The artist who found a home in the LGBTQ community
Artist, professor of drawing and painting, Kennesaw State University
I grew up in Jasper, Alabama, and moved to Atlanta in 1979 when I received a Ford Foundation scholarship to study at the Atlanta College of Art. I lived in Pershing Point from 1979 to 1986. Being a country boy, that was quite a bit to deal with. At the time, the block was anchored by the grand Pershing Point Hotel, which they tore down. I lived in the only house there, and it was full of young gay guys. It was a massive, two-story place with three kitchens. Before we moved in, it had been a recording studio called Sound of the South. A bunch of famous Southern rock albums had been recorded there. Some of us really got into punk rock and moved upstairs. Since the mellow dudes downstairs lived in Sound of the South, we named our floor Noise of the North.
Just being at Pershing Point was a blast. There were tons of music clubs, and you could see bands that would go on to become famous, like the Police, at 688 for $3 admission. The art scene was also blowing wide open. We had the coolest art gallery in Atlanta called the Blue Rat Gallery. I showed my work there all the time.
It was very much a counterculture, Bohemian place, and we loved it because it was made up of LGBT people. There was also a sizable population of little old ladies there, and they were cool. They were really accepting and just terrific.
That first year of being in Atlanta, I was so enchanted that I did not go home for the holidays. It took a whole year before I finally did go back home, and I’ll never forget this: When I was on that bus coming back from Birmingham, we crested the hill right there at Six Flags, and you could see the city skyline. I just broke down and cried.
Most of us were students, and we all came out together during our freshman year. We decided to take a year off and sow some wild oats because we’d come from really conservative places, and we’d landed in a town that was such wonderful fun. Then, we started hearing about that illness in San Francisco that was affecting gay men. We hoped that it was just a quirk and that it was going to stay on the West Coast. But pretty soon, gay guys that we knew right there on the block started coming down with symptoms like Kaposi’s sarcoma. It broke apart our household. Some guys were positive, and some were negative. They call that a serodiscordant household. The razors in the bathroom and all that. It was terrifying.
We are still friends to this day, the ones who are survivors. There are many different ways that AIDS killed. A lot of times, AIDS itself or the opportunistic diseases killed you. But I got to tell you, a lot of my friends just drank themselves to death from survivor’s guilt. Of the 12 to 15 of us who had come out during our freshman year, I think there’s two or three still alive.
The religious right was fueling the problem by saying, Oh, it’s just God’s punishment on gays. Let’s not fund research and treatment. I would encounter them. I was very much an activist. The year before I moved to Atlanta, I came and went to the Gay Pride March. I go to them every year.
Still, we lived under a dome—a sophisticated kind of dome. We weren’t just residents of the city. We wallowed in Atlanta, my friends and I. We really did. I told my friends, “I will never, ever not love Atlanta.”