Willowbranch Park and Library and Gay Pride

by Tim Gilmore, 6/28/2019

1. Storybook Pride and Holy Ground

It’s the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, and at Willowbranch Library, an epicenter of gay rights history in Jacksonville, hundreds of supporters of gender and sexual minority young people will rally in their defense after Jacksonville Public Libraries Director Tim Rogers canceled their sold-out Pride Prom.

Let’s unpack that a bit. It was June 28, 1969 that police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, planning to arrest men dressed in drag and to close the bar. The raid led to nights of riots and swelling crowds, to signs and graffiti saying, “Drag Power” and “Legalize Gay Bars,” and to the formation of groups like the Gay Activists Alliance and Gay Liberation Front. A year later, the first Gay Pride marches happened in the nation’s biggest cities.

Sometimes the right thing happens in the right place at the right time and becomes a hinge and whole new worlds open. Thus was Pride Month born. Thus, millions of people, hurting no one at all, whose very existence had been illegal, learned for the first time to be “out,” to be “open,” and to be “proud.”

Pride Picnic, Willowbranch Park, 1988, courtesy The Florida Times-Union

Which brings us back to Jax. Jacksonville’s first Gay Pride festival happened in Willowbranch Park, in the center of historic Riverside Avondale, one of the city’s prime “gayborhoods,” in 1978. In 1992, Ernie Selorio, a young man who felt isolated, even suicidal, having just come out as gay, posted a desperate appeal for solidarity in Willowbranch Library. About 10 people answered his appeal, coming together at the library to form JASMYN, Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network.

courtesy Folio Weekly

Earlier this year, the AIDS Memorial Project, Greenscape and the City of Jacksonville partnered to plant magnolia trees in Willowbranch Park and read aloud the names of more than 100 Riverside residents who’d died of AIDS. They christened the plantings “Love Grove,” and Unitarian pastor Ron Hersom called Willowbranch Park “holy ground.” Robin Patton called the park “the most appropriate place.” Her brother died of AIDS in 1989 and her mother, who first brought the AIDS Memorial Quilt to Jacksonville, died in 2011. Robin bestowed some of her mother’s and her brother’s ashes on the ground at Love Grove.

Organizers of Storybook Pride Prom weren’t necessarily thinking of the historical patterns of gay rights at Willowbranch. Since JASMYN has hosted pride proms for 18 years and Jacksonville’s libraries are always looking for ways to get young people in their doors, the partnership seemed obvious. Give teenagers a chance to dress up as their favorite characters from books and / or in drag and a safe place to gather. Shakespeare would be obvious, since all his female roles, from Juliet to Lady Macbeth, were originally played by men in drag. Bebe Deluxe, the city’s best known drag performer, would attend. The formula was perfect.

Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, 1955

Until Elizabeth Johnston, a conservative blogger from Ohio who has 10 children and calls herself “Activist Mommy,” asked her followers to call Willowbranch Library to “express your disgust that this perversion is taking place in a taxpayer funded library.” She said she had “to expose” the fact that “these perverts are going to come after children.”

So they called. They told librarians they should be ashamed of themselves for perverting children and that the city’s tax dollars shouldn’t support such an event. They ignored the fact that private donors had funded Storybook Pride Prom, and they never asked why public dollars should not support teen programs. More than 100 kids had signed up to attend, filling the little library to capacity.

So Tim Rogers, director of Jacksonville Public Libraries, made the call. He caved. The library, he said, could not keep the children safe.

So the call for the Pride Prom Rally went out. Jennifer Janin Miskell initially set up the Facebook event to gather “10 to 12 women to be ready in case protesters showed up to the Pride Prom. We would be a barrier between them and the kids.” She didn’t expect hundreds of people to express their support. “Then the prom was canceled and the event got even bigger,” Jennifer says.

Now there will be two teen pride events, instead of one. The prom will still take place, at a now undisclosed location, a local church, and hundreds of supporters will rally at Willowbranch Library to express their solidarity and love.

2. Incredibly Odd Incredible Odds

Willowbranch Park and Willowbranch Library have rallied against incredible odds the entirety of their existence. The park crept into being in 1916 when city limits moved out through Riverside to Donald Street. Magnolia Plantation, where slaves once worked cotton and corn, had covered this land. The park’s old oaks and gentle hills curve down to Willowbranch Creek, which trickles along Azalea Terrace and Willow Branch Terrace to the St. Johns River, where it has emptied the rains for thousands of years.

Willowbranch Library opened in 1930, the city’s second branch library (after the segregated black Wilder Park Library just north of LaVilla), just as the last energy from the 1920s’ Florida Land Boom fizzled into the Great Depression. The Brooklyn-born architect Bernard Close created the “Mediterranean Revival” design, with its red clay roof tiles and its stucco face of grand arched windows. The Florida Historical Society housed more than 10,000 materials at the library.

