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Despite anti-LGBTQ legislation, the party continues on Pensacola Beach

Visit Pensacola

Despite a rash of anti-LGBTQ laws in the Florida legislature in recent years — and a travel warning to LGBTQ people from Equality Florida last year — the Memorial Day parties continue on Pensacola Beach.

Since the early 1990s, Memorial Day weekend on Pensacola Beach has been a large celebration for the LGBTQ community bringing thousands of people from across the country to the panhandle.

Despite a rash of anti-LGBTQ laws in the Florida legislature in recent years — and a travel warning to LGBTQ people from Equality Florida last year — the parties continue. Some say the celebration means even more now than ever.

“We’re not letting the opposition of a few dictate how we live,” said Jeff Nall, president of Emerald Coast Equality.

Twenty-two anti-LGBTQ bills were filed in the Florida legislature this year — bills that included bans on raising pride flags in public buildings and requiring health insurance plans to cover conversion therapy specific to gender identity. All but one of the 22 bills were killed or neutralized. The only bill to pass was HB 1291, which extends Stop WOKE to teacher training programs.

“We need to celebrate the wins,” said Nall. “The temperature in Tallahassee has mellowed a bit.”

Last year, after Equality Florida issued a travel warning for LGBTQ people thinking of visiting or relocating to the Sunshine State after several laws were passed that the organization said were “hostile to the LGBTQ community.”

Kate Kasten, a retired U.S. Navy veteran, points out that the fight for equal rights has been ongoing. So has the Memorial Day weekend festivities.

“We’ve been out there longer than DeSantis has been governor,and we’ll still be out there when he’s gone,” she said.

The first pride event stemmed from the June 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. Since then, the month of June has been dedicated to pride events and parades. While Memorial Day is more of an adults-only blowout, it’s still recognized as a pride party. And celebrating, even in the face of adversity, is “fundamental” to the LGBTQ experience, said Katsen.

“Even with the efforts to roll back our rights, this community wouldn’t be what it is without the pride events,” she added.

The Memorial Day weekend parties date further back to the 1960s when Pensacola couple Ray and Henry Hillyer invited friends to the beach for the Fourth of July weekend. The party continued to grow and then shifted to Memorial Day. Described as “Bourbon Street on the Beach” by some, it’s a weekend of Pride and rainbow flags dotted all over Park East. This year, RuPaul’s Drag Race star Trixie Mattel will perform. It’s an economic boon for the area.

“There was a time when people stamped their dollar bills to show the impact of the LGBTQ visitors,” said Nall.

The stamps were either the words “gay money,” pink triangles, or a combination of the two. In 2024, party goers say they feel more accepted on the beach. Even Visit Pensacola touts the weekend festivities.

“Money changes your morals,” said Jason Bates with a laugh.

Bates is a Memphis transplant and retired drag performer who moved to Pensacola a decade ago. Memorial Day weekend is a “beautiful thing,” he said.

“I remember my first time going, and I just thought ‘I’ve found my tribe’,” he said. “I was raised in a small town in Mississippi…I didn’t have this growing up. It’s very important for your mental health to find your community and be yourself.”

And while Memorial Day has a double meaning for locals — there’s the beach party and the military ceremonies — Bates honors both.

“LGBTQ servicemembers have also fought and died for the country, too,” he said. “We’re not scared to be ourselves. You shouldn’t be either. Our servicemembers fought for that freedom.”

Just a few days after the party is cleaned up, the month of June rolls in with pride events. Nall said he wants to the see the same energy on the beach at the ballot boxes in November.

“The attacks are very real,” he said. “Take that energy and put it into education, put it into volunteering, and whatever you do, make sure you and your friends vote.”

More information on Memorial Day parties can be found here.

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