Jeremy Pope
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A Short Retelling of Atlanta's Long — But Radical — Queer History

Celebrating Pride in Atlanta

This piece initially appeared in Out magazine, read the original on Out.com.

I have called Atlanta, Georgia home my entire life. While the city is an epicenter of culture and is known for many great things, including our delicious lemon pepper wings, one thing I’m most proud of is our rich history in social justice. Not only has Atlanta been the cradle of the Civil Rights movement, birthing a four-decades long streak of Black mayors, but the city itself has earned its reputation as the LGBTQ+ capital of the South.

My city, established in 1847, has a long and often complicated LGBTQ+ history. Around 1913, our first known professional female impersonator, Anthony Auriemma, fought against an Atlanta ordinance banning men from wearing women’s garb by protesting in drag around Peachtree Street. Though the act did little to move the needle, it caused a local storm as Auriemma was immensely popular. He would later become one of the most celebrated female impersonators of the 1920s and 1930s, performing as Francis Renault. It is said that Renault performed in over 40 countries.

historic poster for Atlanta female impersonator
An old flyer for one of Francis Renault’s shows circa 1920s. Photo courtesy of Georgia State University, the Gender and Sexuality Collections.

 

The next few decades saw small victories for Atlanta’s LGBTQ+ community. The local chamber of commerce began distributing a publication called Gay Atlanta. Seeking a safe and affirming religious space, LGBTQ+ Atlantans formed their own church convening at the Winecoff Hotel. The congregation was said to be made up of both gay members and straight allies. While gay men found solace and company at a secret regularly scheduled “cocktail hour” at Club Peachtree, law enforcement continued to target us by increasing police presence to combat cruising and arresting men for wearing traditional female clothing, often publishing their identities in local newspapers, which led most of them to be fired.

Many of us know the story of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising: Fed up with constant violence and harassment from the police, brave patrons of the Stonewall Inn finally fought back in New York City. This rebellion lasted several nights and is often cited as the kickoff to the modern-day LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. A year later, Pride parades were born in several American cities, including Atlanta. Fewer people know that a similar raid happened in Atlanta, just six weeks after the Stonewall uprising.

On the evening of August 5, 1969, the Atlanta Police Department raided the Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema, breaking up a screening of Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys, a film that depicted men having sex with men. Members of the theater’s staff and the audience were harassed, detained, photographed, and ultimately arrested. The raid is often cited as a catalyst for the creation of the Georgia Gay Liberation Front, a local group dedicated to continuing the momentum of the Stonewall uprising. Shortly after this time, Charis Books & More opened, which is now the South’s oldest independent feminist bookstore.

 

LGBTQ people in Atlanta in 1975
Participants in Atlanta Pride 1977, courtesy of Georgia State University, the Gender and Sexuality Collections

 

It’s impossible to talk about the LGBTQ+ history of Atlanta without visiting our booming nightlife scene, especially in its early days. Atlanta was home to Backstreet, often referred to as the Studio 54 of the South. Opening in 1975, in the heart of Midtown, the three-level, 10,000-square-foot venue became cemented in Atlanta’s queer history. For nearly 30 years, Backstreet was known for its nonstop party scene.

Another Atlanta LGBTQ+ bar with an impressive history is the Atlanta Eagle. While the bar primarily serves the leather community, many have called the Atlanta Eagle home for over three decades. Many legendary drag artists spent their early days there, including RuPaul and Lady Bunny. In 2009, the Atlanta Police Department raided the Atlanta Eagle. After community outcry, APD chose this moment as a catalyst for change, quickly appointing LGBTQ+ community liaisons, updating police trainings and standard operating procedures with LGBTQ+ constituents, and enhancing overall engagement within the community.

LGBTQ+ people in Atlanta are often on the front lines of progress. Unlike many parts of the South, Atlanta has laws on the books that protect LGBTQ+ people in key aspects of life. Every year since 2013, the city has achieved a perfect score on the Municipal Equality Index, a list released annually by the Human Rights Campaign that examines how inclusive municipal laws, policies, and services are for LGBTQ+ citizens.

 

Atlanta pride

Top: Marchers on Peachtree Street at Atlanta Pride 1995. Bottom: Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (right) with senior adviser Rashad Taylor and former COO Joshua Williams at Pride 2019. 

 

In 2017, the people of Atlanta elected Keisha Lance Bottoms to serve as the 60th mayor of the city. Mayor Bottoms quickly became the most pro-LGBTQ+ mayor in Atlanta’s history and a nationally recognized leader in the space. Within her first 100 days as mayor, she appointed Atlanta’s first-ever director of LGBTQ+ affairs, which was also the first-of-its-kind role in the South. During her tenure, she has expanded access to PrEP in Atlanta, leveraged private funding for trans housing, and illuminated Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport, in the colors of the Pride flag to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Atlanta Pride.

Recently, Mayor Bottoms began the process of designating the Atlanta Eagle as a historic landmark, making it the first LGBTQ+ venue to earn the designation in the Deep South. Mayor Bottoms and the city of Atlanta are currently working alongside local historians to develop an Atlanta LGBTQ+ Historic Context Statement, which will be used to tell the rich story of Atlanta’s queer history.

 

Atlanta Mayor Bottoms
Mayor Bottoms and the author, Malik Brown, the first director of LGBTQ+ affairs in Atlanta history. Photo by Joshua Spruiel.

 

Atlanta is widely credited with delivering vital votes to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and most recently, U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Because of these four elected officials, we have already seen the White House and Congress begin to advance LGBTQ+ rights. These wins come as a relief for most queer people, who have been subjected to an all-out assault on our rights from the White House in the last four years.

For me, and so many outsiders like me, Atlanta is a safe space in a region that is often unsafe for us. Like every other city, it has had its own reckoning with the LGBTQ+ community, but the progress that my hometown has achieved is remarkable. We have earned our title as the LGBTQ+ capital of the South and proved that our impact knows no bounds. One thing I know for sure is that Atlanta influences everything. 

Malik Brown is an LGBTQ+ advocate and political strategist, a first-generation American, and a lifelong Atlantan. Appointed as the City of Atlanta's Director of LGBTQ+ Affairs by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Brown is the first full-time official in Atlanta to focus on better connecting the LGBTQ+ community with Atlanta City Hall. In this role, he advises the Mayor on policies, programs, and initiatives affecting the community. Additionally, Brown serves as one of the Administration’s key advisors on human rights and is a member of the LEAD Atlanta Class of 2022. Follow Brown on Twitter: @COAMalik and Instagram: @Malikeo.

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