6 stories from Jacksonville’s LGBTQ history

From Timucua two-spirits to bisexual blues musicians to the continued celebration of River City Pride, Jacksonville has a long and storied LGBTQ history. In honor of Pride Month, The Jaxson takes a look at six stories from the city's past with special significance for the LGBTQ community.

Timucua two-spirits

Two-spirits had important duties among the Timucua, including tending to the injured and handling the dead. This is a colorized version of a 16th-century engraving by Theodor de Bry, said to be based on a lost painting by Jacques le Moyne. Image courtesy of the National Park Service].

“Two-spirit” is a modern term for Native American people who belonged to a third or non-binary gender. Historically, most native peoples in the present-day US and Canada had one or more gender roles that were distinct from the roles of men and women. The Timucua of what’s now the Jacksonville area were no exception; in fact, the earliest substantial records of two-spirit people come from the Timucua at the time of the French colonization of Florida in the 1560s.

The term two-spirit does not refer to a person’s biological sex (their physical anatomy), but to their gender, which is characterized by social roles and varies from culture to culture and person to person. Among the Timucua, two-spirits had duties and a style of dress that distinguished them from men and women. Like women, they wore skirts and kept their hair down; they also wore their own color of feathers.

Timucua two-spirits carrying baskets of food harvested by the women. Engraving by Theodor de Bry.

Timucua two-spirits’ duties included transporting supplies and weapons and carrying the wounded and dead from battle. They also tended to the sick and prepared the dead for burial, indicating they played a role of deep spiritual significance in Timucua society. In addition to the two-spirit gender role, contemporary Spanish sources indicate that same-sex relationships between men and women were common and accepted among the Timucua well into the colonial period.

Jacksonville’s rainbow blues

Johnnie Woods and Little Henry from the Indianapolis Freeman, January 26, 1918.

https://photos.moderncities.com/Cities/Jacksonville/Neighborhoods/LaVilla-Blues-District-December-2017/i-zJzwk8V/0/76487aa8/L/20171202_123450-L.jpg Demolished by 1915, the Airdome stood on the site of the current main building of the Clara White Mission.

In the first decades of the 20th century, Jacksonville was an epicenter of blues, jazz, and ragtime music. The neighborhood of LaVilla, in particular, was later dubbed the “Harlem of the South” for its vibrant Black musical and performance culture. Throughout the period, LGBTQ performers played crucial roles in cultivating Black music and bringing it to mass audiences.

The first known instance of the blues being sung on stage anywhere in the world happened in Jacksonville, and the performance has an LGBTQ connection. In April 1910, Professor Johnnie Woods performed at the Airdome on Ashley Street in LaVilla. During the show, Woods, a ventriloquist, had his dummy “Little Henry” get drunk and sing the blues in an act reviewed by the Indianapolis Freeman. In addition to his ventriloquist act, Woods was also a tap dancer and “female impersonator,” or drag performer. There’s no evidence Woods himself was queer, but his gender bending act certainly pushed the envelope.

Ma Rainey circa 1923. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

In 1906, legendary blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey moved to Jacksonville to join Pat Chappelle’s LaVilla-based Rabbit’s Foot Company along with her husband William. As part of one of the largest Black vaudeville troupes, the Raineys traveled extensively throughout the South and beyond, spreading the popularity of the blues as a musical style. Ma Rainey, known as the “Mother of the Blues,” was bisexual and invoked same-sex romance and cross dressing in several of her songs. Reportedly, Rainey was arrested in 1925 after police raided a raucous party and found her and her chorus girls in a state of drunken undress. Researchers suggest the incident inspired Rainey’s 1928 song “Prove It On Me Blues,” in which she sang:

They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me Sure got to prove it on me; Went out last night with a crowd of my friends, They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men. –Ma Rainey, “Prove It On Me Blues,” 1928

A 1928 advertisement for Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues” showing Rainey flirting with two girls while a policeman watches from the shadows.

One of Rainey’s reported lovers was Bessie Smith, who Rainey brought into the Rabbit’s Foot Company in LaVilla in the 1910s. Smith, later known as the “Empress of the Blues,” was openly bisexual and had relationships with several women, including a tumultuous affair with chorine Lillian Simpson.

LGBTQ in the Navy

Sarah Davis, an aviation machinist’s mate in the Navy WAVES, at Naval Station Vero Beach. Davis had her first relationship with a woman while serving in the WAVES. Courtesy of marinersmuseum.org.

Since the days of US founding father Baron von Steuben, LGBTQ people have served with distinction in all branches of the US military. Jacksonville became a major military city in 1940 with the establishment of Naval Air Station Jacksonville, then and now one of the largest naval air bases. This was followed in 1942 by a major sea base, Naval Station Mayport.In addition, Jacksonville became a major hub for the Navy WAVES, the Navy’s women’s branch. WAVES helped staff the bases while the men were needed for sea duty.

Same-sex relations were grounds for discharge in the US Navy, but the presence of sailors and WAVES from all over the country allowed for secret parties and gatherings. Records indicate that significant numbers of LGBTQ service members served in Jacksonville in the 1940s. This was likely the first time in Jacksonville history that LGBTQ people could gather in an organized way.

A local man known by the pseudonym Tom Bell, who later served in the Army, hosted parties for gay and lesbian service members at his residence. A local lesbian known pseudonymously as Doris also hosted parties at her place. Other parties were held at Downtown’s Hotel Roosevelt (now the Carling residential tower). Until this point, Jacksonville had few if any gay bars or venues, and these parties for LGBTQ service members prefigured the later clubs and bars that started popping up in Jacksonville after the war.

LGBTQ people have been able to serve openly in the US military since 2011. Today, the Navy has the most LGBTQ service members of any branch with 9.1% of the Navy being LGBTQ.