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124: Atlanta, Georgia On My Mind 🍑

We’ve been meaning to get around to talking about Atlanta for quite some time but have been putting it off until just the right time. Now, the recent election has motivated us to pay tribute to Georgia – and the amazing Stacey Abrams – by celebrating the city known as The Black LGBTQ+ Mecca. For more than 100 years, Atlanta has served as a beacon of queer life in an area of America often categorized as the Bible belt. All the beauty and rich culture of the U.S. South has been clouded with centuries of racism, homophobia, and oppression. Which has caused so many to overlook the countless individuals who have stood up to a wall of hate and made a way for themselves and their other marginalized siblings. Today we celebrate many of those folks by celebrating Atlanta and the State of Georgia.

Just as with most other provinces in the early United States, Georgia held onto most of the penal codes set by English rule which included the sodomy laws. Though it seems the codes were not enforced until 1817, nearly 100 years after English colonizers took over the region. By 1868, more land had been stolen from Native tribes and the Mississippi territory was divided into the states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. The colony – turned state – chose to adopt the thriving city of Atlanta as its new capital. Within 30 years, Georgia was making waves when a sodomy trial reached the State Supreme Court. In Hodges vs State, a 14-year-old boy was put on trial for committing acts of sodomy on another boy. However, the high court reversed the judgment.

As the 20th century dawned, so did the stirrings of a new era. Georgia had been one of the most densely populated slave states of the pre-Civil war. Nearly 44% of the state’s population was comprised of newly freed Blacks. Union general William T. Sherman had ordered that confiscated plantations be divided up among former slaves. Had there been follow through with Special Field Order, No. 15, it is certain that Georgia would have looked drastically different today. Unfortunately, Andrew Johnson – in contention as one of America’s most racist presidents in history – revoked Sherman’s order. The limitation in rural communities caused many Black Georgians to flock to large cities, especially Atlanta. Three years after the Civil War ended, 20% of the Georgia statehouse was comprised of Black delegates, making it the largest showing of Freedmen in a state legislature. 

However, white opponents, including the newly formed KKK, fought back and expelled the delegates. They launched a visceral attack on Black Georgians killing or assaulting more than 335 Freedmen in 1868 alone. Finally, the U.S. Government sent in the military to overthrow the corrupt Capital and reinstated the Black legislators who had been removed. Yet white politicians had learned a new method of pushing down Black votes, the next few decades saw a consistent roll-out of voter suppression laws. These are often classified by the term “disenfranchised”, which literally means “to deny of a franchise of a legal right, or of some privilege or immunity; especially: to deprive of the right to vote”. This is often done through implementing poll taxes and literacy tests which disproportionately affect a group of people that have been denied wealth and education. In addition, there were countless stories of taxes and tests being more used more aggressively against Black citizens while relaxed against poor white farmers. This tactic prohibited the uprising of the poor which had started to gain momentum as poor Blacks and poor Whites united for a brief period in time. 

As White oppression grew so did the Black population of Georgia. By 1900, nearly 47% of the state was Black. Yet Democrats had managed to pass enough Jim Crow laws and voter suppression tactics to remove the final Black legislature from the statehouse. White primaries were instituted and Freedmen were further denied the shrinking rights they had held for such a short time. In spite of the backlash of White rage, Black communities thrived in other ways. The New York Harlem Renaissance wave of Black culture spread al the way down to Atlanta. Harlem served as a small queer revolution in itself, though the gay movement was still decades away from stepping out into the open. Still, many LGBTQ+ people did find a way to make a life together in the city of Atlanta. One oral history tells of a lesbian who found 3 photo albums full of her mother’s female lovers. The pictures dated back as early as 1918. 

In the midst of the chaos, Atlanta queers continued to thrive. The magazine Gay Atlanta was released in 1937. The term was not yet used to describe the LGBTQ+ community, but the guide directed folks to plenty of queer-friendly spaces. Including the bar Queen of Clubs which hosted drag shows and featured some of the most popular queens of the day. As early as 1913, drag performer Anthony Auriemma began parading through the streets in feminine clothing, protesting the anti-crossdressing laws. The Atlanta Constitution, a Georgia newspaper, published this comment on Mr. Auriemma:

“Is it proper, also is it legal, for a real ladylike man to further simulate femininity and appear on the streets dressed in womens garb, provided this man be a professional female impersonator? This is a question which is troubling Miss – beg your pardon – Mr. Auriemma, who is nightly appearing at one of Atlanta’s moving picture houses. Also, it is troubling to Chief Beavers.” [4]

But just as queer life was starting to emerge into public life in the Atlanta districts of Midtown, Candler Park, and Little Five Points, the Klu Klux Klan experienced a revival as well. At least, 450 lynchings took place between the reconstruction era of 1882 and the Civil Rights awakening of the last 1930s. 95% of those lynched were Black, and the other 5% were often different minority members. Such as the lynching of Jewish factory superintendent, Leo Frank, who was accused of murdering a young Catholic employee. It seemed that racial divides would only continue to grow in a country where White Nationalism proudly took root. Even with the election of the somewhat progressive president in Franklin Roosevelt, racism against Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, along with strong anti-semitisim and anti-immigrant sentiments began to rise again as the Great Depression came to an end.   

