Real Queer America author Samantha Allen on why Atlanta is the best city in the country for the LGBTQ community

In this book excerpt and Q&A, trans journalist Samantha Allen explains how she discovered what many transplants find here—you don’t have to be a native to call yourself an Atlantan

Trans journalist Samantha Allen

Illustration by James lee Chiahan

Samantha Allen was born in California, grew up in New Jersey, and has lived in Utah, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, and now Washington. But, in many ways, she considers Atlanta home—not least because it was during her five years here, while earning a PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University, that she transitioned from being a conflicted young man into the self-assured woman who was always hiding inside. Once a tie-clad Mormon missionary, she is now a senior reporter for the Daily Beast covering LGBT issues—and one who bristles at thoughtless criticism of “flyover country,” the very region that birthed her true identity. In her new book, Real Queer America, Allen takes a six-week road trip to retrace her journey through red states, introducing readers to dozens of Southern “warriors”—from bartenders to nurses to teachers—who welcome all comers. As she writes, “if the dominant LGBT narrative of the 20th century was a gay boy in the country buying a one-way bus ticket to the Big Apple, the untold story of the 21st is the queer girl in Tennessee who stays put.”

Excerpt from Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States
(Little, Brown and Company)

Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States
Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States

Before Atlanta was Atlanta, it went by the nickname Terminus because it fell at the end of the railroad line. For me, this city is still a place of endings. This is where I left Michelle [my ex-girlfriend]. This is where I laid my life before transition to rest. It is where I heard my former name for the last time, got called “sir” for the last time, wore boxer shorts for the last time. And then, like so many people who move to this Southern capital, I moved away as soon as my obligations here were over. In 2007, a New York Times travel writer called the ATL (to use its airport code) “a city so transient it barely recognizes itself,” and although there is an increasing sense today that Atlanta is establishing its own identity, it is still full of people who are just passing through.

Yet Atlanta remains, somehow, my best answer at the moment to the impossible question: “Where are you from?” Born in California, raised in New Jersey, educated in Utah and Georgia, living in Florida, I have no concise way of responding to that frequent small-talk question. I’m no army brat, but I haven’t stayed anywhere long enough to put down the kind of roots that truly tie you down. So, for lack of a better answer, I just say that I’m from Atlanta and deal with the fact that it feels like a lie. I think I covet permanence.

This entire time that I have been gathering the stories of the people who stayed in the places I left behind, I have been trying to answer a personal question, too: Why didn’t I stay? Why don’t I stay now? For six weeks, I have traveled the country meeting queer people who pour their whole lives into a place, be it Provo or Houston, Bloomington or Jackson. I have felt almost parasitic, like a transsexual vampire feeding off attachments to homes that I wish were my own. At many points along the way, I have wanted to unpack my suitcase and integrate myself into their routines. But that wouldn’t feel right, either. None of those places is mine.

Atlanta’s not really mine, either, but Atlanta isn’t picky: It allows almost anyone to adopt it.

I still remember the first time I checked out of a grocery store after moving to the South from New Jersey. The cashier asked me, “How are you doing tonight?”—and it sounded like she actually wanted to know. After years of Northeastern brusqueness, I was instantly suspicious. Why did it matter how I was doing? What did she want from me? But within a few weeks, “y’all” had become part of my vocabulary, I had adapted to the niceness, and I never looked back.

On the evening of August 15, one month and five days after I first picked Billy [friend and traveling companion] up in Salt Lake City, we drive over a crest on I-20 East and see the ever-expanding Atlanta skyline in the distance. I feel less like I’m driving home and more like I’m rushing to meet an old friend—an old friend made out of concrete and megachurches and river birch trees. Our first stop is a Publix supermarket, where we pick up a couple of the legendary chicken- finger subs for dinner along with an obligatory case of Diet Coke—or, as it probably ought to be called in Georgia, “water.”

