Monday, April 15, 2024

Visiting W&M professor describes his work on queer southern history

Visiting assistant professor Jerry Watkins examines queer history in the South in his book "Queering the Redneck Riviera: Sexuality and the Rise of Florida Tourism." (WYDaily/Courtesy of Jerry Watkins)
Visiting assistant professor Jerry Watkins examines queer history in the South in his book “Queering the Redneck Riviera: Sexuality and the Rise of Florida Tourism.” (WYDaily/Courtesy of Jerry Watkins)

Sifting through countless records in the State Archives of Florida in Tallahassee, visiting assistant history professor Jerry Watkins III discovered how the closeted lives of countless Floridian gay men and women were exposed and ruined through a state probeWatkins occupation as historian of sexuality allows him to unravel the complex personal and emotional histories of the queer Southern experience.  

Since his time as an undergraduate at Georgia State University, Watkins’ research and work has focused on the history of sexuality and the untold experiences of queer individuals in the American South. In his office, Watkins displays his passion for the history of gay sexuality with items such as large pin up of the ACT UP pink triangle poster, a James Baldwin candle and a poster for the play Yank” — a love story about gay people during World War II. Watkins also collects unicorn plushies in his office and has large velvet painting of rainbow-colored unicorn on display in his home. 

“Me and my husband were at this thrift shop, and we saw two massive velvet paintings of unicorns,” Watkins said. “We were like, ‘We can’t leave two velvet paintings of unicorns in Alabama. It is our gay duty to possess these unicorns. 

Watkins moved from Panama City, Florida to Atlanta in the early 2000s to pursue his college degree at GSU while working full time as a first-generation college student. The transition from his small Florida town to a campus of about 30,000 students in midtown Atlanta took some getting used to 

I show up as a small-town kid,” Watkins said. “And I’m like, oh man, how do I even do this?” 

Watkins did not always plan on studying history when he first came to college. Watkins originally planned on studying marketing until he had a change of heart.  

“I went back to a history major after I realized marketing was going to destroy my soul — no offense to marketing majors,” Watkins said.  

One history course in particular steered the course of Watkins academic interests and career away from marketing and towards history. 

“I took a history of sexuality course, Alicia Long’s history of sexuality course, early on in undergrad,” Watkins said. “That’s what told me that sex has a history; sexuality has a history, and that’s when I went, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I want to do.’” 

Watkins pursued his masters degree in history at GSU. For his master’s thesis, Watkins focused on telling the sexual history of his hometown, Panama CityWatkins started his research at a local Panama City gay bar, the Fiesta, which later became the subject of his project. 

“I didn’t think anything gay ever happened there,” Watkins said. “In my young mind, the Fiesta looked like it had been built in the 80s, and nothing had ever happened there since. There were sort all of these old men around the bar, and I come to find out that they would be the coolest people ever.”  

While Watkins’ worked on his master’s thesis, he was introduced to Professor John Howard, a historian that focuses on Southern queer history. After a long talk in a London gay bar, Howard helped Watkins narrow down the subject of his project to his hometownWhen it came time to earn his Ph.D., Watkins applied to Kings College London to work with Howard.  

For his Ph.D., Watkins started his research for what would become his book, Queering the Redneck Riviera: Sexuality and the Rise of Florida Tourism. Published in May 2018, the book focuses on recounting the history of North Florida’s LGBTQ community. Starting from the aftermath of World War II, the book covers historical topics including Florida’s McCarthystyle, staterun investigative probe by the Florida Legislative Investigative Committee, known as the Johns Committee 

The Johns Committee worked to expose the private lives of gays, arrest homosexuals to maintain public order and link homosexuality with mental illness and pedophilia. This effort continued until 1965, after their original mission of linking the NAACP to communists in the 1950s failed.  

A self-described “people’s historian,” Watkins research took him to record collections where the individual stories of homosexuals fit into broader historical narratives. Watkins’ research into archives containing documents, such as Johns Committee records, often exposed moments of extreme trauma experienced by LGBTQ individuals during their arrests  specifically on charges of crimes against nature — in public placeslike bus station bathrooms 

“You look at the time these [interviews] that are taking place it’s like two in the morning,” Watkins said. “And it’s in the police station, and it’s clear that this person’s world is falling apart now. Sometimes, not a lot of emotion comes through, but putting yourself there as a human being, what must it have been like for you to be arrested in a public bathroom because for all the rest life of your life, you can’t be out. And, this is the only place you can go to meet other people like yourself, and now you’ve been arrested. And, you know the state is going to put your name in the paper, and you know your life is quite literally over now.” 

Watkins described his experience in the archives as extremely emotional as he read through the accounts of ruined lives. 

“The number of times I’ve cried in the archive is weekly, just from the weight of those sort of realizations coming through those interviews, Watkins said. 

Among the queer stories and history contained within his research, Watkin’s favorite source was one that did not make it into Queering the Redneck Riviera. The source is a letter written to California homophile magazine One from a gay man describing how he lied to get out of a mental institution treating him for homosexuality. 

“He wrote to One magazine just being like, ‘So I heard about you guys while I was in the hospital. I’m gay now. What can you tell me?” Watkins said. “He was requesting information, and [the letter] was a very rich description of what life looked like after [being in] a mental institution.” 

Other notable discoveries from Watkins’ research in North Florida included exceptional cases of gay openness in the South, such as at Emma Jones’ parties in Pensacola, Florida. 

“That shouldn’t have taken place,” Watkins said. “A giant gay beach party with 1,000 gay men, lesbians and drag queens on the beach in Pensacola in 1970. All of these incidents, that just afar I knew, just shouldn’t be.” 

Watkins is currently researching the history of gay drama. Watkins current research covers topics such as aids plays like Rebecca Ranson’s Warren” and the importance of drama to the memorialization of the LGBTQ experience.  

Professor Watkins is currently teaching a COLL 300 course on American Sexualities and will be teaching a class entitled “History on Stage next semester.  

Watkins’ described some of his most rewarding and interesting findings while writing his book as the ones that exposed changes in the experiences of queer people over time and the historical struggles of LGBT life. 

To think about how different my experience was versus say your generation coming up was, and to think about how lonely and sad many of them were whenever they were writing these letters. I think that was probably the most touching experience.”

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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