Queering the Fourth of July: The Hillyers, Emma Jones, and the Language of Revolution

By Jerry Watkins

In 1957, a star was born in Pensacola, Florida. Her name was Emma Jones and her birth was cloaked in secrecy, intrigue, and subterfuge. She was the brainchild of Ray and Henry Hillyer, who wanted access to queer media. They enlisted a female friend to rent a post office box under the name ‘Emma Jones’ – “Emma because it was such an awful name; ‘Jones’ because it was so common.”[1] Over the years, the book club, led by the Hillyers, united queers from all over Pensacola and the South. Through beach parties and drag shows, participants called on the language of the American Revolution and used patriotism to assert their queerness and their American-ness. The Hillyer’s started a revolution through a tiny Post Office box and forever changed the Southern queer landscape.

In Pensacola, middle-class homophile men and women held private parties, other queer men cruised public parks, and still others used a local bar as a meeting space. According to Bob Shaw, a Miami Herald reporter, “it was a community longing for contact with each other and the outside world.”[2] The Fourth of July holidays seemed ideal since many people travelled to North Florida’s beaches anyway. However, 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.”[3] The gatherings were explicitly about reclaiming patriotism from the hegemonic heterosexuality of mid-century America.

By 1970, the events were held on the beach by day and at the San Carlos Hotel by night. The “Red, White, and Blue Review” was of course campy, a little risqué, and a lot outrageous. “Miss Emma”, played by a 52-year old woman wearing a blue dress, white fringe, mesh red stockings, blue boots, and a crown, mimed the words to Indian Love Call from atop a model Mt. Rushmore whilst a man in a gold lamé Native American costume mimed the male part.[4] Bob Shaw’s description of the finale of the year’s show is worth quoting at length:

A man dressed as the statue of liberty, his face and wig silvered and carrying a lighted torch, was pulled into the ballroom by four others dressed as sailors. As the statue began a slow pantomime to a Mary Martin recording of America The Beautiful, cast members would come forward with flowers, kissing each bud as they handed it to the statue. Finally the music switched to God Bless America, and the statue, one at a time, kissed the flowers and threw them to the audience. Invariably this drew tears from many and a standing ovation from all.[5]

The party could not go on forever though. In a relatively small, but sprawling, urban area governed largely by the U.S. Military and Southern Baptists, and in a time where threats to a beach town’s “family friendly” image could mean threats to one’s livelihood, Emma’s visibility was too much. According to the Advocate, “During the summer of 1974 when all the police trouble and publicity began, delicate Miss Emma Jones suffered a terrible and ultimately irreversible seizure… ‘Emma Jones died in the streets of Pensacola on July 4, 1974’. She was 17.”[6]

Emma’s importance lies not in her death, but in her life. Unable and unwilling to relocate to New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, gay men and lesbians around the South found community on the sands of Pensacola Beach. Rather than leave a hostile climate, Ray and Henry Hillyer started the revolution in their own back yard through a tiny post office box.

Jerry Watkins is a historian of Queer History with an emphasis on the American South. Feel free to tweet at him @jtwphd.

[1] Bob Shaw, “The Discreet Lovers of Emma Jones”, Miami Herald, 16 March 1975, “Tropic” supplement, pages 8, 10, 12, 14, 28, and 29.

[2] Shaw, “Discreet Lovers”, 10.

[3] Shaw, “Discreet Lovers”, 14.

[4] Shaw, “Discreet Lovers”, 14.

[5] Shaw, “Discreet Lovers”, 12.

[6] Bill Rushton, “The Killing of Emma Jones – 1”, Advocate, August 1972 p. 4., ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, Los Angeles, California.

Further Reading:

North Florida’s Queer History including Emma Jones:

Forbes, Jessica “Queer and Here: The Long History of Gay Tourists on Pensacola Beach”, IN Weekly, Pensacola, Florida, 16 November 2013. [http://inweekly.net/wordpress/?p=15308]

Watkins, Jerry, The Queer Redneck Riviera: Cruising through North Florida’s History, (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida), forthcoming Autumn 2016.

Emma Jones:

Loughery, John, “The Friends of Emma Jones”, The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities A Twentieth Century History, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1998), pp. 273 – 290.

On queering patriotism:

Stein, Marc “Birthplace of the Nation: Imagining Lesbian and Gay Communities in Philadelphia, 1969-1970” in Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories, Brett Beemyn, ed. (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 253 – 280.

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