I can say I’m “from” Atlanta only in the sense that I am deeply familiar with and fond of its cultural amenities: the indulgent food, the slower pace of life, the unseasonable warmth. This city is a gateway drug that will get you addicted to the South. The longer you stay here, the more you want to flip the map of the United States upside down—half out of love for Georgia, half out of spite for New York. But although I have deep affection for Atlanta, I could never call it home. Set aside the fact that my childhood was spent elsewhere; when you’re transgender, the city or town in which you transitioned can feel strangely impermanent.

Dohyun Ahn has made Atlanta home. Over a tray full of Chinese pastries at a notoriously yummy bakery called Sweet Hut on Buford Highway—a stretch of road in northeast Atlanta renowned for its nondescript strip malls full of affordable international cuisine—my old friend from Emory tells me that he thinks of himself as part of a “New South,” a region “that’s younger, that’s more queer [and] has more people of color.”

“I’m an immigrant and so my heritage, my roots, are in a different country, but I’ve really adopted Atlanta and the South as my home,” he tells me, as I take a bite out of the savory green onion roll I have been waiting this entire trip to eat. “And I have taken up that kind of different heritage: I absolutely identify as a Southerner, I love being a Southerner, and I love the South.”

If you were openly LGBT at Emory between the years of 2010 and 2014, you knew Dohyun Ahn’s name. As an undergraduate, he had a resume that made a schlubby graduate student like me feel even schlubbier. A Korean immigrant, Dohyun has been doing LGBT-related work since at least 2009, when he created a Gay-Straight Alliance at his high school in nearby Marietta despite pushback from the administration. When he came to Emory, he founded the Queer and Asian discussion group—a group that placed heavy emphasis on confidentiality so that participants could keep their families from discovering their queerness.

“Atlanta’s not really mine, either, but Atlanta isn’t picky: It allows almost anyone to adopt it.”

As Dohyun tells me now over our pastries, he created the group to address the specificity of queer Asian experience: “There’s just so few of us out there, and we are all sort of scattered, and half of us are in the closet, and we come from a culture that is very homophobic.”

Now, post-college and post–graduate school, Dohyun works as a bakery clerk at a Publix while volunteering with the small but fierce LGBT activist organization Southerners on New Ground.

“Southerners need to band together,” he says. “People who see themselves as part of this New South need to band together and pool our money and put it to [use] where we are—put it to use in the South. That’s where the grassroots has to come in because we are not really getting help from people in Washington, D.C. and New York and San Francisco. We have to do the work ourselves.”

And Georgia still needs a lot of help. With no statewide nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people and huge hurdles standing in the way of transgender people who wish to update their ID documents, the LGBT population here has a target on its back. Every year, it seems, the Republican-dominated legislature threatens to pass an anti-LGBT law and then, like clockwork, they fail to pass it—presumably because they don’t want to risk losing revenue from sporting events or from the state’s exponentially growing film industry.

In places like New York, “maybe you can go outside and run into a queer person constantly, but how much of a community of support is there?” Dohyun asks, adding that “another reason I love the South” is because “our communities are so tight,” with especially “few degrees of separation for queer people in Atlanta.”

According to a 2015 estimate, about 4.2 percent of metro Atlanta’s population is LGBT—and if you befriend one of the people in that 4.2 percent, you will soon meet seemingly all of them. I can’t count the number of conversations I have had with LGBT people in Atlanta that eventually end in all parties discovering their list of mutual friends. Queerness turns the ninth-largest metropolitan area in the country into a small town. And Dohyun is seeing little signs that more people are deciding to stick around.

He remembers hearing his high school friends promise that they were “getting out of Georgia as fast as we can and going as far away as possible for college.”

“I see kind of less of that now,” he says. “Lately Atlantans just want to stay in Atlanta and put down roots here.”

A surprising number of the people I knew in graduate school decided to plant roots here, too. They stopped running and made Atlanta their home. One woman in my cohort bought a house here. Another got a teaching job nearby. A third found a job at Emory instead of going back to Canada. So why didn’t I stay?

The Atlanta of 2017 is—to quote Janis from Mean Girls—“almost too gay to function.”

