What do Wilton Manors, South Beach and Key West all have in common? They’re universally known as gay meccas in Florida all with a rich and vibrant history. But beyond the borders of South Florida other parts of this state have a gay history as well, including what’s known as the state’s bastion of conservatism – Florida’s panhandle, also known as the Redneck Riviera.
Jerry Watkins III’s new book, “Queering the Redneck Riviera: Sexuality and the Rise of Florida Tourism” chronicles the history of the panhandle’s LGBT community and its impact on Florida’s emerging tourist economy.
The book begins with a brief history of post World War II Florida, a time when Florida’s tourism industry began to skyrocket. Disney World was still far from reality, but families flocked here from all over for the many festive side street tourist attractions, sandy beaches, everglades, and delicious orange juice.
For many people, the panhandle was the first piece of Florida they saw and naturally the first place many gays coming to the state would see as well.
Awareness of gays in Florida came to light with the “Homosexual Panic of 1954,” when police in Miami revealed that there were in fact thousands of gays in Florida. This awareness echoed throughout the state including the panhandle. Watkins’ book shares with us for the first time the many first hand accounts, in great detail, of gay men navigating a gay lifestyle in Florida’s panhandle. From stories of hot cruising spots such as Panama City’s infamous downtown public restroom to the local railway station, Watkins reveals the unfair treatment a lot of gays suffered as a result of the panic.
Much of Watkins’ research comes directly from the Johns Committee records in the state archives, which detail the repression many men in the panhandle faced. He describes how homosexuality was often used as a scapegoat for local law enforcement. Watkins told SFGN in an interview he began to see the trend that when a politician or city needed an image boost in the “tough on crime” or family friendly area, LGBT folks were often easy targets and the public loved to shame them. Still, some of the first hand accounts reveal that on many occasions people were left alone and still did as they pleased and many of the stories in the book are as entertaining as they are educational and informative.
An entire chapter of the book describes the Emma Jones Society. Every Fourth of July, the society was able to draw thousands of gays and lesbians to various beach parties and conventions throughout Pensacola. Watkins said that if the attendance numbers are to be believed, the amount of queer people present would rival the numbers of the well known Christopher Street Celebrations held around the same era in various cities throughout the country. “The Advocate” in a 1975 retrospective even once called the Emma Jones Society parties some of the largest gay organized events in the country.
Like many people in small-town U.S, Watkins initially assumed his hometown of Panama City had little impact on the LGBT scene historically and that in order to “be gay” you eventually would have to move away. Sitting in Panama City’s legendary Fiesta Room Lounge in the late 1990s, Watkins soon began to realize the treasure trove of information many of his elders around him had. Watkins said he realized it is important to know that there are people like himself that are all apart of this larger history and that he wanted to chronicle what he could about LGBT history in his surrounding area and it is from that inspiration he drew the title. “The people who lived it did the queering, I just reported on how they did it,” he said.