The interruption of World War II caused a sharp shift in American thinking. Many white soldiers served overseas with fellow Black countrymen. And though their return home was only the beginning of an ongoing battle of racial progress in America, a spark was ignited. The LGBTQ+ however would face one of their fiercest battles yet. McCarthy’s Lavender Scare began with an open campaign on queer Americans disguised as an attack on so-called Commie Lovers. This wave of homophobia and unfounded fear spread to state and local departments across the U.S. Though Georgia had finally reduced the crime of homosexuality in 1949, from life imprisonment to a 1-10 year prison sentence, the scrutiny on Atlanta queer life increased drastically. In 1953, the event known as The Atlanta Public Library Perversion Case broke out in news outlets across the nation. 

For several years, the restrooms at the Atlanta Public Library had served as “tea rooms”. A coded term used to signify that a bar, or a cafe, or in this case a restroom, was a place for LGBTQ+ people to meet or hook up. After being tipped off to the “tea room”, Atlanta police installed a two way mirror in the restroom and began to stake out the cruising spot. Over the next week, a total of 20 queer men were arrested on sodomy charges. All were charged with a fine of $200 and sentenced to 2-3 years in prison. In addition, the men were outed in the local papers and several were forced to move in with their parents or leave Atlanta altogether. 19 of the 20 men were fired from their jobs and faced additional harassment as their home addresses were also published in the papers. While this was the most well known scandal to hit the newsstands, raids and stake outs in other queer cruising areas also took place across the city. 

But as Atlanta police wasted time and funds on these stake outs by improving the lighting in Piedmont Park or actively tracking down so-called crossdressers, the Black and queer community were concerned with more important matters. The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott in Georgia set off a wave of civil unrest. Just two years later, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was organized in Atlanta by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and openly gay man Bayard Rustin. Though Rustin would remain devoted to King and the Black Civil Rights movement, he was forced into the shadows due to his orientation. Representative Adam Powell Jr., a jealous and homophobic politician from New York, threatened to spread a rumor that Bayard and King were actually lovers. Knowing that this lie would harm the growing image of Dr. King Rustin stepped away from the SCLC. Yet many more Black LGBTQ+ people were leading the charge in Atlanta and across the country.

When the Voting Rights Act  passed in 1965, Black Georgians were once again given a legal path to voting in their state. In 1972, Andrew Young became the first Black Georgian to serve in the U.S. Congress in 64 years. And the fight for equality was only just beginning. With the Stonewall Riots of New York igniting the Queer Revolution, Atlanta quickly joined the foray. The Georgia Gay Liberation Front was founded in 1971 and that same year Atlanta held its first infamous Pride Parade. Within five years a gay newspaper, The Atlanta Barb, an LGBTQ+ Center, and an MCC church (a queer lead religious group) were all thriving in Capital city. Local government noticed the rising community and established a Gay Liason in Atlanta. In 1975, young representative John Lewis sponsored Georgia’s first ever pro-LGBTQ legislation.

As the 1970s drew to a close, queer Georgians roared more loudly than ever. When notorious bigot Anita Bryant came to lead her anti-queer campaign at the Georgia World Congress Center, a wave of outrage swept the Capital. The following year, more than 10,000 queer Atlantans traveled to Washington D.C. for the 1979 Gay and Lesbian March on Washington. Yet as the momentum charged forward, a looming foe began to take shape in the form of a mysterious plague. While much of the coverage around the AIDS crisis is often focused on New York and San Francisco, the city of Atlanta was also at the heart of the pandemic. It was here that CDC headquarters were located and it was in Atlanta that some of the first warnings were issued around the dangers of the disease. 

As CDC administrator Dr. Francis desperately tried to get the Reagan administration to pay attention to the rapidly spreading illness, the numbers of dead bodies mounted. Though some attention was being paid to the East and West Coasts, the poor, Black South was almost completely ignored. Even after the first International AIDS Conference was hosted in Atlanta in 1985, Francis still couldn’t even draw enough funds to afford $2 sanitary door handles for his laboratory. Reagan’s administration had labeled this as a Black, gay disease and the death of queer people of color was the very least of his concerns. To add to the weight of hopelessness, another legal decision cast another blow to LGBTQ Georgians.

