Souvenir shops lining this sugary white Panhandle beach display Confederate flag beach towels, window decals and T-shirts. Hooters and other bars fly POW-MIA, Marine and Navy flags and cater to the sailors and Marines from the nearby base.
Vacationing Southern families usually fill the hotels and condominiums in this slice of paradise long nicknamed “The Redneck Riviera.” But every Memorial Day they mostly stay away as this town becomes more like trendy Miami Beach — 700 miles and a world away.
Starting in the mid-1980s, gay men from New Orleans and other nearby cities began gathering here for a three-day party that has grown into one of the South’s largest gay gatherings, attracting more than 60,000 people in 2004 before hurricanes Ivan and Dennis destroyed many beach roads and buildings.
Following two years of rebuilding, organizers anticipate 50,000 this weekend.
Attitudes changing, or are they?
While no one can recall any violent incidents targeting the gay tourists, the raucous weekend of concerts, Cirque de Soleil-like dance troupes and female impersonator RuPaul hasn’t always sat well with everyone — although that may be subsiding.
“We used to have groups that picketed but for the most part even that has gone away — there are just some religious groups that have a problem with it now,” said Jim Goldman, an organizer of the charity Art Against AIDS, which receives a portion of the proceeds of the events.
Gordon Godfrey, pastor of the 2,000-member Marcus Pointe Baptist Church, said many in his congregation are offended by the activities. Instead of flying rainbow flags to symbolize gay pride, people should fly American flags on Memorial Day, Godfrey said.
“I think what goes on out there on the beach on Memorial Day is surprising to a lot of people who move into our community,” he said. “I personally feel like it’s just inappropriate behavior from a biblical standpoint.”
Jessie Jablonski, an Air Force retiree, and his wife, Trish, said they avoid the beach on Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s just not my kind of crowd,” Jessie Jablonski said laughing, as the longtime Pensacola couple fished for flounder and snapper off a bridge one recent afternoon.
“Everybody knows that’s gay pride weekend, and we don’t even come out this way because of the crowds,” said Trish Jablonski. She added her surprise that the event had flourished in the conservative area. “I’d say this is pretty homophobic place.”
‘Tolerated because the money is green’
University of West Florida sociologist Dallas Blanchard said the answer to the muted opposition is easy: the gay visitors spend.
“You have the fundamentalist churches who always rant and rave against the (Memorial Day) event and there are always letters to editor complaining about it, but it has been tolerated because the money is green,” said Blanchard, who has long studied Panhandle social trends.
Kirk Newkirk, who rents kayaks, waverunners and pontoon boats on the beach, thinks the attitude among many locals about the weekend has evolved.
“Everybody has gotten much more liberal around here. Now the attitude is lot more ’Just take it as it goes,”’ he said. “There has always been a gay community on Pensacola Beach even back when I was a lifeguard out here in the 1960s. Somehow it just progressed into this huge party with thousands of people.”
The Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce doesn’t know how the event compares with other annual events in terms of dollars spent but it is major, said Ed Schroeder, the chamber’s vice president of tourism and development. Other tourists are told about the event if they make reservations, so no one arrives unaware.
“We have rarely gotten complaints,” he said.
Johnny Chisholm, who began organizing the beach parties and a huge celebration at the downtown Pensacola Civic Center 14 years ago, also organizes gay weekend events at Orlando’s Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resort Paris.
“For the most part the public here has been very receptive to it. There are not many events that you sell out all the hotels,” Chisholm said.