ONCE UPON A TIME IN MECCA

From The GA Voice (October & November Editions)

by Dave Hayward, Coordinator, Touching Up Our Roots, Inc.:  Georgia's LGBTQ Story Project

 

 

Here's a "Greatest Hits" of our Georgia LGBTQ long march to freedom.

 

Feeling like one of the survivors of a slasher flick (sorry, folks),  nevertheless I'm eager to spill the stories.

 

THE 70S

 

1971 - Arriving in October 1971, I instantly became a Yankee carpetbagger to the co-chair of the Georgia Gay Liberation Front, Bill Smith, who co-lead the GGLF with proudly bisexual Judy Lambert.  Judy took flack for supporting the GGLF, which lead to Georgia's first lesbian group the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance forming in 1972.

 

Fresh from co-creating the Washington, D.C. Gay Liberation Front in 1970, I thought Atlanta would be a fresh fun horizon, after graduating from George Washington University.  Native Atlantan  Bill Smith berated me "David!  If you go downtown to Five Points and shout out Sherman's name, you will be torn limb from limb!"

 

Uh, Sherman, that Civil War general?  Really?!  OK, I'll gladly be reconstructed.

 

1972-  The GGLF was a minority of a minority, and we were bodily ejected from two gay bars for promoting Pride.  "We don't want any of that radical shit in our bar!"  the Cove's Frank Powell thundered, as one of our brothers went flying through the air out of the Cove's saloon doors.

 

Our political protest march was peaceful, and unlike the first Pride March in 1971, we persuaded "the city too busy to hate" to give us a permit to march in the streets.  The GGLF's Berl Boykin told me that in '71 there were 125 marchers, "I know I counted them twice!", so they marched on the sidewalks and stopped for every traffic light.  Also the Georgia chapter of the ACLU rebuffed the GGLF's call for help:  "you are not a minority" they scoffed.

 

When we didn't burn Atlanta down again after 1972, the bars slowly came around, and we registered voters at Bulldogs and at the Sweet Gum Head bar by the end of the 70s. 

 

Also in 1972 we celebrated our first openly gay anything, when Mayor Sam Massell named GLF stalwart Charlie St. John to the Community Relations Commission.  The next year Bill Smith replaced him, so we had some seat at some table, along with Abby Drue, who was the first "out" person at City Hall.

 

1976 - There was Hell to pay for Mayor Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of a major Southern city, as he declared Gay Pride Day that year.  The Southern Baptist "Citizens for a Decent Atlanta" demanded his impeachment, and we picketed the Baptist church next to Phipps Plaza.  Jackson stayed mayor, but in 1977 he fearlessly announced "Human Rights Day." 

 

Perhaps we brought the Bible Belt out of bondage to gender conforming norms.  At least we're not usually denounced from pulpits here now.

 

1977 - Native son Gil Robison invited candidates to speak to us, creating the LGBT vote, and he and friends founded First Tuesday, the first LGBT political action committee.

 

1978 - Our little engine was hijacked when alt right reactionary Anita Bryant became guest of honor at the Southern Baptist Convention at the World Congress Center, riding her "Save Our Children" (don't you love these names?)

crusade to rescind lgbt rights ordinances across the country.  But we had our own Selma moment, as for the first time straight allies marched with us, like white allies did with civil rights activists in 1965.

 

And we raised so much money fighting Save Our Children that we started our second Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Center.  Thanks to our poster child Anita!

 

Lesbian firebrand Maria Helena Dolan delivered her "I come to you today as a defiant dyke!" challenge at our rally at the World Congress Center, and we had thousands of people joining us in pandemonium.

 

1979 - Our little Mecca became the Southeast hub for the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October that year.

 

THE 80S

 

It was a dark new dawn in November 1980 when Ronald Reagan lambasted Jimmy Carter in a landslide, and our Democratic victory party became a wake.  Slinking home we chirped "See you in the camps!"  Seven months later our black humor became reality when AIDS - first called Gay Related Immune Deficiency or GRID - was identified.  Suddenly there were serious calls for quarantining, and even branding, all gays and lesbians as a public health menace.

