This Fourth of July visitors descended on Pensacola’s beaches for fireworks—Independence Day is a great excuse for a party on the beach. It was no different in the 1960s, and the celebration became an important event for many gay men and women in the south.
Jay Watkins says the story starts at a bar called Trader Jon’s.
“This, I believe, is where the original door was,” the Georgia State University historian says at the building where the bar once stood.
Now the space is taken up by fancy event space and a restaurant. But there’s a historical marker out front describing the buildings past: shoe repair, ship chandlery, and—starting in the fifties—popular Navy bar.
It’s the basis for TJ’s in An Officer and a Gentleman.
But Watkins explains Trader Jon’s was important for more than just sailors on leave and a young Richard Gere. He says the owner’s live-and-let-live attitude meant it was one of the only places gay men and women could be comfortable in public.
“So if you’re a gay man or a lesbian, there are no gay bars,” Watkins says, “so if there’s a place where you can be semi-yourself it’s pretty important when there’s nothing else.”
And that’s where the Hillyers and Emma Jones come in.
Ray and Henry Hillyer were a couple in Pensacola who wanted to get and share copies of gay magazines. But at a talk he gave in Pensacola, Watkins explained postal inspectors would sometimes intercept those publications.
“They knew that it would be rather difficult to order these kinds of magazines,” he said, “So they hit upon an idea—a female friend of theirs they enlisted her help in renting a post office box under the name Emma Jones.”
And at the time, putting it under a woman’s name was enough to avoid most suspicion.
In honor of their straw woman, the group called itself the Emma Jones society, and it met every month at the Hillyers’ home to flip through the magazines. And it wasn’t long before the Hillyers hit upon and even bigger idea.
“Around a table just inside to the left of the door,” Watkins says, back in front of Trader Jons, “the table that would’ve been right there, that was the table. To hear people tell, that’s probably where the Emma Jones beach parties were conceived.”
Starting in 1965, the Hillyers hosted Emma Jones parties every Fourth of July on Pensacola beach.
“Fifty people were invited the first year a hundred showed up, the next year it was 600,” Watkins says, “By 1970 it was over a thousand, by ‘72 it’s over two thousand, by ‘73—so it’s growing year after year after year.”
And Watkins says their choice of date was intentional—a political act—claiming their place in both the community and the country. And for the most part, things were going fine.
“Until 1974, when the disc jockey says that the city is getting a reputation as the gay capital—a gay capital of the south,” Watkins says. “That was the thing that was too much, the line over which visibility had crossed, and so that’s when the push back happens.”
The parties did pull in visitors from all over the south, but the idea of Pensacola as a gay capital was more of an epithet—thrown around by critics rather than a title regularly claimed by the men and women gathering on the beach.
After 1974, local law enforcement cracked down on the revelers and the beach parties largely went away. The pattern played out again in the 1990s after similar parties started happening on Memorial Day weekend. Again, the gatherings grew year after year until they became too visible for some locals—this time Pensacola was termed the Gay Riviera.
“Boom. Now suddenly there’s a pushback even though thousands of people had been coming every year to Memorial Day,” Watkins says, “bringing millions and millions and millions of dollars.”
“It was estimated in ‘93 it was extra $25 million just for that one weekend.”
And the money is important. Watkins says local officials cracked down on the LGBT community ramping up arrests in an effort to preserve the city’s image as a tourist destination. In the nineties some local businesses bought rubber stamps—marking bills that passed through their hands as “gay money.”
The parties haven’t disappeared. Now, Pensacola draws well over a hundred thousand visitors for LGBT events throughout Memorial Day weekend. City officials still have concerns—but now it’s not with the people—they worry about trash getting left behind on the beach.