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Gay Atlanta in Black and White: Coalition Organizing and the Limits of Legal Liberalism

Sat, November 10, 4:00 to 5:45pm, Westin Peachtree, Floor: Seventh, Augusta 2 (Seventh)


Drawing from primary research in special collections at the Atlanta History Center and Georgia State University, this talk examines Atlanta as a case study in grassroots coalitional organizing to address racism and segregation within the gay male community. Local histories of queer politics uniquely matter because, unlike other twentieth century minority equal rights movements, the lesbian and gay movement during its first decades primarily focused on achieving local change rather than federal protections.
Atlanta’s rise as a boom metropolis of the “new South” coincided with the development of gay neighborhoods across the country, and the city has been visible as both the South’s primary gay mecca and African-American mecca. The history of Atlanta’s self-proclaimed liberal politics has been characterized as based upon a “biracial coalition” between white business elite and increasingly black politicians, and locally, even Atlanta’s earliest organized gay liberation groups tended toward working within the system rather than in opposition to it, like in many other cities. Nonetheless, queer organizing has been written out of accounts of local coalition politics that are otherwise attentive to race and class. A counter narrative demonstrates that the patterns of white flight to and population growth in perimeter suburbs effected de facto segregation and the rise of new conservatism after Jim Crow legally ended. This population migration both allowed for a white gay male community to coalesce in the abandoned Midtown neighborhood and arguably allowed for the city to adopt more progressive policies. But white flight also normalized racial separatism within gay venues despite the city’s majority black population. As in many cities, Atlanta’s gay ghetto was white.
In Atlanta, as in virtually every city in the country, white gay male bars’ and nightclubs’ discriminatory policies in admission, service, and employment became sites to recognize and organize against racism and sexism in the gay community at large, from the early 1970s onwards. In Atlanta, the situation came to a head in the early 1980s when a popular Midtown black gay disco closed and its patrons were refused admittance to other local white gay venues. An coalition of local grassroots groups—Black and White Men Together/Atlanta, Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance, Gay Atlanta Minority Association, First Tuesday gay Democratic club, Friends for Lesbian/Gay Outreach, the gay and lesbian caucus of the ACLU of Georgia (nicknamed the “GayCLU”), and later the Atlanta Anti-Discrimination Project—collaborated in documenting discrimination at bars in 1981-82 and in convincing the Atlanta City Council to expeditiously pass the Alcoholic Beverage Antidiscrimination Act in 1983. This predated the city’s more comprehensive antidiscrimination ordinance passed in 1986.
On the one hand, these efforts model the possibilities of coalitional organizing and of working within a liberal political system. On the other, the continued and entrenched racial separatism in gay venues demonstrates the limited efficacy of laws in changing cultures. Black and white gay bars have continued to serve largely distinct clientele despite the integrationist goals of the various coalitions.