Coming of age in the era of Stonewall gave Knoxville native Greg Heagerty a certain vantage point on the notion of gay pride. The sixty-five-year-old part-time doorman at Blake’s has watched the ups and downs of Atlanta’s gay nightlife scene through the seventies’ liberation era and into the present day.
What does gay pride mean to you? Being a doorman for the last ten years, I’m afraid that gay pride to most people means that it’s a Saint Patrick’s Day kind of experience where everybody can get as drunk as they possibly can, but that’s not, of course, what gay pride means to me. It means that everyone has the same kind of privileges and rights that anyone else does. That’s what gay pride means to me. It doesn’t mean anything special for gay people themselves, just that they’re part of the entire rights movement that emerged in the United States after World War II. I think gay pride mainly is almost like a corporate event now, rather than some kind of cultural movement.
What was the first gay pride celebration in Atlanta like? It was pretty much about forty or fifty people that marched several blocks from Downtown toward the Piedmont Park area, and it was a curiosity. There was no hostility, or any of that kind of thing, and there’s some hostility now—from organized religious groups—but back then, there wasn’t; it was more of a curiosity than anything else.
What do you consider the ideal pride celebration? An ideal pride celebration for me would have various aspects to it. It wouldn’t just be a parade. It wouldn’t just be making sure that you get to the bar. There should be more discussion about the cultural aspects of it and handling it in a way that’s a little more sober, so to speak.
Why are bars still so important to the gay social world? For gay people, bars were their original community centers. There’s something funny that the epicenter of gay culture for a long time has been bars. But that’s because it wasn’t churches, and there weren’t other cultural institutions outside bars that welcomed gay people. There’s something that’s all right about celebrating in bars and doing all that. I think heterosexual people, as they grow older, grow out of their early bar experience, but gay people don’t—a lot of gay people don’t; I shouldn’t say that [all] gay people don’t because, of course, some people do—but it’s because they’ve held an esteemed place in gay culture, and that, of course, is because being gay was always such a secret thing that bars were the only place where people could open up and be who they were, and that’s why the gay bar has such a special place in gay culture.
How has gay nightlife in Atlanta evolved, decade by decade? Since it’s in a bar context—or a club context—a lot of it has to do with a difference in music and so forth. But at the beginning, in the 1970s—even as late as the 1970s—bars in Atlanta were still . . . The term for it is raided, but it’s not really raided; it’s like the police showing their presence by coming into a bar in full uniform. I remember that happening quite a bit the first ten years that I lived in Atlanta. Two police officers in uniform would come through a bar and just patrol through, and it was just an intimidation factor; it wasn’t friendly, but it wasn’t necessarily super-hostile. It was just a “We just want to let you all know where you stand,” and everybody understood where they stood. And of course the gay pride movement, or the gay liberation movement, changed a lot of that. Stonewall had everything to do with that, where people were no longer intimidated when the police came in. The stare-down was two ways. [Laughs.] By the eighties, the disco movement began in music, and the bars really exploded all over the country by then. It became much more dance-club-oriented, and that lasted for ten, fifteen years, strongly, where that was it—the Backstreet club being the center of the bar scene in Atlanta. As far as entertainments, like drag shows, that’s gone through cycles in Atlanta, where there would be large show bars, like there were on Peachtree Street, that were exclusively almost like Las Vegas venues, to there being none of that at all in some bars, and then maybe once a week, and now Atlanta is back in the cycle where the two largest of what I call cruise bars, Burkhart’s and Blake’s, have shows five, six, seven nights a week. But that cycle will change, too, and it’ll go out of that back into other kinds of entertainment. The bars, the drag scene, the show bars, and all that went downhill or went through its low cycle from the late eighties through the nineties, and then just slowly started coming back up in the last six, seven years.
What was your favorite decade? The music was fun in the eighties, but the eighties were pretty drug-ridden, for recreational drugs. And of course there were drugs in the seventies, especially pot and hallucinogens, but the seventies were more exciting because there was kind of an edge of dangerousness. No one was sure that the gay liberation movement would win out, so you weren’t really sure what was going to happen from officialdom, and there was a little bit of bravado about being open with somebody in public and all that, so I think the seventies were more exciting.
