Jacksonville Beach: Bo’s Coral Reef

by Tim Gilmore, 6/19/2012

Bo, of Neptune Beach, Roverta Boen, died Tuesday night. Heart disease. 86 years old.

Alabama girl, bartender at Southside Lounge in 1950. In the early 1960s, in a place as conservative as Jacksonville would still be in the 21st century, she opened Bo’s Reef, Beach and Forest Boulevards, first gay bar in town. Everybody was welcome—gay, straight, or otherwise.   Then Bo’s Reef on Philips Highway.  Then she moved her business to Jacksonville and opened the Crow Bar.

Bo’s Coral Reef came later, in the 1980s. The general manager of Bo’s Coral Reef met his boss when he was 15 years old, 30 years before she died. He loved her. “She raised me.”

And in as conservative a city as this Bold New City of the South, Bo opened the first gay bar before the Stonewall Riots, before the Gay Rights Movement.

Death threats.

Where else were local drag queens to get their start, even in the 1980s?

And when she dies at 86 years old, she’s the grandmother of more than one generation of outcast, that most-outside outsider America knows—the gay Southerner.

And, get this, Jacksonville’s conservative mayor sends Bo’s Coral Reef’s general manager (“She raised me.”) an official seal-of-the-city letter of condolence: “I was deeply saddened to learn of your loss and my heart goes out to you, her family and her many friends.”

The mayor then writes, “Jacksonville owes Ms. Boen a great debt of gratitude. She paved the way for acceptance and respect for the gay and lesbian community in Jacksonville.”

Jacksonville’s tory mayor then writes, “Her outspoken determination served as an example for people to love themselves as they are, and to be proud of their own contributions to our community. She was a loving woman who served as a mother-figure for countless young people searching for acceptance.”

Jacksonville’s mayor then writes, “Please know that she is in the prayers and memories of many throughout the city,” and closes by saying, “May God bless you and keep you all at this time of sorrow.”