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.

Gay clubs in Jacksonville history

The former Club Jacksonville gay bathhouse at 1939 Hendricks Avenue in San Marco, now the offices of Group 4 Design.

Jacksonville has been home to bars, clubs and other venues catering to the LGBTQ community since at least the 1950s. At a time when being out came with huge social stigma and even personal danger, these spaces served as safe havens for LGBTQ Jaxsons to meet, find a date or simply be themselves in public. While online dating and broadening acceptance of LGBTQ people in the wider community has led to a decline in the number of gay bars and nightclubs, their role in Jacksonville’s LGBTQ history can’t be overstated.

By 1960, Jacksonville was home to at least three gay bars. In 1964, Roverta “Bo” Boen opened what became Duval County’s longest running gay bar, Bo’s Coral Reef. Originally located on Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville Beach, Boen later moved it to Philips Highway. In 1980, Bo’s returned to Jacksonville Beach in a building on 2nd Street. For nearly 40 years, it was a favorite hangout for LGBTQ people from across the First Coast and a popular spot in the Jax Beaches bar scene. Bo’s Coral Reef survived Boen’s death in 2010 and carried on until 2019, when it finally shuttered after 55 years serving the community.

Park Place in Riverside’s King Street District is currently the oldest LGBTQ bar in Jacksonville.

Club Jacksonville was a bathhouse catering to gay men located in a windowless building at 1939 Hendricks Avenue in San Marco. While communal bathhouses fell out of favor with most of the general population in the early 20th century, they remained popular in the LGBTQ community as spaces for members to meet and hook up without fear. The building began as the Roman Spa in 1973 before becoming Club Jacksonville in 1979, and for another 40 years the spa was a neighbor to Southside Baptist Church and several nearby businesses. Membership declined in its later years and it finally closed in 2019 due to compounding code citations stemming from long-neglected maintenance. The building was renovated as the headquarters of the architectural firm Group 4 Design.

Another long-running LGBTQ business was the Metro, a massive entertainment complex on Willow Branch Avenue in Riverside. Opening in 1993, the sprawling 17,000-square-foot complex featured several rooms with a variety of themes, and became one of the largest nightclubs in the city. It closed in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the overall decline in gay clubs.

Hardwicks Bar at the corner of Ocean and Adams streets in Downtown Jacksonville opened in 2023.

Today, Park Place on Riverside’s King Street holds the distinction as Jacksonville’s oldest operating gay bar. A pioneer of the King Street District at a time when the area was seen as rough, Park Place took on its identity as a gay bar in the 1990s and has witnessed the street’s transformation into a popular entertainment strip. Despite a decline in classic gay and lesbian bars, recent years have seen the rise of a number of LGBTQ businesses carry on the tradition in a variety of interesting niches, including Alewife Craft Beer Bottle Shop, Dart Bar & Games, Hardwicks Bar, Incahoots Night Club, and The Greenhouse & Bar.

David, Jacksonville’s trailblazing gay magazine

Covers and contents from David magazine in the 1970s. Courtesy of Houston LGBT History.

From 1970 to 1974, Jacksonville was the headquarters of the first magazine ever to serve Florida’s gay community. The brainchild of editor-in-chief Henry C. Godley and managing editor Mark W. Riley, David was a pioneering monthly lifestyle magazine that advertised its mission as “Entertaining and Informing Gays.” Initially focusing on Florida and Georgia, David distinguished itself by covering a wide array of topics of interest to the gay community, with its editors stating, “David is not a homosexual newspaper – but a newspaper for homosexuals.”

David contained pieces on LGBTQ events, news stories, travel pieces and features on topics ranging from club reviews to politics. The magazine featured a letter from Harvey Milk and covered Florida Attorney General Robert L. Shevin’s efforts to overturn laws long used to cudgel LGBTQ people. One article detailed Jacksonville’s growth as a destination on “the circuit” of gay bars and clubs between Atlanta and Miami. “In the past, the travellers on the circuit by-passed Jacksonville,” the author wrote. “Three years ago there were only two gay bars or nightspots for the crowd to visit. Today there are at least five.” Jacksonville venues mentioned in the piece include the Knight Out, the Commodore, the Off-Beat, the Tides Inn, Wh-oo Bottle Club, the Crow-Bar, the A-Go-Go Club’s Den, and the legendary Bo’s Reef.

