Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday August 14th 2018

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Queer and Here: The Long History of Gay Tourists on Pensacola Beach

By Jessica Forbes

On Memorial Day weekend, a remote stretch of Pensacola Beach is widely known as a destination for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) visitors for the first three-day beach holiday of the year.

When speaking with members of the local LGBT community, one quickly learns that Memorial Day is not a Pride event—rather it is a gathering of vacationers, who happen to be LGBT, that follows a tradition that began when broad, mainstream acceptance of the gay community was nearly nonexistent.

Though most locals are aware of the LGBT parties on the beach, some people may be surprised that incarnations of holiday weekend parties on the beach date back to at least the 1960s. From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, Fourth of July weekend, not Memorial Day, was a time that gay men began congregating in Pensacola for a community vacation.

Who is Emma Jones?

Emma Jones, though not a real person, played a significant role in the history of gay rights in Pensacola.

A benevolent invention of Ray and Henry Hillyer, Emma was devised to help curb harassment of the city’s gay citizens and eventually became the host of the first Pensacola LGBT beach parties.

Ray and Henry moved from their native Texas to Pensacola in the early 1950s, after graduating from college. Ray had been stationed at Hurlburt Field while serving in the U.S. Air Force and decided to settle in Pensacola permanently.

The couple thrived professionally in the city. A trained ballet dancer, Ray worked as an artist for St. Regis Paper Company for over 30 years. Henry, a graphic designer, worked in the Display and Design Department of Gayfers Department Store.

Both men were heavily involved with the Pensacola Little Theater and Elvie DeMarco School of Ballet, designing costumes and sets for those organizations as well as several of the city’s Fiesta of Five Flags and Mardi Gras krewes.

“The Hillyers were very well connected and had friends throughout the South,” recounts Jay Watkins, a Ph.D. candidate at King’s College in London.

Currently preparing to defend his dissertation titled, “Hot Times on the Gay Gulf Coast: Queer Networks and Cruising Through North Florida’s Spaces, 1945-1965,” Watkins began researching the history of his native Northwest Florida’s LGBT community while working on a Master’s Degree at Georgia State.

“The Emma Jones Society was originally set up in order to receive homosexual publications through the mail and to connect with national publications and discourses. It was a book club of sorts,” said Jay Watkins.

Joshua Jones, a local attorney, spoke with the Hillyers in 2008 as part of an LGBT history initiative through Gay Grassroots of Northwest Florida. Together for over 50 years, Ray died in 2010 and Henry followed less than a year later in 2011.

“In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, that’s when all the male physique magazines started coming out and the Mattachine Society was sending out publications,” said Jones.

The Mattachine Society was the first major gay rights organization in the U.S. Founded in 1950 in Los Angeles, the society began publishing a magazine titled, “ONE,” in 1953. The magazine and the society soon after became the subject of an FBI investigation from 1953 to 1956.

The Hillyers told Jones that they heard that the local Post Office was keeping a list of men receiving the publications and sharing the list with the police, who in turn would target and harass those on the list.

In response, the couple established a post office box under the fictitious, nondescript name of Emma Jones. The P.O. Box became a gateway for communications from the national gay community into Pensacola.

“In Northwest Florida there was an underground network of men that would have house parties all across the Gulf Coast,” said Jones. The Emma Jones Society (EJS) developed when, “Once a month, their lady friend from New Orleans would come over and check the box, and they would all meet at the guys’ house and share the materials.”

In the early 1950s, the couple told Jones, there were no homosexual organizations or even gay bars where the community could connect in Pensacola. EJS was the Hillyers’ solution for bringing the gay community together.

“The only way they knew any other gay people was that—I mean, sadly—gay men would meet for sex in the park, and through those connections they became friends,” as Jones remembers the Hillyers describing life before groups like EJS. “Obviously nobody wants that dark history, but the reality is that’s how it was in those days. Unfortunately that’s still how it is today for men who are in the closet.”

After a couple of years of developing connections through EJS, the society members decided to organize further, and throw a Fourth of July party.

