Nooe on Watkins III, 'Queering the Redneck Riviera: Sexuality and the Rise of Florida Tourism'

Jerry T. Watkins III
F. Evan Nooe

Jerry T. Watkins III. Queering the Redneck Riviera: Sexuality and the Rise of Florida Tourism. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018. Illustrations. 202 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-5691-3.

Reviewed by F. Evan Nooe (University of North Carolina, Charlotte) Published on H-Florida (February, 2020) Commissioned by Jeanine A. Clark Bremer (Northern Illinois University)

Printable Version:

Queer Networks in Florida’s Panhandle Tourist Economy

Modern Florida and tourism are likely synonymous in the minds of many Americans. For more than a century, state leaders and entrepreneurial boosters have presented the state to potential visitors as an exotic recreational paradise with no need of a passport. South Florida quickly became a destination for the rich bolstered by business tycoons and railways rushing down the Atlantic coast of the state. By the second half of the twentieth century, modernizing forces expanded the accessibility of Florida as a tourist destination for the average American. State and federal governments improved roadways across the nation. Americans had a greater potential to own their own automobile. The rising prosperity of the middle class meant that more families had discretionary income to spend on recreational services and experiences relative to any prior point in the century. While long-established tourist destinations in Florida such as St. Augustine and South Florida benefited from post-World War II affluence, new vacation areas of the state aimed to capitalize on the broadening class of tourist. The Florida Panhandle, while certainly appealing to visitors as early as the late 1890s, experienced a marked surge as a tourist destination during the mid-twentieth century. Middle-class families from predominately southern states traveled by personal automobile across newly built interstate highways to reach such beach towns as Pensacola and Panama City. Due to the region’s popularity among white southern tourists and a general association with the area as Florida’s backwaters, the Florida Panhandle became colloquially known as “The Redneck Riviera.”

Author of Queering the Redneck Riviera: Sexuality and the Rise of Florida Tourism Jerry T. Watkins III aims to provide a corrective to current scholarship on tourism in the Florida Panhandle by recovering the concealed and erased past of a queer presence and the importance of queer geographies (both specific places and movement) in the region’s touristic pursuits. Watkins argues that gay men, lesbians, and otherwise queer locals and visitors to the Florida Panhandle used the burgeoning tourist economy to their own benefit and ultimately led to the creation of “a very queer Redneck Riviera.” Through their leisure spending, Watkins argues, LGBTQ people established their communities and social networks as an essential part of the region, and acknowledging their past and impact offers a more complete account of the region and the area’s developing tourist economy. Watkins sums up his point concisely stating that “placing the queer at the center of this story exposes the unique interactions of capitalism, tourism, sexuality, and space” (p. 9).

In demonstrating the importance of a queer community to tourism in the Florida Panhandle, Watkins takes a roughly chronological approach focused on the second half of the twentieth century by examining the cities of Panama City, Pensacola, and Tallahassee. Chapter 1 has the broadest conceptual breadth by looking at the crafting of Florida tourism as a commercialized commodity through the branding of the Sunshine State. Watkins builds on the well-known argument that the image of the Sunshine State was deliberately crafted through promotion to outsiders and advice for residents’ display of hospitality by adding that there was a “selective enforcement of morality” in the Florida Panhandle by local and state authorities (p. 17). For tourism boosters, a “family-friendly” Sunshine State had no room for openly gay or lesbian residents or visitors and the state actively persecuted perceived deviants. Chapter 2 is perhaps the strongest part of Watkins’s work and the most tightly focused section resembling a microhistory. Here, Watkins evaluates the “unqueering” of public space by investigating the arrest of twenty-six men in October 1961 at a public restroom in Panama City and the fallout as municipal officials sought to “crackdown on the most obvious site of queer socialization” (p. 34). Not only did law enforcement arrest the men, but the local newspapers also publicly shamed them in an effort to demonstrate the community’s efforts to clean up the city’s “homosexual problem” (p. 39). The following two chapters look more broadly by shifting significant focus to Tallahassee to uncover the development of queer social networks and demonstrate a transition to a “liberation economy,” or the start of queer-centric economic enterprises that began to emerge from the confines of secrecy to a more public expression. Queer locals and traveling southerners used touristic spaces, Watkins argues, such as highways, bus stations, hotels, lounges, and bars, to publicly socialize (though not without risk) outside heteronormative expectations within an interconnected queer geography. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the growth of a visible gay community in the Panhandle that leveraged their impact on the tourist economy to carve out queer spaces. Chapter 5 examines the importance of the Emma Jones Society, one of the largest gay social clubs in the country, according to Watkins, during the first half of the 1970s. Chapter 6 is chronologically the broadest, spanning from the 1970s to 1990s. It evaluates how gay and lesbian tourists crafted “The USA’s Gay Riviera” by focusing on the LGBTQ market forces involved in Pensacola tourism (p. 131).

