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Clothing’s not optional at Lords

The bar at the Lords Hotel on Collins Avenue near 11th Street is done up in gaudy gold, a campy tribute to the women of Miami. Many of the guest rooms feature huge portraits of Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra drag. There’s a giant polar bear towering over the lobby, but he’s hardly scary. How can he be when he’s striking a pose with a big vinyl beach ball between his paws?

Since the Lords opened in late November (formerly the Nash Hotel,) the media has frothed about it being the first gay boutique hotel chain in America — although there is only the one property so far. And the Lords is hardly the first hotel to cater to a gay clientele. Not nationally, and not in South Florida.

But it used to be that mention of a gay hotel immediately conjured images of — well, never mind the images. Never mind the sad décor, the sorry bar scenes, the seedy goings-on.

“Even some of my friends said, ‘Oh my God, this place is actually nice,’” says Brian Gorman, the Lords’ always-chipper founder, who these days is focused on expanding the brand. He says the second Lords will open either in New York or San Francisco and that he’s close to signing deals on both coasts.

“Some people said, ‘We didn’t want to book here because honestly, we didn’t really know what to expect.’ They wanted to see rooms first,” says Gorman, 35, who is committed to getting gays and lesbians to change the tape on what it means to stay in a gay hotel. “When we were opening, some people asked, ‘Is this place going to be clothing-optional?’ No, it’s clothing. And try to make it cute clothing.’’

When you meet up with Gorman in the gold mirrored-mosaic bar, he’s sporting white shorts and a yellow-and-white striped tank under a light jacket and navy espadrilles.

What does his style say?

“Beach. Of course, there’s day Beach and evening Beach, though in the summer, I’ll often just wear a long-sleeved shirt and shorts at night. We’re different from that old gay concept. We’re very bright and open and centrally located. We’re not one of those gay places that puts a hedge around the property so no one can see what we’re up to.

“Our design team at first talked about doing what a lot of boutique hotels do, which is create a really sexy, dark environment. But even in a gay hospital, there would be sex. We didn’t need to push sex. What we needed to push was a sense of luxury and fun and connection.’’

The vibe

The place has a hip, boutique-y vibe, but rooms, featuring bright yellow and aquamarine colors along with a Mid-Century- Modern-meets-High-Kitsch décor, run an unpretentious $99-$149 in the summer and usually stay under $200 even in season.

“This is a hotel for gay people, so the sheets still have to be Frette,’’ Gorman jokes.

But as the gay community continues making gains in the civil rights arena, with New York giddy over gay marriage and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell finally starting to fade into the less-enlightened past, do “gay ghetto” components like gay cruises, gay coffeehouses, gay gyms and gay hotels delay full membership in the broader world?

In recent years, many large upscale hotel chains have implemented “gay-friendly” policies, training check-in clerks not to ask thoughtless questions about whether the two men standing at the front desk really meant to book a room with a king instead of two doubles.

And aren’t most hotels on South Beach pretty gay, anyway? Sure, the town has become less of a gay mecca than it was in the early 1990s, when packs of drag queens strutted the streets and everywhere you looked you were blinded by gym-sculpted boys flashing beautiful pecs.

There are only a couple of gay nightclubs left . And Middle America pretty much has the run of the place now. But anyone with any amount of gaydar can tell you the Beach is still way gay. Hang out at the Delano or the Raleigh or the W — really, just about any South Beach hotel — and you’ll see how easily gay people and straight people mix here.

Does South Beach, of all places, really need a gay hotel?

“All of that is true,’’ Gorman says. “But sometimes it’s more internalized. Am I really going to get romantic with my boyfriend in the Delano’s pool? I’m sure no one at the Delano is going to say anything. But I’m still going to feel a little uncomfortable. Here, you don’t have to worry about that at all. You can sit in the lobby with your arm around your boyfriend and know that no one is going to give you looks. And that really makes it a more special vacation.’’

Gorman won’t entertain the idea that sticking to your own kind can be narrow, or that preferring gay establishments means you’d rather hide in a ghetto of your own making than fight for a place at society’s biggest table.

Gay politics

But then, Gorman doesn’t get too stuck on the politics of being gay. He’s not running one more gay rights organization, after all.

“We’re not about taking ourselves so seriously here,’’ he says with a shrug. “We’re about a fun beach vacation. What a gay hotel can be is a place that brings another level of connection to its guests. When you’re at a gay hotel, you know you all have this one thing in common and it just makes it easier to meet people, start up a conversation.’’

Gorman is getting ready to implement “founder’s dinners” on Thursday nights, when he’ll invite guests down to the restaurant to eat together.

So he’ll be like Captain Stubing from the Love Boat?

“I prefer to be Julie,” Gorman says.

But he can be serious:

“It would be great to live in a world where everyone just mixed together and nobody cared if you’re gay or straight. But until that really happens, all of us who are gay — I don’t care who you are or where you came from — have a coming-out story. And part of that story is always painful. That struggle we all go through is part of what connects us as a community.’’

And Gorman is not a fan of the community going generic.

“There are people who say we shouldn’t need Gay Pride parades anymore. But I still love Gay Pride. And I love being part of a community. I love the camaraderie that goes with it. I don’t want that to go away. I have a very strong bond to my community. We party together, we work for charities together. It’s an amazing, positive thing. I don’t want to wash away all of those layers and lose our culture.’’

Which brings Gorman back to just having fun.

“Recently I had a group of friends who came down here to stay at the hotel and they were having a grand old time. One of them put on a pair of somebody’s high heels and he was prancing around the lobby, just being silly. Maybe its OK to be gay at other South Beach hotels. But here you know that no one is going to watch you and say anything but ‘Werk!’”