Emma Jones and the Fourth of July

EJS beach parties began in the 1960s. “Even they couldn’t remember if the first Fourth of July party was ‘64 or ‘65,” said Jones of the Hillyers’ recollections of the early events.

“They sent out invitations to 50 people and they said 100 people showed up,” said Jones. The gathering started as a very small beach party, but “It kept growing and growing and growing until they turned it into a weekend long event that they held at the San Carlos.”

Jay Watkins came across mentions of the EJS throughout the Southeast. “Several men from Panama City who I interviewed discussed the society and the beach parties in the 1970s. Also, whilst conducting research at the Atlanta History Center, I came across invitations to the parties as well.”

The “conventions” at the Hotel San Carlos occurred at least as early as 1968. The event grew to include multiple beach excursions and a variety of shows such as a female impersonator revue, a Mr. U.S. Gay Contest, and musical performances in the hotel ballroom.

Newspaper accounts state that in 1972 an estimated 2,000 “homosexuals … from all parts of the country” attended Emma Jones’ four-day Fourth of July event at the Hotel San Carlos, which was prominently located at the intersection of Garden and Palafox streets until its demolition in 1993.

In their interviews, Jones says the Hillyers told him, “It all fell apart because they started getting death threats. It was a backlash from the ministers in town, the city council members.”

Watkins says articles he encountered in his research indicate that in the mid-1970s, “Pensacola authorities were none too pleased that Pensacola had become the gay capital of the South. So they initiated a crackdown on the most recognizable sites of gay communities in the hopes of cleaning up the city’s image.”

The Hillyers believed the primary reason the Fourth of July party went on for so long was their friendships with society women involved in Fiesta and Mardi Gras organizations. “Those women sort of kept their husbands at bay to protect Ray and Henry,” the couple told Jones.

The last EJS convention occurred in 1975.

“I think those core people that started it remained friends, but at that point, gay life was so different than it had been in the ‘50s. There wasn’t a need for the secret or private post office box,” said Jones.

After 1975, friendships forged in the EJS likely continued. A gathering of former EJS compatriots may have simply morphed into the Memorial Day weekend party that has grown since then.

Reinvented in the ‘80s

It was not long after the EJS conventions ended, many have heard, that the three-day Memorial Day weekend became the common holiday for LGBT vacationers to meet up.

Liz Watkins, a locally-based television and video documentary producer, moved to Pensacola from New Orleans in 1982. The first year she went to the beach on Memorial Day weekend was 1986, and hundreds of LGBT visitors congregated near what is now Park East.

Some have heard the gatherings began when two men invited friends from Atlanta in for the weekend in the 1970s; others that locals invited friends from South Florida up, and the next year that group brought a busload of friends, and it grew from there.

The undeveloped, private beaches of Gulf Islands National Seashore were evidently a draw regardless of where from the first groups hailed.

“I guess they figured it was a nice place to go out on a beautiful, pristine beach and have nobody bother them, being a group of gay guys,” said Ted McCrary, manager of Emerald City.

“That stretch of beach has a long-standing reputation as a ‘gay beach’ because of its remoteness,” Jay Watkins has found, adding, “In a time of increased scrutiny or moral panic, it is easier to be openly gay in places that are far removed from surveillent authorities or nosy neighbors.”

Liz Watkins remembers the specific directions given in the days before GPS units. “Before Park East existed, there used to be a small, brown National Park sign. You went exactly two miles past it, and that’s what was considered the LGBT beach. So it was roughly another mile past Park East, originally, closer to Navarre.”

McCrary’s friends told him that the Pensacola Beach party had been going on for a couple of years when he first came over from New Orleans in 1988 or 1989, “and it was already huge,” he recalled.

At that time, mom-and-pop hotels and the Holiday Inn were the primary lodging available on the beach. “We didn’t really have condos out on the beach in the ‘80s,” Liz Watkins said.

“We came over here and rented a house for a week, partied all weekend, kind of relaxed Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then went home,” said McCrary, “It was great.”

Paul Dye, who has owned downtown’s Cabaret since 2009, first heard about the LGBT party on Memorial Day weekend in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s while living in Kentucky. “I heard about it at work from somebody who had a friend who came back.”

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