The thought occurs to me as Billy and I walk over the crosswalk at 10th and Piedmont, which has been painted in the colors of the Rainbow Pride flag since I moved away. The orange stripe on the asphalt matches the color of Billy’s shirt to a T. Understandably, the intersection has become an Instagram sensation. The secret has gotten out, it seems, that Atlanta is super queer. (Now if only people would stop calling it “Hotlanta.”)

In the days that Billy and I spend here, eating breakfast with Bea and Arthur [their host’s new puppies] in the morning and then braving the infamously bad traffic to meet LGBT people, I can almost picture coming back on a more permanent basis. It doesn’t hurt that I’m experiencing the greatest-hits version of the city, seeing only people I cherish. I visit Faughn Adams, the therapist who helped me through transition in 2012—and she hugs me before telling me all about her motorcycle adventures through the South. I have brunch with Kayley Scruggs at a Creole-Vietnamese fusion restaurant—a combination that can be found only in an international Southern city like this one.

But my favorite Atlanta meal is a trip to the Marietta Diner with Monica Helms, the charming navy veteran who created the Transgender Pride flag in 1999. After weeks of watching the Food Network, I take comfort in knowing that we are eating at a Guy Fieri–approved restaurant, complete with chrome-colored exterior, neon sign, and plush booths that instantly transport me back to New Jersey. Over sandwiches and chicken fingers, sweet tea, and Diet Coke, she tells us tales from her time in the military, about flying kites from the top of submarines in the Bahamas and reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy on her long tours of duty.

I knew that I was hopelessly in love with this woman when I called her once to interview her for an article and we ended up talking about how much cohesion there is among LGBT people in the South compared with coastal, LGBT-friendly metropolises.

“A lot of these places like New York and L.A. and San Francisco and Chicago—in these places, when the community came up, they came up a lot earlier than here in the South, in Atlanta,” she told me, referring to the historic trend of gay men and lesbians getting acceptance first while leaving transgender people behind—or, worse, throwing them under the bus.

“When the community started becoming visible here in Atlanta,” Monica went on, “everybody came out together. Trans people were included right off the bat.”

Queer life in Atlanta is still as amazing as ever thanks to that unity. But I also recognize the dangers inherent in becoming a nationally renowned LGBT metropolis. To progressive advocates living in other parts of the South, Atlanta is starting to develop some of the same problems that I complain about in New York or San Francisco: a rapidly rising cost of living, a certain complacency creeping in at the edges. Back in Austin, my friend Michelle Colon—a veteran reproductive-justice activist and LGBT ally who has since returned to her home in Mississippi—had reminded me, “Not everybody can move to Atlanta.”

She lives for the fight—and to her, Atlanta would almost be too easy. “Why would I want to be somewhere where I know I’m going to win?” she asked me. “That doesn’t make one a warrior.”

That’s not to say there are no progressive causes left to champion in Atlanta. There are still so many battles to be fought in this city—battles that require you to look beneath the city’s increasingly glossy, LGBT-friendly surface.

Indeed, the glossy surface is part of the problem. The city is gentrifying—and fast—displacing black residents, making it harder for queer people of color and low-income queer people to get a foothold here. An estimated 28.2 percent of the homeless youth in the Atlanta metro area, as the Georgia Voice reported, are LGBT.

“They are discriminated against in other shelters,” Brittany Garner, a social worker with the LGBT youth homeless organization Lost-n-Found Youth, explains to me at their drop-in center one afternoon. Before Lost-n-Found began serving them five years ago, she notes, there was no shelter in the city where openly transgender people could get beds.

If this description sounds eerily familiar—a gentrifying city whose cosmopolitan and gay-friendly Midtown papers over problems such as poverty and homelessness—that’s because so many major LGBT-friendly metropolises in this country fit the same bill. And Atlanta, despite its many pleasures—perhaps even because of them—risks becoming too much like them. I can joke that Atlanta is now “too gay to function,” but the hard reality is that it could one day be a Southern San Francisco, with skyrocketing income inequality and all its attendant problems.

