There’s no mistaking what time of year it is on Pensacola Beach during Memorial Day weekend. Every year, the beach is sprinkled with rainbow flags welcoming local and out-of-town members of the gay community who generously return the favor by staying in beachfront hotels, eating seafood and drinking a lot.
Those whose memories are still intact remember the weekend starting in the 1980s. The party started on the secluded strip between Navarre and Pensacola Beach on the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and as the years passed it moved its way to the condos and hotels on Pensacola beach.
“Let me sit down,” said Ebony Sinclair inside the office at Emerald City. “By 1988-1989 it was already big. There were huge sand dunes. People started putting up cabanas. There was a G.I. Joe tent, a Barbie tent—they had a four-foot crystal chandelier with Barbie dolls. They were clever people.”
“It’s something that just happened,” said Paul Dye, owner of The Cabaret. “One year they painted the town pink—marked their dollars pink. It made a huge impact and has grown from that point.”
He recalls even more DIY entertainment.
“One group used beer cases to make a runway and held a drag show,” Dye said.
As Ted McCrary, manager of Emerald City, pointed out, this isn’t the first time a group of people took over one spot.
“Look at gay Disney,” he said referring to what is called Gay Days. “The first week of June they showed up wearing red shirts and now 150,000 people pour into Orlando every year for that week.”
The commonality of Memorial Day stories is the mention of the White Heat Foundation, which raised money for AIDS charities.
“They would put on a dance party Saturday night to benefit local AIDS charities,” McCrary said.
There’s no official word if the Gulf Islands National Seashore was the chosen spot because of its proximity to the nude beach in Navarre, which is now an urban legend to the younger generation. John Thomas, owner of The Roundup and Pensacola resident since 1993, believes the beach had the best view and the least amount of people as opposed to Destin or Panama City.
“There was a patch of beach that allowed those that are different to be themselves,” he said. “You can go to Destin and be hoity-toity, but in Pensacola it’s more relaxed.”
McCrary remembers traveling from New Orleans to spend a weekend on the beach.
“A lot of people from New Orleans would travel there for the weekend festivities,” he said. “It got to be a yearly thing for us.”
One local bartender, who preferred not to be named, moved from Mobile, Ala. to Pensacola because of the Memorial Day festivities.
“Compared to Mobile, Pensacola is 100 percent more gay-friendly,” he said. “I was in a Mardi Gras organization in Mobile and we would rent two buses to go and party on the beach. It was really amazing.”
“Everybody Reaps Benefits”
For many years, Memorial Day was predominately middle aged men. Sinclair and McCray estimate it was around 2008-2009 that women became the majority. Much of the beach pays attention to that change. For instance, this year Flounders will host a whole weekend of entertainers such as DJ Beverly Skillz and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls.
Roy Williams, a Memorial Day regular who also works on Pensacola Beach, has noticed a decrease in numbers since the recession.
“Before Ivan, it was one of the biggest non-structured events,” he said. “It’s not as big as it used to be because of the economy.”
But plenty of people still flock to the beach. It’s a wonder if restaurants, clubs, bars and hotels pander slightly to the customers by waving rainbow flags.
“It doesn’t bother me if any business puts up a gay flag,” said the unnamed local bartender. “I don’t care who runs a flag up a pole as long as it is welcoming.”
Sitting at the bar inside The Cabaret, Dye grabs his calculator.
“Let’s say 50,000 people stay on the beach Memorial Day weekend. And they spend $200 a day for food, gas, tickets to events and hotel room. That’s $10 million a day spent on the beach,” he said. “That’s an alarming figure.”
But Dye is hesitant to use the word ‘pandering’ and thinks to welcome the GLBT community is no different than welcoming tourists.
“Everybody reaps benefits. It’s the nature of the beast,” he said. “I would say there’s acknowledgement of the benefit. For a hotel to have to say ‘Sorry, I’m full,’ that’s a good day for anybody.”
Executive Director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority, Buck Lee said Memorial Day weekend is really no bigger than any other weekend in the summer. He lumps the whole summer—starting with Memorial Day and ending with Labor Day—as the beach’s busiest time.
No matter what weekend it is, Lee believes all customers should be treated fairly.
“We don’t discriminate,” he said. “Gay, straight, black or white, anybody is welcome.”
In the past there have been instances of prejudice. McCrary said he had heard of the original Memorial Day weekend beach being scattered with roofing nails and tacks.
“That’s just kids,” he said.
Every year there will be a protest whether it is big or small. One of the theories behind the popularity of Pensacola Beach is that when religious groups created a stir, it put a spotlight on the vacation destination. Memorial Day weekend on Pensacola Beach even gained national attention (“Gays Flock to Fla. Panhandle for Holiday” Associated Press May 2007).
“Controversy can be good,” Dye said.
More Philanthropy than Profit
Even as business owners further off shore reap Memorial Day benefits, some hope to see a shift in the meaning behind the weekend.
“I feel like it used to be philanthropic,” Thomas said. “There used to be a reason for Memorial Day weekend, they were doing it for the right reasons. I feel like it’s for profit now.”
Thomas would love to see Memorial Day go back it its original roots, where it was more about community and the biggest party of the weekend benefitted charities.
“To rebrand for the next generation, the gay community as a whole is going to have to do some work,” he said.
But, he said, it might mean more if the entire community, not just the gay community, were involved.
Shift or no shift, Memorial Day weekend brings much needed tourism to the area. Perhaps White Heat is in the past, but the weekend has changed Pensacola. There is more tolerance: groups stand outside clubs to protest the anti-gay protestors.
“They’re standing up for the community,” said the local bartender. “They’re for a better Pensacola.”
And the parties on the beach are no longer exclusive, everyone has fun. Mass appeal acts such as Leslie Jordan and K.D. Lang provide entertainment for the entire community.
“I have five different couples and families that come in and have a great time every year,” Williams said.
Profits and philanthropy aside, Memorial Day is all about having a good time no matter who is on the beach.
“They’re just regular people. Sometimes better looking,” Williams said with a laugh.
“You can’t go anywhere in the U.S., mention Pensacola and they don’t know about Memorial Day weekend,” Dye said. “It’s definitely a bucket list event.”
MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND