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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.”

“Everything was word-of-mouth, we didn’t have social media. The internet was just kicking off,” Dye recalls.

“In the gay community especially, even before social media, things were word-of-mouth and they’d spread like wildfire,” said McCrary, “I doubt that there’s a gay person within 1,000 miles of Pensacola that doesn’t know this goes on.”

“I knew that there was a big event, but didn’t know how big it was until I came down and saw it for myself,” said Dye, who moved to Pensacola in 2005.

Building Steam—and Opposition—in the ‘90s

As the number of visitors on the beach grew in the late 1980s and early 1990s parties in town began to grow, also.

Lauren Mitchell, an entertainer at Emerald City, has lived in Pensacola since 1987 and remembers the early 1990s being the biggest years for the club on Wright Street—then called The Office—when there weren’t many parties by outside promoters. “That’s when we first got a permit to have the street blocked off. This used to be a scuba dive shop, and so in the first years when she [owner Sherry Odom] had The Office, we had a pool. That was great for Memorial Day weekend.”

McCrary agreed, remembering from his desk in Emerald City, “In 1989 when I first started coming, this entire building was a sweatbox, she had so many people in here. It was fantastic.”

The Office “was very much part of the history of getting gays and lesbians accepted in Pensacola in the early 1990s,” said Liz Watkins. “We got really active in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.”

Unfortunately, the activity was due to increased incidents of targeted vandalism and ire.

“We started to have people really rowdy against the gays and lesbians Memorial Day,” said Watkins who remembers people dumping nails on the road leading to the LGBT beach and protestors “screaming horrible stuff.”

In 1993, when a WEAR report dubbed Pensacola “The Gay Riviera,” some local officials became concerned that the event would ruin the perception of Pensacola as a “family friendly” destination. The City Council passed a resolution that October espousing the city’s dedication to “the propagation of traditional family values.”

Some local citizens also complained to city officials about events in town. Odom met with opposition when trying to obtain a permit to close the street in front of The Office for parties in 1994. Eventually, Odom reached a compromise with the city and obtained the permit, after hiring an attorney.

The opposition seemed illogical and unwarranted to many, particularly considering the amount of money LGBT tourists infused into the local economy over the Memorial Day weekend.

“We had all of our friends coming in—we’re paying the toll at the bridge, filling up 18 coolers with beer, water, Coca-Cola, food… we’re spending a lot of money,” said Watkins. “That’s when we fought back. We started stamping the money.”

The mid-1990s was the first time so-stamped “gay money” appeared.

“Suddenly this money started flooding all through Pensacola,” said McCrary, “and people started getting the picture: this is a huge boon to the season starting up.”

On the Circuit

Despite the difficulty with some locals, the LGBT Memorial Day events grew throughout the 1990s. With the increasing popularity came increasingly huge events, putting Pensacola on the circuit party map.

“By 1994, people talked about crowds of 20 to 30 thousand,” remembers Liz Watkins. “Johnny Chisholm is a business man, and he saw that he could make money, and then several other people saw they could make money, too.”

Johnny Chisholm, who now owns Emerald City, and McCrary first produced a Memorial Day weekend party in Pensacola in 1995, before hurricanes Erin and Opal. Chisholm did not own a bar in Pensacola at the time but coordinated the first event—held in a warehouse on Gregory Street that has since been demolished—from New Orleans, where his bar Oz was a success.

When two out-of town promoters abandoned their parties at the Civic Center and Bayfront Auditorium after the 1995 storms, Chisholm and McCrary stepped in and took over the events.

After The Office, briefly named College Station, closed, Chisolm purchased the club in 1998, renaming it Emerald City (EC). Being locally-based, the EC team began expanding weekend party offerings to the point that before Hurricane Ivan the bar produced 11 different parties both in town and on the beach.

According to McCrary, the LGBT Memorial Day event, “was absolutely at its biggest in 2001 through 2004, just completely out of control. We were working around the clock back then,” also producing a visitor’s guide in addition to parties from 2000 through 2006.  McCrary said the Sunday night parties at the Civic Center alone drew 3,000 to 4,000 people.

Hurricane Ivan cut back on the numbers of “What we term the ‘Circuit Boys’:  those are the guys who are fairly affluent and travel to all the big parties around the country,” said McCrary.  “Actually the big promotion parties were just mainly for those guys. It didn’t take anything away from the crowd that had always been coming to the clubs. In some cases, it added to it a little.”

After Bayfront Auditorium was demolished in 2005, EC negotiated with SRIA to hold their Saturday night party at Park East, where it still occurs as the WAVE Beach Party and draws approximately 1,500 guests at $50 a person.

“The oil spill was like the one-two punch,” said McCrary of efforts to reinvigorate the large numbers of circuit parties. “Really the big things in those years that hampered our building it back up were the giant strides we made at Disney in 2004 to 2007.”

The EC team has produced since 1994 parties at Disney World’s Gay Days, which is typically the weekend after Memorial Day. After Hurricane Ivan, the number of their parties there jumped, said McCrary. “People were starting to have to decide if they were going to go to one or the other.”

While the number and crowd size of Pensacola’s circuit parties may not have bounced back to pre-Ivan numbers, LGBT tourists are still visiting the beach on Memorial Day weekend en masse.

“What it’s come to now is kind of what it was in the mid-‘80s or so where it’s a drive-in event for people from New Orleans, East Texas over to Jacksonville, Atlanta, Orlando, Arkansas,” McCrary has observed. “We still have huge numbers, upwards of 50,000 people.”

Moving Forward

While attendance is strong, some have noticed changes to the overall makeup of the LGBT Memorial Day weekend crowd.

“I honestly think that it has become more of a lesbian event than a gay event,” Jones stated. “Anecdotally when you’re on the beach, there are more women now than there used to be. It used to be completely dominated by men, but I think that’s turned around in the last five or six years.”

The growth of events like the UnLeashed Music Festival at Flounders—a primarily “girl” event—support Jones’ observations. Founded a little over 10 years ago, UnLeashed has had an estimated 8,500 people in attendance over the weekend in recent years.

Just as the demographics of the event appear to have evolved so too have relationships with some units of local government. McCrary says the city “has been very good working with us” on permitting requests despite having “some headaches from it,” such as a church that protests at EC every year and files complaints with the city for letting them close the street.

Of the critics McCrary says, “They can’t show any evidence that it’s a problem on any level. So usually you’re just left with, ‘We don’t like you.’ That’s really what it boils down to and really we don’t get much of that.”

Buck Lee, who has been the SRIA executive director for eight years, says he remembers one arrest at an LGBT event during his tenure. For the most part, “no one is out of hand, everyone is well-behaved.”

“Our clientele tends to try to take care of the places they stay and be appreciative. Much smaller events out there seem to cause a lot more trouble,” said McCrary of the beach events.

Lee also noted the Park East beaches are usually left nearly pristine.

“We have a fantastic relationship with the Santa Rosa Island Authority,” said McCrary. “When they get these big crowds, they always worry.”

To minimize concerns, EC pays to provide two large dumpsters and between 40 and 50 port-o-lets at Park East, where facilities are minimal. “We do that for them, because they allow us to have our parties.”

A standing tradition of donating to benefit charities—started by the White Heat Foundation in the early 1990s—continues. For the second year, Cabaret will hold benefit shows, with proceeds going to Okaloosa AIDS Support & Informational Services (OASIS). The Order of Zeus, a predominantly gay Mardi Gras krewe is the benefit charity for a number of EC’s parties.

And so, the decades long Memorial Day weekend event rolls on.

Stocking his bar early one afternoon, Dye paused a moment to reflect on what it is about the weekend that continues to draw LGBT visitors to the beach.

“It was probably initially founded—and this is just personal opinion—on reuniting,” said Dye. “There are a lot of people in this business that I see that move on with their lives—Pensacola was a college stepping stone, things like that—but it’s almost guaranteed that weekend that we can see a lot of old friends.”

Such news would likely be music to Emma Jones’ ears.

Back to the Memorial Day Weekend 2013 Guide