I hope that Atlanta can dodge that outcome. That it can hang on to the spirit of unity that allowed the LGBT community here to rise up together. That it will remain a city of warriors. That it won’t stop working on issues affecting transgender women and queer people of color just because there are now gay-friendly brunch spots all over Midtown—and a rainbow crosswalk connecting them.

I love Atlanta, but I worry about Atlanta. I worry about it for the sake of the people who don’t just drop in like me to see friends, but who are living here, watching it grow around them, and hoping that it doesn’t lose itself.

Trans journalist Samantha Allen

Portrait courtesy of Samantha Allen, illustration by James lee Chiahan

Q&A with Samantha Allen

How did you come up with the idea for your road trip?
After the 2016 election, I was pretty disappointed with some of the rhetoric that I saw about red states. Whether it was calls for California to secede from the union or people blaming the election on red states, I just found it really unfair. Frankly, a little ugly and misguided. I knew from my time living in Georgia and in Florida that red states are full of amazing people who care about equality, LGBT rights, and civil rights more broadly. I wanted to go back for personal reasons and also to report on the people who are staying in these places and changing them from within.

What does the mainstream media miss when they’re covering LGBT culture in the South?
The short answer is: a lot. Because so much of mainstream media is based in New York and D.C., a lot of the reporting is done from the phones at their desks. When you do that, you’re often just sourcing from local reporting. And, as we know, local reporting is on the decline across the United States in a really terrifying way. I also think that mainstream media has a tendency to focus on either regressive laws proposed in state legislatures or heartwarming human interest stories. It’s either the gay prom king or the bathroom bill. What you’re missing is the granular, lived experience of LGBT people in these states. Millions of LGBT people. You’re missing stories about the hard work of change, about organizations that are working on issues like LGBT homelessness or LGBT youth suicide or transgender nondiscrimination.

“Trying to stop LGBT rights from advancing at this point is like trying to plug a hole in a dam with your pinky.”

You write that Atlanta is the best place in the country to be gay or bi or trans. That’s a big statement. Why do you think that?
The [queer] community in Atlanta is really warm and welcoming. As a transgender woman myself, I have been in places that are stereotypically thought of as more liberal and progressive, where I feel more division within the LGBT community. In Atlanta—and many people told me this—the community had to come up together and fight the same restrictive policies together. I feel a bit more cohesion in a place like Atlanta than I would in New York.

So, as you write about Atlanta, “I’ve felt so much more adhesiveness between the L and the G and the B and the T?”
Yes. In a state like Massachusetts that legalized same-sex marriage early on, you see more apathy now about LGBT rights. You see people who falsely assume that the fight is over. Queer people in Atlanta don’t take our rights for granted because we have to fight for each and every piece. There’s humility and an openness that I think come from that.

What about race relations? The black gay community, the white gay community, other people of color, how do you think they interact here?
You know, as much as I love the queer community in Atlanta, it’s not paradise. I think large racial and class divisions still persist. Atlanta is definitely a city where you see a lot of gentrification, a lot of de facto segregation. Unfortunately, that does carry over into the LGBT community.

Your book strikes an optimistic tone. With Georgia’s new governor having expressed support for religious liberty legislation, some fear that laws are going to be less open in the future. But you seem confident that LGBT rights will eventually win out—that you’re on the winning side of history. What gives you that confidence?
Trying to stop LGBT rights from advancing at this point is like trying to plug a hole in a dam with your pinky. LGBT people are going to continue being born. We’re going to continue coming out. We know that millennials are the most openly LGBT generation in history [74 percent support same sex marriage]. I just think from a broad, top-down perspective, [demographics] are going to transform the entire country. It’s not going to be overnight. There are still going to be setbacks. But there is no stopping it in the long run. When Gen Z is running the world, it will seem really silly that someone was ever afraid to be out in Georgia.

This article appears in our April 2019 issue.