A decade later, the City launched its first of several efforts to close the library “for lack of operating funds,” when 878 Robert E. Lee High School students sent library director Joseph Marron a petition, citing “a definite need for the Willow Branch Library in our school work.” The City would seek to close the library again in 1992, “due to budgetary constraints,” until neighbors packed the children’s department and formed Friends of Willowbranch Library. Twice in the last 20 years, the children’s department closed due to basement flooding.

In the 1960s, crowds filled Willowbranch Park to watch “obedience fun matches” and pedigree parades at the Jacksonville Dog Festival, where in 1967 terriers named Zachry and Jinger were named “royal couple” and photographed with crowns and scepters. The crowds of hippies who showed up at Willowbranch Park to pass around joints and listen to the as-yet-unnamed Allman Brothers Band, could not be categorized as “obedience fun matches.” The band played loud and for free in the summer humidity and heat.

the Allman Brothers Band

When Willowbranch Park was new, it stood almost at the city limits. Now it was an “inner-city” park and these were the decades of “white flight.” Post-World War II suburbanization, redlining, and white fears of black civil rights and desegregation hit downtowns and neighborhoods like Springfield and Riverside hard. Artists and musicians and gays and lesbians recognized the neglected beauty of these old houses and moved in where others feared to tread. Riverside became a neighborhood of outsiders.

Lee Carlton, 1978, courtesy The Florida Times-Union

Shortly before a few hundred people gathered in Willowbranch Park for the first Jacksonville Pride Festival in 1978, Bob Gray, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, then the largest fundamentalist Baptist church in Florida, had told his congregation how a local gay minister he’d just found out about, the Rev. Lee Carlton of the Metropolitan Community Church of Jacksonville, needed to know “there’s a Baptist preacher that’s been here for 21 years that hates queers!” It would be another 30 years before the story hit the news that Trinity had covered up Gray’s sexual abuse of children for half a century.

Nevertheless, people offended by “the gay agenda” called Pride celebrants “perverts” and worse. In June 1988, the Associated Press reported that David Hodges, a baseball coach who’d recently resigned from Lee High School, had “called on city residents to ‘rid this park of perverts’ when the annual Gay Pride Picnic is held there Sunday.”

Pride Picnic, Willowbranch Park, 1988, courtesy The Florida Times-Union

The story quoted organizer Charles Deskin as saying the scheduled parade had been replaced by a picnic because of the “tense atmosphere” in the city. Deskin said, “There are too many rednecks in this town,” but a neighbor, Neena Eisenberg, who’d lived across from Willowbranch Park for 28 years, said she had no problem with Gay Pride: “They don’t bother us. They behave themselves.”

Pride Picnic, Willowbranch Park, 1988, courtesy The Florida Times-Union

Today, 60 years after Eisenberg first moved across from Willowbranch, Jennifer Miskell says people who call gays and lesbians “perverts” and who “hide behind the Bible and have no intention of learning what the community is about” don’t realize they’re fostering “an unsafe environment for the ones they say they are trying to protect.”

Nicole Self White, one of the organizers, says the inclusiveness of the neighborhood around the park is one of the reasons she loves raising her son in Riverside. Her family lives a block from the park.

Pride Parade, Five Points, 2016

“I’ve been in Jacksonville for 15 years, and have been attending Pride events here since my youngest was a toddler,” she says. “He’s now 11 years old. One of the main reasons we moved to Riverside in 2004 was because the community is LGBTQ+ inclusive and it was always important to us to raise a family in an environment that welcomed everyone.”

Every year, from their house beside Willowbranch Park, they watch the Pride Parade come down the street and into Five Points.

Pride Picnic, Willowbranch Park, 1988, courtesy The Florida Times-Union

After Hodges issued his call to arms in 1988, headlines read, “Minor Protests Don’t Dampen Gay Pride.” The Florida Times-Union printed a photograph of an angry woman holding a sign that said, “Gays Go Home,” while her nine year old daughter stood next to her and stared sadly at the ground. At the top of the page, a photo showed an eight year old black boy and a six year old white girl playing in the park. The girl has flung her arms and legs out into an X, while her face blossoms into an eternal smile. She exists entirely in that moment, pure joy.

3. True Colors

It’s an accident, if a predictable one, that Bebe Deluxe became the public face of Storybook Pride Prom. She wasn’t organizing, wasn’t performing, wasn’t getting paid. Hers became the face of the event because she’d be there and because you can’t look away. Bebe’s lowcut tops reveal no cleavage, but a outcrop of chest hair. She wears both eye makeup and a beard. Her smile lights up her entire face.

