Today, the LGBTQ+ community is working tirelessly for acceptance and understanding. There are programs and spaces today that would have been unheard of decades ago. One such space began in 2016 as a pop-up called New Woman Space. Its goal is to provide women a safe place to gather and discuss their sexual identity, dreams, and goals. While it is more common to see these spaces today, forty years ago it was a different story.
During the 1970s, exclusive communities were built across the United States by women, for women. These endeavors were unique to their time, when many banks required women to have a man with them to get a bank account, a credit card, or even own land. But these women were not interested in being with men, and many feared men and the repercussions of society if people truly knew who these women were.
St. Augustine was no stranger to these communities. In the 1970s, a small group of self-identifying lesbians purchased a group of cottages built in the 1930s on Vilano Beach, known as Rees’ Seaside Cottages, and in July of 1977, they opened The Pagoda temple of Love. They purchased a three-story house and created a center where lesbians could rent rooms for a vacation and gather together for events, classes, or just to enjoy each other’s company in safety.
All women in The Pagoda had a job, whether it was to do the books, schedule rental reservations, or to clean up certain areas. Even those renting had chores to keep the grounds clean and safe. Their aim was to create a place of their own, away from the rest of the world, where they could be themselves without judgment. Since, at the time, being a lesbian could make a woman a pariah in society, The Pagoda insisted on some rules such as being discreet outside of the community to assure everyone’s safety within. So, a woman could be herself there as long as she conformed to the rules, and values, of the community, some of which were:
- Restrictions on male visitors being immediate family only (fathers, brothers, sons) and only allowed during the day. Boys under the age of two years old were allowed to stay anytime, but from two to the age of nine they were only allowed overnight visits during the month of August. Any exceptions would have been approved by the community.
- Strict requirements for meat eaters (including poultry and fish). The community center was a vegetarian sanctuary and they had a separate refrigerator and area for cooking of “flesh foods.”
- Pets were either to be kept on a leash, or tied up except when the owner was around for a few hours during the day. It was also required to clean up after pets. They may have only allowed female pets, because in many of the documents, pets are referred to as “it” or “she”.
- Nudity on the sundeck, pool, or other areas was forbidden due to these being shared spaces.
- Willingness to join the weekly and monthly business meetings as needed to help the community resolve issues when those involved are unable to solve on their own.
- Worship would be more akin to metaphysical and new age concepts that bring one closer to nature and balance mind, body, and spirit.
These are just a few of the rules and values created for the safety and comfort of the community. The women of the Pagoda had a booklet for those interested in purchasing property there that laid out their entire rules and values system to make sure that the potential new owner and the community would get along. There was also a four-month probationary period for new owners to make sure they fit in the community. It was laid out bare, and if one felt an iota of unease at any of the contents, or did not identify as a strong, independent lesbian, the women of the Pagoda suggested it wasn’t the place for them.
Through the mid-1980s, The Pagoda planned on expanding their reach with a project known as the Crone’s Nest which would cater to the needs of aging lesbians. The purpose was to expand the community and become more diverse than the population of ages 19–53-year-old white women. The hope was to create a senior living space for lesbians to grow old together and be taken care of, but the endeavor was more than they expected and did not launch as planned.
Over time, the problem of area development ruined the accessibility to nature and peace. St. Augustine became too expensive for the current residents. It was also difficult to find younger lesbians interested in staying in the community, partially because they wanted to find their place in society rather than remove themselves. By 1997, the community disbanded and many of the residents moved to another lesbian community in rural Alabama.
Fortunately, there are those that work in healthcare now, such as the nonprofit Visuality, teaching staff at healthcare facilities how to care for their LGBTQ+ residents with compassion. It is required by law for people working with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to support their need for companionship, no matter who that patient’s partner is.
Written by Nicole Diehm
“A Lesbian Paradise?” Saintauggieland, posted Nov 8, 2011. https://stauggieland.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/a-lesbian-paradise/. Accessed 5/31/2022.
Borns, Patricia. “Are women’s communities a thing of the past?” The News-Press, March 30, 2018. https://www.news-press.com/story/news/2018/03/30/womens-communities-thing-past/454507002/ Accessed May 31, 2022.
Cultural Resorts (Lesbian): Pagoda – Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance Archives, circa 1972-1994 (Duke University Libraries). The Pagoda: brochures; newsletters; correspondence, undated. https://archives.lib.duke.edu/catalog/alfa. Accessed 5/31/2022
Kershaw, Sarah. “Lesbian Communities Struggle to Stay Vital to a New Generation.” The New York Times, posted January 30, 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/fashion/01womyn.html. Accessed 5/31/2022
Lampen, Claire. “Womyn, womxn, and women: What’s the real difference? It all boils down to inclusivity.” Daily Dot, posted Feb. 2, 2018; updated May 22, 2021. https://www.dailydot.com/irl/womyn/. Accessed 5/31/2022.
Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History (Smith College). Pagoda Temple of Love, Saint Augustine, FL: flyers, newsletters, undated. https://findingaids.smith.edu/repositories/2/digital_objects/6188. Accessed 5/31/2022
Unger, Nancy C. “From Jook Joint to Sisterspace: The role of Nature in Lesbian Alternative Environments in the United States.” In Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, edited by Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).
“Womyn.” Wikipedia, last edited December 29, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Womyn#:~:text=Womyn%20is%20one%20of%20several,wombyn%20or%20wimmin%20(plural). Accessed 5/31/2022.