Just a guess, but I’d put money on Memorial Day weekend having the highest percentage of men in Speedos on Pensacola Beach of any weekend of the year.

Might also be a record-setter for Jell-O shots on the beach.

That’s when lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people descend on Pensacola Beach for a weekend of revelry, comradery and frivolity. As a gay man, I will never forget the overwhelming sense of awe when I first visited Pensacola Beach on Memorial Day in the early 2000’s.

It’s the same every May.

The eastern end of Pensacola Beach is awash with tents, kites and rainbow flags. The sides of the beach road are stuffed with cars that bear tags from all over the South – Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee – as well as Florida.

Once you find a place to park – which may be quite a ways from the area of the beach you’re aiming for – you can usually find just a narrow sandy strip on which to walk between the tent city along the dunes and the edge of the surf.

Memorial Day

Bourbon Street on the Beach

That sandy strip becomes a busy boulevard. In a way, walking that stretch of beach on Memorial Day weekend is like visiting Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.

Everyone is glad to see you. Everyone has their square of sand staked out – some very creatively so. I have seen entire “yards” marked off by college football themed signs and paraphernalia (think LSU or Alabama Crimson Tide). I’ve also seen inflatable palm trees and make-shift beauty parlors stationed in the sand. The options for campy camp themes are endless.

Every so often, you’ll run into someone offering free – yes, free – Jell-O shots. Why free? Well, it’s just part of the conviviality of the beach that weekend. For people who don’t know, it’s hard to explain. But LGBT people who live in small and medium-sized communities across the South don’t have that many places – that many spaces – where they can meet each other, socialize and just let their guard down a little.  

When you are on a beach with tens of thousands of other LGBT people, they are all your friends. LGBT people from far flung places make friends here on Memorial Day weekend and only see each other here year after year.

When to sleep?

Walking along that narrow path of beach the people you encounter are the real attractions. Many of the younger, leaner, buffer guys are in Speedos – many brightly colored – and some with attendant feather boas and exaggeratedly big sunglasses. Some of the girls are in skimpy two-pieces. The creativity of some tattoos is really on display when folks are wearing so little.

You may also encounter a drag queen or two out there. What does a drag queen wear to the beach? Something fabulous, of course!

Like at Mardi Gras, it’s not uncommon for people to stop the more flamboyant on the beach and ask to have their photos taken with them. And, like at Mardi Gras, most of the ones who are done up are happy to oblige. They work hard to make themselves look so over-the-top.

Over the years, businesses on Pensacola Beach as well as the mainland have opened their doors in welcome to the LGBT visitors and locals a like, sporting rainbow adornments as well as specials harkening to us for that weekend.

Although it varies every year, Memorial Day weekend usually features huge soirees called “circuit parties” or even raves aimed at the LGBT crowd. These often include nationally known entertainers as well as hard thumping music and flashing lights. These can go on until the early morning or even sunrise the next day.

Pensacola’s two LGBT night clubs – the Roundup and Cabaret – always have special events and entertainment that weekend, as do many of the mainstream establishments. In recent years, Capt’n Fun Beach Club and Flounder’s Chowder House on Pensacola Beach have served as hubs of much of the Memorial Day weekend fun.

As a local, I often wonder how the LGBT visitors who try to take in all the festivities find time to sleep!

In the two decades I have called Northwest Florida home, I have played host to friends from Alabama as well as Central Florida who came here to see what our Memorial Day weekend celebrations were all about.

Neither myself nor any of my guests, however, have ever been brave enough to wear a Speedo.