When Tim Rogers came to Willowbranch Library to meet with staff the day after canceling, Bebe and a couple dozen friends stood outside the basement conference room and waited. Bebe sang Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” in a tenor you could hear outside in the park.

Newsweek reported the cancellation of the prom over safety concerns, quoting Bebe as Beatrice Palmer, saying, “It’s possible to keep 100 kids safe in a library, but when it’s gay children, it becomes a problem.”

If you’re a teenager, you can’t feel as sad about all the ways you don’t fit in if someone like Bebe Deluxe, who conducts children’s “storytime” readings at the University of North Florida and independent businesses in Riverside, can demonstrate being herself with such confidence.

Said Palmer, via Newsweek, “My goal is to make sure that the gay and trans kids have somebody looking out for them and somebody telling them that they’re not inappropriate for existing, and making sure that the straight kids that go know how to make the world better for them as well.”

Bebe Deluxe singing “True Colors” outside the basement conference room

Perhaps the most universal symptom of adolescence is feeling, at least at times, like an outsider. It’s why kids can be so defensively aggressive: those kids who master adolescence develop the skills to appear unaffected, unhurt, by anyone else’s opinions of them, even if they do so by excluding and hurting others.

Witness the phenomenon of the drag queen as icon for anyone who has ever felt, for even a moment, ostracized or excluded. What better representative for being fearless could there be than someone who confidently makes a beard feminine?

Bebe Deluxe singing “True Colors” outside the basement conference room

Bebe feels a responsibility to represent herself honestly. “Often I am concerned that I am ‘too much,’ that if I presented myself more traditionally, made more attempts to be either masculine or feminine but not both, then maybe it would be easier for me to make progress in this world,” she says. “But I’ve learned that even if I hold myself to the impossible standard of passing for a cisgender person, male or female, I will never be seen as whole by people who want to erase the legitimacy of people like me.”

And that’s a point worth celebrating. “So with that newfound liberation,” Bebe says, “I realize there will always be someone trying desperately to ease their internal pain by using me as scapegoat for their resentment towards a changing world. And that helps me to realize the incredible potential that I and the community around me have to achieve greatness, freedom, and the respect we deserve.”

5. Struggle Makes History Holy

Events echo. “In time” they “take place.” The resultant pattern we call history.

from The Tampa Times, September 26, 1967

For example. The facts — 1) of the canines crowned at the Jacksonville Dog Festival in the 1960s and 2) of 41 year old Evan Freda, a homeless man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, stabbing to death a 74 year old man named Ashley Miller Kraan, who was walking his greyhound named Midnight in Willowbranch Park in November 2017 — merely coincide. If stabbings of people walking their dogs became a repeating occurrence, something altogether stranger, historical forces, would be at work.

To touch history is to meet a ghost, an avatar, a mythological hero figure, a savior. To stand in the presence of history is uncanny. I’m sure I just saw that most famous American poet, bearded and lurid Walt Whitman, walking beside the creek, reciting lascivious lines he wrote back in 1855. “Activist Mommy” has feared him for 164 years.

Do Drag Queen Christs walk the sides of the ancient creek? And if so, why should anyone be offended? Surely the image of Jesus can’t be so easily sullied. Surely the drag queen has endured far worse. And don’t the ashes of brothers and mothers nourish the magnolias of Love Grove?

So Willowbranch Park becomes historic epicenter for Gay Jacksonville and “holy ground.” Struggle makes history holy.

6. Jacksonville is a City of Love.

Bebe Deluxe stands on the front steps of the Willowbranch Library and speaks to a couple hundred supporters, including library employees and a small contingent of the Jax chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Rainbow flags punctuate the crowds. Cars slow down on Park Street, horns honk, drivers and passersby wave, give thumbs up, or put their fists in the air in support.

“This is the library,” Bebe says, “where I checked out books when I was a kid, where I learned to ride my bike in the parking lot, and outside of which I had my first kiss.” Willowbranch’s legend adds layers. “This is the place where, in eighth grade, I researched Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera,” Bebe says.

Listeners cheer, recognizing the names of the drag queens and trans activists who were present at Stonewall 50 years ago tonight.

Bebe talks about early school experiences like the time a teacher made an example of her, for acting too effeminate as a little boy, and says, “No teacher will get away with that kind of shaming again, as long as my breathing, living, bleeding body stays in this city, and I’m not going anywhere!” She speaks into a sea of smiles and clapping hands and cell phones filming.

Bebe points out the irony of the more than three dozen police cars and the heavy presence of uniformed officers since the official line was that the library couldn’t ensure the safety of 100 kids.

Telling the crowd she has a prom to go host, Bebe stands with the face of the library at her back and reminds her listeners, “Let’s not let anybody get the wrong idea. Jacksonville loves its LGBTQ community! You are proof of it right here! We’re here and we’re queer and Jacksonville is a city of love!”