Queer Florida: Reflecting on Reaction and History in the LGBTQ South

upstairs lounge
The wreckage of the 1973 UpStairs Lounge arson attack

Sunday morning was just like most mornings. I woke up beside my fiancé and then stumbled downstairs to start the coffee. As I always do, I opened the Facebook app on my phone since social media provides just enough engagement to keep me awake until the coffee is finished. I saw changed profile pictures and “pray for Orlando” hashtags. In my groggy state I was very confused until I scrolled farther and found the news stories that reported the homophobic terrorist attack at Pulse Nightclub that ultimately took the lives of 49 people (as of this writing). Throughout the day Sunday I kept up with the developing story, trying to process the emotions surrounding events that should be unimaginable.

But the terrorist attack on LGBTQ people is not unimaginable. I have devoted my life to studying the LGBTQ history of the South and as a historian I am all too familiar with violence perpetrated against queer bodies. As the world reacted I was struck by the difference between this tragedy and those that came before it. There were, and still are, quite a few news outlets that refuse to name this as a homophobic hate crime, despite the overwhelming evidence that the shooter targeted this building and these people because of their sexuality. However, many news outlets and individuals are calling this what it is, a hate crime.

Historians are trained to look for change over time, and the outpouring of support for the victims of this attack shows just how much things have changed. The easiest comparison is the UpStairs Lounge fire. In 1973 a fire was started at a bar in New Orleans, Louisiana. That fire claimed the lives of 32 men and women. The press coverage was almost non-existent, and what little was said in the media was caustic. Bodies went unclaimed by parents and families who were ashamed or afraid to admit that their loved ones were homosexuals. We might also look to the reaction to the killing of Matthew Shepard in 1998 when celebrities and others took to the nation’s capitol to eulogize the young man and protest.

It would be easy to see a progress narrative by simply plotting points on the timeline and comparing the public grief. Yet that narrative obscures the very real pushback against granting civil rights to LGBTQ people. There is certainly much broader acceptance of lesbian and gay individuals. However, the B (bisexual), T (trans), and Q (queer) communities still suffer discrimination and violence in far greater numbers and intensity than their L and G counterparts. One need only look at the protests over marriage equality, the flood of so-called “religious freedom” bills, or the anti-Trans “bathroom bills” to get a sense of the distance we must still go to combat discrimination.

When we place the response to the tragedy by Florida officials in the longer history of LGBTQ people in the state we also see change. Florida’s relationship with its queer residents and visitors has been complicated over the twentieth century. In some ways, Florida is very much the Deep South in that race was a primary category of difference. In other ways, it can be read as more progressive than its Southern neighbors. We Floridians know that the farther south you go, the farther north you are. Two events, both of which happened in the 1950s, and their trajectories best illustrate the metaphor of the arc of the moral universe and its bend towards justice.

In 1956, State Senator Charley John’s asked the Legislature to fund a committee to investigate Civil Rights activities in the state with the purpose of slowing or blocking integration. That committee, the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee or “Johns Committee” for short, was ultimately unsuccessful in its goal of blocking integration by linking the NAACP with communism. By 1960 it had turned its attention to other “subversive” groups in the state, namely the emerging gay and lesbian presence. The committee spent the next four years, the remainder of its life, investigating homosexual teachers and professors as well as “assisting” local law enforcement throughout the state in their efforts to combat the “homosexual menace” they saw sweeping the state. Throughout the state gay men and lesbians were arrested, interrogated, and sometimes run out of the state. Rather than an aberration, the FLIC should be seen as just one part of the broader strategy to ensure the health of the tourist industry by making the state “safe” for families to take their vacations, and more importantly spend their money.

At almost the same time, a group of gay men in Pensacola thought up a way to help end the isolation felt by so many LGBTQ people at mid-century. Ray and Henry Hillyer created the Emma Jones Society under the watchful eyes of Johns, his committee, and the other surveillant authorities charged with upholding morality in Florida. Knowing that local postal inspectors routinely opened the mail of men they suspected of receiving “obscene” material, they enlisted a friend to open a post office box under the name Emma Jones; “Emma because it was such an awful name, Jones because it was so common,” according to the founders. They wanted access to the burgeoning homosexual press, and to be part of the growing discourse of civil rights for gay men and lesbians. For the first ten years they shared the books, magazines, and pamphlets with friends in book club style meetings.

By 1965 the founders saw a need for a place where they and their friends could be gay and lesbian. In the South at that time, “gay community” was de-terretorialized in that there were few bars or other social spaces. Because friends regularly traveled to the beaches of Pensacola for the Fourth of July holidays, they decided that Emma should host an official party. They sent out fifty invitations and 100 people showed up on the beach that year. By 1970 the party had outgrown the beaches and taken over the entire weekend. The society rented the San Carlos Hotel and that year saw the launch of the “Red, White, and Blue Review,” a patriotic drag show. According to the founders, “The real theme was patriotic…We’re Americans. This is our Fourth, too…Thank God we’re in America where we can be independent enough to be gay.”

Emma Jones ultimately could not survive the backlash against queer visibility in Florida. The last official party was 1973, just shortly after the UpStairs Lounge fire. Though festivities were planned for 1974, the founders cancelled them in response to a series of raids on gay bars and harassment of gay and lesbian residents. According to Bob Shaw of the Miami Herald, “But like a pagan goddess, originally created to ward off fear of the night Emma Jones…became a symbol of openness, identity, and community for gay people all over the South.” In a region where sites of community were few and far between for much of the twentieth century, events like the Emma Jones Beach parties and then Memorial Day were essential to queer Southerners. Helping LGBTQ people to feel more at ease with themselves is ultimately a political objective. For many queer Southerners, this was set in motion by the dances and parties on beaches, in hotel ballrooms, or even the bars that sprang up in ever-increasing numbers over the last 50 years.

Florida icon and friend of ToM Anita Bryant
Florida icon and friend of ToM Anita Bryant

LGBTQ people are resilient—we have to be, and they showed up on the beaches anyway in 1974. Attendance dwindled over the next few years. However, by the early 1980s the party shifted to Memorial Day weekend. Over the next two decades, the Memorial Day festivities became the primary event in the Southern LGBTQ social calendar, along with Gay Days at Disney World. Despite Anita Bryant’s charge to “save the children” by fighting the Miami-Dade non-discrimination ordinance, the LGBTQ community has continued to thrive in Miami. Despite pushback from the religious right, Disney’s Gay Days have continued every year. Despite the decimation of the AIDS crisis, LGBTQ activists have continued to fight for civil rights.

I wish that we did not have to be so resilient. I wish that the LGBTQ history of the South was not filled with tragedy. I wish that queer people were not so experienced with candlelight vigils. But it is, and we are. The fight for the right to exist openly has been hard, especially hard for the T and the Q of LGBTQ. What happened in Orlando was a tragedy and a crime, and it was horrific. The public outpouring of sympathy and solidarity gives me hope amidst the tragedy.

Jerry Watkins earned a PhD in American Studies from King’s College London in 2013 with a focus on LGBTQ Florida. He is currently revising his dissertation into a manuscript titled The Queer Redneck Riviera for the University Press of Florida. Watkins is broadly interested in the relationship between sexualities and spaces of community, both imagined and real.