Pensacola, Florida wasn't supposed to be a place that was crucial in the movement for gay rights. It was a typical southern town essentially in "the bible belt” with all the stereotypes that come with it. One of the primary towns of Florida’s panhandle coastal area colloquially known as the “Redneck Riviera,” Pensacola was the location of one of the country's biggest LGBT movements and it was all because of Emma Jones and the strangest part is, she does not exist.
It was the late 1950s. Resentment to homosexuality was climbing to an all-time high throughout the state following Miami’s “Homosexual Panic of 1954” when residents there realized that there were in fact many gay men living amongst them after a Miami News story was published about local gay nightlife and how active it was. The media all over the state instilled constant fear in residents and worked with local law enforcement to seek out gay hangouts to shame those who hung out in them.
The panic is probably the reason so many gay bars, male physique publications, and organizations began to pop up in the 1960s and 70s. “ONE Magazine” was one of those desired publications at the time, but it was often difficult for gay men to receive it. At the time postal workers often made a habit of opening plain brown packages addressed to single unmarried men. They kept lists that they would turn over to the police who could then target and harass these individuals as well as follow them to find more gay men to do the same.
Pensacola at this time had no gay bars, and the places gay men did congregate were often raided by police. Meeting other gay men was virtually impossible and the only way to really do so was to cruise parks or public restrooms. Ray and Henry Hillyer sought to change that. They were lifetime lovers who chose to share their last name and came to the area in the early 1950s. Ray was an artist for the St. Regis Paper Company and Henry worked in the display department at Gayfers Department store (not connected to the LGBT community).
In an effort to network more with local gay men who felt they had no social outlet, the Hillyers setup a P.O. Box under the name Emma Jones to receive LGBT related media such as One Magazine. They picked the name because they felt it was average and boring and wouldn't draw much attention. Once a month a New Orleans lady friend would come to the area to check the P.O. Box and deliver the material to the Hillyer's house. The Hillyers even developed a social register of sorts of the gay population in the area which grew with every new delivery.
By the early 1960s the Hillyers decided that they shouldn’t feel confined to celebrate their lifestyles to their home, especially since so many shared the same thoughts and feelings. On the Fourth of July in 1964 they threw the first of a series of annual beach parties. The Fourth of July was chosen because it represents freedom and was a widely celebrated holiday. The beach was chosen because so many others would be at the beach already and a large group of gay men would be less noticeable amongst them.
It didn’t stay that way, throughout the rest of the 1960s the beach parties grew to became among the most well-known LGBT gatherings in the country. Each year the amount that would actually show up exceeded by a large margin the number of invitations sent out. The beach parties became so well attended that they became victims of their own success. Police eventually did begin to show up and put a damper on the festivities.
As a result, by 1970 the celebrations found a new home at Pensacola’s historic Hotel San Carlos. The hotel, once a grand jewel of the GiIded Age, was now a shadow of its old self. As a result, the hotel welcomed the gay community since they caused little trouble and had more expendable income than straight couples or families that once frequented the hotel.
For the next few years gays would fill the hotel’s rooms, start the day out at the beach and make their way back to the hotel’s ballroom where there would be tons of music, dancing, drag shows, and contests. While the actual numbers are difficult to determine, it is thought that the events drew the same amount if not more people than those that attended the Christopher Street Liberation Day celebrations in June of the same time period. The Advocate even described the Emma Jones celebrations as one of the “largest gay organized events in the country.”
Benton Abbey was a reporter for The Figaro, a New Orleans based newspaper in the 1970s known for its reporting of unconventional news topics, such as homosexuality. With Pensacola so close by he set out on July 2, 1971 to find out who Emma was and why so many gay men were drawn to this event. He soon found himself standing amidst the lobby of the Hotel San Carlos and amidst the many gay men around him were signs noting the “Emma Jones Society Convention.”
He quickly stopped someone and asked, “Who is Emma Jones?” The stranger put his hand on Abbey’s cheek and said, “Honey…the Emma Jones Society is you and me and every other faggot in this town, and nobody here gives a damn who Miss Emma Jones herself is.”
Abbey was puzzled and began to realize that perhaps Emma Jones wasn’t a real person after all. Concerned that not having an answer for who Emma Jones was would make his story for the newspaper lack substance he continued to navigate the convention from every corner of the hotel. He described the hotel as “faded Floridiana” as in that you could once see the marvel of early 20th century architecture the hotel still possessed but mixed with bland second-rate Art Deco as well as furniture and objects he claimed could be obtained by simply using Green Stamps.
In talking with participants Abbey realized these men frolicking around in their underwear or cross-dressing were bank tellers, writers, record store salesman, etc. They were people you saw every day. He claimed if it weren’t for seeing them in this state, you’d think these would be the kind of guys that would take your sister home.
Abbey noted that for this weekend every business around downtown Pensacola seemed gay; every bar, every restaurant, and every store. When asking a cashier of one of these businesses what she thought of all this rather controversial activity, and she just looked at him and said “It’s money, honey.”
In the end Abbey never did find out who Emma Jones was but still published his rather brief story in the newspaper detailing the weekend’s events.
The final Emma Jones Society Convention happened in 1975. Many participants started to receive death threats, there was backlash from local ministers, and the city council began to work closer with local law enforcement to curb the annual event. The last convention was notorious enough by this point that the Miami Herald’s own Tropic Magazine covered it. “We set out to laugh and be merry with our friends,” the Hillyer’s told the Tropics reporter. “It’s a shame people won’t accept that. You’d think in the 1970s, people would let you alone.”
Nevertheless, the Emma Jones Society still left a strong legacy on Pensacola’s LGBT scene. The end of the convention encouraged the opening of several gay bars all year round. The event certainly fostered long-lasting relationships and it was those bonds that created Pensacola’s notoriously similar event every Memorial Day weekend that continues into today.
If you’re interested in reading more about this event, check out Jerry Watkins III’s book “Queering the Redneck Riviera: Sexuality and the Rise of Florida Tourism.” His book is a great source of previously undocumented LGBT history in Florida’s Panhandle. It is also available in most local public libraries.
This is a part of a special LGBTQ History Month project. View more stories by visiting outsfl.com/lgbtqhistorymonth.