Way before there was a rainbow crosswalk in Midtown, Atlanta’s LGBTQ+ scene was flourishing. Queer history tends to focus on large cities like New York and San Francisco, but Atlanta’s actually been a haven for queer and trans Southerners since the early 20th century.
Read on for some of Atlanta’s most unique queer history—irrefutable proof that this city is gay as hell.
1. The defendant in an infamous Supreme Court case about sodomy lived on Ponce de Leon Place.
In 1982, 29-year-old Atlanta bartender Michael Hardwick was arrested at his home on Ponce de Leon Place, charged with sodomy after a police officer found him having sex with another man in his bedroom. Hardwick fought the Georgia sodomy law, which outlawed oral sex between couples of any gender. His case ultimately landed at the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1986 sided with the state of Georgia: the constitution did not provide a “fundamental right to homosexuals to engage in acts of consensual sodomy.”
The ruling stoked intense opposition by gay rights groups and civil rights advocates, and was ultimately overturned in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas. After losing the case, Hardwick moved to Miami, where he died in 1991 due to complications from AIDS.
“Michael Hardwick’s life . . . reminds us how tenuous the definition of liberty is,” said Atlanta author Martin Padgett, who is writing a book about Hardwick. Padgett serves on the LGBTQ Historic Preservation Advisory Committee, which in August will install a historic marker at the house where Hardwick was arrested, located on Ponce de Leon Place.
2. The creator of the trans flag lives in Marietta.
Monica Helms grew up in Arizona and served in the Navy as a nuclear submarine machinist mate. After coming out in the late 90s, Helms helped to establish the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) and organized the first group march of transgender veterans to the Vietnam Wall.
In 2000—after meeting Michael Page, the creator of the bisexual flag—Helms was inspired to create one for the transgender community; her design, featuring three stripes of blue, white, and pink, has become an international symbol of trans rights. The flag has no right-side-up, an intentional feature: it signifies, Helms wrote in her 2019 memoir, More Than Just a Flag, “the underlying correctness of trans people’s true self, regardless of the road they take to get there.”
In 2014, Helms donated the original flag to the Smithsonian Museum. She moved to Atlanta in 2000, and now lives in Marietta with her wife.
3. The 1978 gay pride parade was rescheduled to picket anti-gay activist Anita Bryant.
Atlantans had been marching for LGBTQ+ rights since 1970, but in 1977, the movement was turbocharged in response to Anita Bryant’s homophobic Save Our Children campaign. Bryant, the popular Christian singer and well-known face of the Florida orange juice lobby, spearheaded opposition against Miami’s Dade County ordinance prohibiting LGBTQ+ discrimination. Her vitriol gathered a diffuse collection of gay rights activists into an organized movement, and won new allies to the cause: the Southern gay magazine Cruise quipped, “Save Our Children actually may have saved the languishing Gay political movement.”
When the Southern Baptist Convention invited Bryant to speak at its annual convention in Atlanta, pride organizers hastily moved the march two weeks earlier than planned to picket her presence. Thousands of queer people—along with new allies like labor unions and the ACLU of Georgia—rallied on the steps of the Georgia World Congress Center, far more than had ever gathered before. “It was kind of unheard of at the time,” recalled Atlanta-based writer Maria Helena Dolan, who addressed the crowds that day.
“I come here tonight as a defiant dyke,” she began her speech, to thunderous applause. Dolan, who was part of the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance (ALFA), chose the word “dyke” purposefully, a provocative challenge to Bryant’s bigotry. “It’s not what people were saying at the time,” she said. “This was tougher.” Dolan’s speech was broadcast on all the cable networks . . . which is how Dolan’s mother, on the phone with her cousin who was watching the evening news, found out she was gay.
4. James Baldwin had a deep connection with Atlanta
The author and critic James Baldwin, born in Harlem in 1924, occupies a singular place in the American literary pantheon. Black and queer, he wrote from the perspective of the ultimate outsider: “A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already . . . menaced and marked because he’s black,” Baldwin told an interviewer in 1984.
Baldwin first visited Atlanta in 1957 and developed a complex relationship with the city, which for him exemplified the paradoxes and sorrows of the Deep South. Atlanta found its way into several of his written works. Best known is The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985) a slim book on the Atlanta Child Murders, in which Baldwin explores the meaning of a Black child’s murder in a white supremacist society.
Baldwin also included Atlanta as a backdrop in the novel Just Above My Head (1978) a sweeping story of two Harlem-born brothers threaded with some of Baldwin’s personal history. In Atlanta, the brothers are horrified by the depths of Southern racism. But it’s also in Atlanta that one brother spends a romantic evening in bed with a friend: it is, Charles Stephens wrote in Cassius, “one of the best love scenes ever between two Black men.”
5. The Atlanta Eagle, the city’s famous leather bar, was originally the austere 19th-century home of the mayor’s daughter.
Opened in 1988, the Atlanta Eagle was for decades the epicenter of Atlanta’s leather scene, where, as an article in them proclaimed, “young kinksters in their first harnesses flirt with old-school leathermen and leatherwomen.”
Before it was the Eagle, the building housed other iconic clubs stemming back to the early 1980s, like the Celebrity Club, where drag star RuPaul performed, and Renegade’s Saloon. But the Ponce de Leon Ave property’s original provenance stems all the way back to 1889, when Lula Belle Hemphill Quinby, daughter of former Atlanta mayor and Atlanta Constitution founder William A. Hemphill, erected a stately nine-room home with her husband, featuring electricity and a four-car garage. “No prettier or more modern home in the city,” crowed a real estate company when it went up for rent in the early 1900s. According to Gay Atlanta Flashback, the home became the Italian restaurant Capri’s in 1949, finally transforming into a gay hotspot in the 1980s.
The bar shuttered during the Covid pandemic, but last year the city named the building a historic landmark, the first protected LGBTQ+ site in the Deep South. You can still see the original gabled roof in the back of the club; inside, a staircase retains its original, hand-carved newel-posts.
6. RuPaul used to live on Juniper Street
RuPaul, born RuPaul Andre Charles, was born in San Diego but moved to Atlanta in 1975 with his sister, spending time at Northside School of the Performing Arts and performing at area clubs like Colorbox and 688.
RuPaul moved to several apartments during his stint in Atlanta, but for several years in the mid-1980s, he lived in Midtown at 1035 Juniper Street Northeast. His backup dancers, Trade and Spicey, lived in the apartment below.
In 1986, the DIY filmmaker Nelson Sullivan—whose roving everyday footage became emblematic of gritty ’80s joie de vivre—visited RuPaul at 1035 Juniper. The short film, available on Youtube, captures a whiff of Atlanta past: a Midtown, fronded with pine trees, that feels almost provincial, and a superstar talent who was still just a cheeky young thing, smoking a cigarette on his bed in a crop-top.