 

1982 - the end of that year designer Graham Bruton helped form AID Atlanta, which hosted a slideshow at Colony Square depicting the ravages of Kaposi's sarcoma.  "Everything has to change" I realized, and indeed safe sex (say what?) and condoms became the new normal for gay men. 

 

Dr. Jesse Peel and others founded several AIDS organizations, and the buddy program to help people living with AIDS - not AIDS victims - began at AID Atlanta.

 

Even those who cared were terrorized, and in 1983 we hosted a dinner party for our brothers with AIDS.  Should we throw out the plates after the party, we wondered.  Neither the state of Georgia nor Ronald Reagan were much help.  Local activists and doctors like Rick Hudson and Bernie Short and John Kopchak lobbied the Georgia General Assembly to keep draconian penalties from passing, and Gil Robison became the first openly gay and AIDS lobbyist at the Gold Dome.

 

1986 - In February we made a human chain around the First Baptist Church at 5th and Peachtree to decry Reverend Charles Stanley declaring AIDS "God's judgment against sinners."  Groups like PFLAG lead by Judy Colbs and others became key allies, and ironically AIDS began bringing the LGBT community and the straight community closer, as well as gay men and lesbian women.

 

In October we packed the Atlanta City Council to defeat the repeal of our gay rights ordinance, while the Citizens for Public Awareness railed "Do you want Atlanta turned into another San Francisco?"  But you are Blanche, you are.

 

1987 - In 1986 the Supreme Court upheld Atlantan Michael Hardwick's conviction for sodomy - arrested in his own bedroom, no less - and thus upheld all sodomy statutes in states that still had them.  Such an insult became the catalyst for the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October 1987. 

 

Atlantans Ray Kluka, director of the Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Center, and Maria Helena Dolan were among hundreds arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court in a mass die-in.

 

At the March the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt (headquartered in Atlanta since 2001 under CEO Julie Rhoad) made its national debut, and visitors grieved like people from another culture hugging and sobbing above the panels.  Finally we had an outlet for our agony, and those we loved are enshrined in the world's largest folk art project.

1986 - Spurred by the Supreme Court Hardwick fiasco, Winston Johnson comes out to his dear friend Coretta Scott King and enlists her into actively advocating for LGBT rights, as does her longtime assistant Lynn Cothren. Before she knows it, Ms. King is the keynote speaker at the Human Rights Campaign dinner in New York, and guest of honor at the first Atlanta HRC dinner in 1987.

1988 - Playwright and actress Rebecca Ranson who lead SAME, the Southeastern Arts and Media Education foundation, premieres "Higher Ground" featuring a cast of actors living with HIV at the World Congress Center, in tandem with a display of the Quilt. Ranson also wrote the first play about AIDS, "Warren" about her friend Warren Johnson, which opened at Seven Stages Theatre in 1984.

In March 1988 Ranson and Chris Cash founded Southern Voice, the precursor to Georgia Voice.

1988 - Out of the Democratic National Convention held here, the DNC LGBT caucus steamrolls an Atlanta ACT UP FIGHT AIDS chapter. We picket Circle K gas station for refusing to stock SPIN Magazine with condoms on the cover, and also "die in" at the Governor's mansion.

Richard Rhodes and Melinda Daniels are the first gay man and lesbian woman to be delegates - from Georgia - to the Convention, and Rhodes also is a delegate to the 1992 DNC. For good measure, he and Gil Robison are the first openly gay men to run for office here in 1988 for the Georgia House of Representatives.

Neither win, but now we have an LGBT caucus of five in the Georgia House of Representatives.

1989 - When activist icon Ray Kluka passes from complications of AIDS, a park honors him at Monroe Drive and Greenwood Avenue. Along with the John Howell Park on Virginia Avenue, Ray and John are the only two gay men who have public spaces named for them in Georgia.

As Rebecca Ranson says, everyone does everything they can to help, and our loved ones keep dying. They live in us and we celebrate them.