What was it like at Backstreet, that famous twenty-four-hour club, which closed in 2004? The pros, of course: It had an incredible vibe to it; it was very entertaining; lots of people; the music was always on the edge. It had that great energy and all of that. It was a twenty-four-hour bar. I guess the part that was the negative about it was that there was just no control whatsoever. There was a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of drugs. There are bars that are drug bars that are seedy, and you can tell from a thousand feet away that it’s seedy before you get to the door. Backstreet wasn’t like that; there was a glamour to it, but it still had that element involved. A lot of sad stories coming out of Backstreet in that regard. But it was an exciting, exciting place, and it was kind of a little feather for Atlanta because people came from more than just the Southeast to attend that bar. Jungle probably comes the closest to repeating that. Jungle has that vibe more than any other bar right now. I wouldn’t say that it’s comparable, to the same level of Backstreet, but it’s probably the closest to that atmosphere.
How would you describe the current gay scene? The generation that was probably formed by Stonewall is now quite a bit older, so the gay scene in Atlanta is a little more staid in that regard, a little calmer. There is still a drug element to it, but it’s a totally different kind of situation altogether. The bars have become calmer.
Why is the bar scene going through a down period? There used to be a lot more gay bars than there are now, and that’s true in a lot of cities, but I understand from other people around the country that it’s even stronger in Atlanta—that there are less bar venues now than ever before. The phenomenon that’s mentioned the most is about the Internet, is about people networking on the Internet. People generally, as they grow older, prefer not to live in bars their whole life—except, it seems, in the gay community. So that’s given gay people an opportunity to be like everybody else in the sense of not having to go to the bar all the time. The bar scene has gone through a down cycle for about ten years. There are still three or four really strong bars in Atlanta, but there have been times in Atlanta where there were maybe as many as twenty bars.
What are the positive aspects of the current gay scene? Even though the number of clubs has diminished, everyone has a choice of different kind of activities that they’d like to do. You can go to a bar that’s exclusively not vanilla, like a denim dance bar like the Heretic, where you put on jeans and a T-shirt and go dance. Or you can dress up like [Studio] 54 and go to Jungle. Or you can just relax and go to any other number of bars, and it’s conversational and all that. The bar scene, although it’s smaller, is very diverse.
Why do straight people attend gay bars? Part of it is the entertainment value, but when I talk to a lot of straight guys that come to the bar, and I’m asking them why they’re there, they’re saying, “Because there’s no competition from other men for the straight women that are here.” It’s become de rigueur entertainment if you’re in a bridal party or if you want a crazy weekend to go to the gay bar and watch the drag show, and you relax, not being in your normal milieu. I would say the influx of straight people has been a pretty big phenomenon in gay bars. It’s not that they’re the majority or anything like that, but their presence is very noticeable, and it’s friendly. And I think that’s also a residue of liberation, is that not only are gay people liberated to act who they are, but people who are not gay are liberated to accept them or not accept them as they please, and not worry about what anyone else has to think about it.
What is the appeal of gay clubs to straight women? There are three stages that straight women go through when they come to a gay bar. The first one is when they come to the door, they say, “I’m looking forward to coming here because I know no one will hit on me.” And then they come into the bar and they have a couple of cocktails and they get a little peeved because they say, “Nobody’s hitting on me.” Then they start watching the drag show, which was the entertainment hook that brought them into the bar in the first place, and after they watch it for a while, their ego comes into it and they start saying, “Well, I’m more of a woman than she is,” and we always have to tell them, “Well, you are a woman; she’s not.” They experience more self-esteem when they’re in a gay bar, for some strange reason.
What do you think the future will hold for the gay scene? I think people will become more independent-minded. The sense of community will never go away, but the sense of community will be lessened, and I think it’s that way in our culture in general. All you have to do is follow politics, and follow shock-jock radio, and how we’re polarized against each other so much. Not only does that go on—let’s say gay and straight or all the politicians that talk incessantly about homosexuality taking over and all that “them versus us” versus sort of thing—that also goes on within the gay community. There’s racism in the gay community, there’s bigotry, there’s alienation from each other, ageism, all of those things. So I have a kind of negative feeling in the sense that as we become more independent from each other that it lessens the sense of community; I think there will always be a presence of community in the gay world. I think it’s lessening.
What trends do you hope gay clubs will embrace in the future? The thing that I hear people talk about the most that they would like to see are clubs that are complexes that have all different sorts of things going on. I think that’s the future for gay clubs, clubs that are complexes and can offer different kinds of entertainment. Because [gay clubs] go through cycles where they’ll do all karaoke and people get tired of that and they go to other clubs, so then they’ll do drag, and I think clubs get tired of chasing down a fad, and the future would probably be for clubs that offer a lot of different activities, like a community center, which I guess is how they started.
Photograph by Caroline Kilgore