two old grannies holding hands, tons of families, tons of youth, moms with their teenage kids,” she said. “That really struck me.”
Lodovico said she was also expecting there to be protesters outside, with hateful signs or derogatory speech. But these demonstrators were thankfully absent. Still, she was grateful for the police presence, but it wasn’t overwhelming. The police were just mingling with the crowd, having fun and talking to people, she said.
“This is how it should be at all times. It was so normal. Just a normal day at the park,” she said. “Being a part of a bigger movement, knowing cities all over the country are celebrating pride is a neat thing.”