In July of 1982, police officer Keith Torick issued a citation to Michael Hardwick for throwing a beer bottle into a trash can outside of a bar in Atlanta. The officer insisted this was evidence of public drinking and the fact that Hardwick worked at the bar didn’t matter to Torick. The bartender missed his hearing but managed to settle his citation out of court with a fine of $50. However, Torick apparently had a grudge to pursue and showed up at Harwick’s home on August 3rd with an invalid warrant. Letting himself into the home, Officer Torick barged into Michael’s room and witnessed him engaging in sexual activities with another man. Torick arrested both men for sodomy and hauled them downtown but was forced to release the prisoners when the D.A. refused to process a charge made on a fraudulent warrant. 

Michael Hardwick then sued Attorney General Michael Bowers, and the State of Georgia for their sodomy laws. Hardwick vs Bowers would be a landmark case in LGBTQ+ history, taking the case of sodomy all the way to the Supreme Court, one of the first such cases in the U.S. National attention around the case drew sympathy as Hardwick had been charged in the comfort and safety of his own home due to a gross intrusion of the police. The often used sticking point of, “I don’t care WHAT you do, just don’t do it in public” pushed many conservative arguments back on their heels. Still, in 1986, the court ruled in favor of Bowers and thus Georgia. Michael Hardwick died of AIDS in 1991 and remained disheartened by the great loss. Seven years after his death, Georgia repealed its sodomy laws with a Supreme Court ruling of 6-1. Five years after that, the court formally reversed the ruling in 2003. Michael Hardwick had then been gone for 12 years, but his legacy allowed for countless queer Georgians to love in peace. 

Today Atlanta remains a hotbed of queer culture, especially queer Black culture. It is not shocking that these same people are the ones creating a revolution in a state that has held conservative for nearly 3 decades. It also seems monumental that the same year Civil Rights icon and long time ally John Lewis left this earth that the wave of progress would finally begin to catch up. However, we must make no mistake, there is still much to be done. We still have a long way to go in terms of equal and equitable rights. The AIDS crisis is still raging in Atlanta and is mostly ignored by the media. In fact, it is the leading cause of death of Black men in Georgia between the ages of 35 and 44. Lack of healthcare, transportation, and poverty levels all drive the inability to access services needed. In addition, the stigma around homosexuality is still strong in the South and conflating AIDs with Gay deters many from reaching out for help.

Yes there is still much work to be done. We strongly encourage every Georgia resident who will be 18 by January to make sure they register to vote. There will be runoff elections in your state that can determine control of our Senate. However, for at least a brief moment, we can all breathe and be thankful to the Black voters – Black women, Black youth, and Black queer people, and many other People of Color – who carried us into a new age. Lets keep it moving forward. And above all, keep Georgia on our minds. Your recommended resource is Stacey Abrams book Our Time Is Now; Power, Purpose, and a Fight for a Fair America.

REFERENCES:

  1. Historians – https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/annual-meeting/past-meetings/supplement-to-the-121st-annual-meeting/the-unspoken-past-atlanta-lesbian-and-gay-history
  2. Georgia Voice – https://thegavoice.com/community/features/from-whence-we-came-our-lgbtq-atl-history/ 
  3. Georgia History – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Georgia_(U.S._state)#British_colony
  4. Auriemma – https://pecannelog.wordpress.com/2009/07/10/drag-and-atlanta-we-go-way-back/ 
  5. Atlanta History – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_history_in_Georgia_(U.S._state)#:~:text=In%201983%2C%20the%20Atlanta%20Campaign,and%20Lesbian%20Student%20Life%20office.
  6. Sodomy Laws – http://www.glapn.org/sodomylaws/usa/georgia/ganews22.htm
  7. Preserving History – https://www.ajc.com/life/preserving-atlantas-gay-history/ORUQG5KWDFF3BEASI5IZEIUE4Q/
  8. Little Five Points (Lesbians) – https://thegavoice.com/community/little-five-points-was-just-crawling-with-lesbians/ f
  9. Gay Black Pride – https://www.atlantamagazine.com/news-culture-articles/the-rise-of-atlantas-black-gay-pride/
  10. Pursuit of Pride – http://theangle.whotels.com/w-hotels-x-them-atlanta/
  11. AIDS Crisis – https://www.cnn.com/2016/04/14/health/aids-atlanta-emory-university-the-80s/index.html
  12. AIDS Crisis today – http://news.emory.edu/features/2018/05/aids-atl/index.html 
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