Article from David’s first December 1970 issue discussing Jacksonville’s growth as a destination on “the circuit” of gay venues between Atlanta and Miami, with advertisements for bars in Jacksonville, Atlanta and Orlando. Courtesy of Houston LGBT History.

David’s profile grew quickly, and its distribution and coverage spread to encompass the Southeast. In 1972, the magazine launched its own drag competition, the Miss David contest, which was subsequently joined by a Mr. David competition. The contests grew into an annual convention held in various cities. In 1974, Godley and Riley relocated the magazine to Ft. Lauderdale, where they established the International David Society, which offered an array of services for LGBTQ customers including travel agents and health insurance.

David ultimately fell victim to its own success. By proving there was a market for quality LGBTQ lifestyle and travel publications in Florida and the Southeast, it opened the door for competitors who siphoned off its advertising revenues. David’s publisher’s pivoted into different formats, but the magazine never regained its early prominence. The International David Society was dissolved in 1990, bringing a final end to the historic magazine. In recent years, historians of LGBTQ publications have begun chronicling David’s history and impact, giving it its proper due as the Southeast’s trailblazing first gay magazine.

It also included news stories, a bar guide, travel pieces and a feature on drug abuse. One article describes Jacksonville’s growth as a destination on “the circuit,” the collective of bars and clubs that gay travelers in the Southeast would visit along the route between Atlanta and Miami.

Willowbranch Park: Jax’s LGBTQ Holy Ground

Historic Willowbranch Library, built 1930.

Willowbranch Park and the adjacent Willowbranch Library have had a place in Jacksonville’s LGBTQ history for six decades. The site of thousands of hushed meetings and boisterous celebrations over the years, one local pastor describes it as “holy ground.” The park dates to 1916, when it became a new public space in an expanding part of Riverside. The Mediterranean Revival-style library opened in 1930 as the city’s third branch library, after the main Downtown library and Wilder Park Library in Sugar Hill, which served African-Americans during the period of segregation.

A comparatively well-to-do neighborhood in the early 20th century, Riverside saw its housing values drop in the 1960s as white flight and suburbanization led tens of thousands of Urban Core residents to move to newer, more remote developments. However, Riverside’s cheaper rents drew in a more bohemian element, and soon the neighborhood was full of musicians, artists, hippies and LGBTQ folks from far and wide. Riverside became Jacksonville’s first substantial “gayborhood,” and residents hosted the city’s first Gay Pride Festival at Willowbranch Park in 1978, nine years after the Stonewall Riots in New York galvanized the gay rights movement. The original event was a picnic at the park, and it was such a success that the event continued. While Jacksonville’s early Pride celebrations received pushback from community reactionaries, they succeeded in the goal of increasing the visibility of LGBTQ people in the city. River City Pride has evolved into a massive celebration each October (to beat the June heat of Pride Month) featuring a parade through Riverside and several days of revelry across Riverside.

The JASMYN houses in Brooklyn.

Willowbranch Library has its own LGBTQ history. At a time of severe oppression, the library became a popular spot for LGBTQ Jaxsons to meet and organize in relative safety. Among those who met here were the founders of LGBTQ youth organization JASMYN, one of Jacksonville’s most prominent LGBTQ nonprofits. JASMYN traces its roots to 1992, when teenager Ernie Selorio left a note seeking solidarity on the library’s bulletin board. Selorio had been outed when his mother found his journal, and feeling isolated and alone, he asked others to meet him to form an LGBTQ youth support group. About 10 people turned out for the first meeting, and JASMYN was born. Now based in nearby Brooklyn, JASMYN continues to provide support to LGBTQ teens and young adults across the city.

The mural on the Willowbranch Creek culvert.

In the 2010s, organizers and the city launched a renovation of Willowbranch Park dedicated to its long LGBTQ history and to victims of the AIDS epidemic that devastated the gay community in the 1980s and 90s. Volunteers began reforesting the park along Willowbranch Creek to create Love Grove in honor of Riversiders lost to AIDS, and sponsored a sunflower mural painted on the culvert where the creek flows under Park Street. Advocates hope to add a public artwork that would be Florida’s second AIDS memorial.

Article by Bill Delaney.