THE 90S

 

The greatest advance in the 90s is the arrival of protease inhibitors in 1996, making AIDS a chronic condition and not a death sentence.

For me AIDS hit in 1991, when I knew about 25 men who died that year.  After working out at the Colony Square gym, I sat in the atrium often crying uncontrollably, fearing I would lose my mind, although I am HIV negative.

Finally one day I heard a voice, "Dave, you've lost your mind, don't worry about it anymore.  There's no way you can stay sane through this.   Just do what you have to do for those you care for."  Thus I took focus off myself and onto those who needed help.

Drag queens were on our front lines, headlining the bread and butter fundraisers we needed admidst stingy government assistance.  Count Diamond Lil, Bubba D Licious, Charlie Brown, and Greg Troia's Armorettes as our heroic troupers.

Ironically the greater visibility AIDS gave us created a renaissance in the arts.  Actors Express exploded here founded by two gay men Chris Coleman and Harold Leaver, and set a new bar both for theatre excellence and no holds barred depictions of gays and  lesbians (earning the nickname "Actors Undressed" for serious eye candy).

The pinnacle of the Express saw the debut of the musical "The Harvey Milk Show" in 1991 by Atlantans Dan Pruitt and Patrick Hutchison, which later became the showpiece of the Cultural Olympiad during the 1996 Olympic Games here.

The Olympics coincided with a vast and welcoming LGBTQ center at Center Stage Theatre on West Peachtree, overseen by Julie Rhoad, who now runs the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt headquartered here.

At Seven Stages Theatre, playwright Jim Grimsley stoked the burgeoning scene, world premiering his surreal meditations on gay life "Mr. Universe" and "Math and After Math", along with an adaptation of his novel "Dream Boy."

Part time Atlantan Elton John and the homegrown the Indigo Girls perform what seems an impromptu jam in Piedmont Park for our first AIDS walk in 1991.

In 1993 the beleaguered Theatre in the Square in Marietta becomes the flash point for right wing nuts, when TITS stages gay playwright Terrence McNally's "Lips Together Teeth Apart", which only mentions gays in passing.  Still the Cobb County Commission passes a resolution informing gays and lesbians they're "incompatible with the values of Cobb County" (counties have values?!) and cuts off funding for the arts to boot.

Well, Native Atlantan Pat Hussain and her partner in crime Jon Ivan Weaver seriously object and assert that if that's how they feel, no Olympic events should occur in Cobb County.  Creating Olympics Out of Cobb and mobilizing hordes of volunteers, their David defeats the Olympic Goliath, and Cobb is bereft of Olympic glory in 1996.

Tragically following the Olympic Park bombing, fanatic Eric Rudolph targets the lesbian owned The Otherside on February 21, 1997, and although no one dies, the attack gradually puts the Otherside out of business.

A happier ending awaits Queer Nation, when Lynn Cothren and others organize boycotts of Cracker Barrel restaurants, as they fire all their LGBTQ employees, including cook Cheryl Summerville who has no customer contact.  Cheryl ends up on Oprah and featured in the documentary "Out At Work."  Moreover activist Carl Owens organizes our folks to buy small stock in Cracker Barrel and eventually forces them to stop firing us, and get back to work.

After what feels like forever, Cathy Woolard is the first out person elected in Georgia, to the Atlanta City Council in 1997.  In 1999 Kecia Cunningham becomes the first openly lesbian black woman elected to the Decatur City Commission.

In 1995 Presbyterian minister Erin Swenson makes world history when she is the first mainstream minister to transition and keep her ministry,
"for the first time in Christendom" as our enemies would have it.  Coinciding is trans woman Shelley Emerson leading the women's group Fourth Tuesday, and also being the cover girl for Atlanta Magazine in a feature length profile.  You go girls.

Completing a tumultuous decade is Georgia's own Supreme Court, which on November 23, 1998 at last overturns the 156 year old ban on sodomy, in a heterosexual divorce case no less.

Whew.  We'll go even further in the 2000s.

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