Carried by the sound: Gay clubs in Jacksonville history

The former Club Jacksonville in 2019. Photo by Mike Field.

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.

Another long-running LGBTQ business was Club Jacksonville, a bathhouse catering to gay men located in the 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.

Currently, Jacksonville’s oldest gay venue is Metro Entertainment Complex, formerly Club Metro, on Willow Branch Avenue in Riverside. Open since 1993, the sprawling 17,000-square-foot complex features several rooms with a variety of themes, and is one of the largest nightclubs in the city.

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 a week of revelry in Five Points.

The JASMYN house in Brooklyn. Photo by Tim Gilmore.

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. Contact Bill at