Queering the Redneck Riviera aims to intertwine the histories of a queer presence in the Florida Panhandle with the locale’s ascendance to a renowned tourist destination. In sum, Watkins’s work is admirable concerning the former but may leave some readers wanting regarding the latter. Watkins’s work excellently demonstrates the presence and utility of queer geographies in the Florida Panhandle and provides a valuable contribution as a local examination to LGBTQ studies in the state and the American South. The author is able to put LGBTQ print media to good use, incorporates interviews from locals, and uses state records from the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee to demonstrate the persistence of the gay community in the Florida Panhandle. While largely seeing a narrative of progress in terms of public acceptance and visibility, Watkins demonstrates the nuances of periodic setbacks and endurance in the face of open hostility across roughly half a century. However, his work is limited to an examination of gay white men throughout. The work does periodically make mention of lesbian social gatherings and interracial contacts, noticeably among members of the Emma Jones Society; however, the author admittedly sidesteps the confounding issues, noting he hopes his work “will inspire future scholars to write the histories of queer African Americans and lesbians in this time and place” (p. 11). While the subject matter excellently examines the experience of gay men in the area, the narrow focus creates limitations to his framework of queer spaces that at times assumes similar conclusions for a breadth of LGBTQ people not directly examined throughout the text.

While not detracting from the work’s successes and importance to LGBTQ studies, the history of tourism and the author’s framework for tourists and touristic spaces frequently become placed in the background and raises debatable interpretations of what should be considered touristic spaces or simply the consequences of modern changes in society. Such challenges are most prevalent in chapters 2 through 4 where the author investigates a state government-instigated sting at a public bathroom and the inclusion of queer geographies of Tallahassee as touristic space. In the aforementioned sting for instance, only three of twenty-six men could be considered travelers and labeling them tourists would be ambiguous. Such circumstances make it challenging to demonstrate that a police raid on a public restroom was done with tourism dollars in mind rather than simply overzealous moral crusaders following through on pressure from legislators in the state capital. It is also challenging to evaluate queer spaces in Tallahassee as intertwined with Florida’s rise as a tourist destination. Much of what Watkins classifies as touristic space in Tallahassee—a transportation hub and the state capital—appears to lack a clear connection to leisure travel or the city as a leisure destination.

Ultimately, Watkins has provided readers with an important work that recovers local LGBTQ histories in the Florida Panhandle that were once intentionally obfuscated. Readers interested in a local study examining the queer experience will find Watkins’s work revealing and insightful. He provides a concise examination at around 150 pages and draws connections to queer histories in the state of Florida and the American South. His work provides an excellent complement to broader works on Florida tourism and the Panhandle, such as Harvey H. Jackson III’s The Rise of and Decline of the Redneck Riviera: An Insider’s History of the Florida-Alabama Coast (2012), Gary R. Mormino’s Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida (2005), and Tracy J. Revels’s Sunshine Paradise: A History of Florida Tourism (2011). Readers with an interest in Florida’s social history, the modern South, or LGBTQ history will find the focused examination in Queering the Redneck Riviera a necessary addition to fully understand the region’s recent past.

Citation: F. Evan Nooe. Review of Watkins III, Jerry T., Queering the Redneck Riviera: Sexuality and the Rise of Florida Tourism. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL:

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