Why Southern Voice, Atlanta’s LGBTQ+ newspaper, meant so much

Co-founder Chris Cash recalls why she founded Southern Voice, and why having an independent queer news outlet remains imperative in 2020.

Southern Voice Atlanta
An issue from 1993

Photograph courtesy of Chris Cash

Editor’s Note from Richard L. Eldredge, Atlanta Pride October issue guest editor: Prior to writing for Atlanta magazine, some of my first Atlanta bylines appeared in the independent LGBTQ+ weekly newspaper, Southern Voice. The newspaper’s founder, Christina Cash, taught me first-hand the importance of queer people using their authority and expertise to cover their own community in ways the mainstream press didn’t often have access. When SoVo unexpectedly shut down the fall of 2009—long after she had sold SoVo and moved to Texas, and I was exiting the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as the big city daily shed hundreds of reporters—I wrote her an impassioned email. In the aftermath of the Atlanta Eagle raid, I remembered her lessons about the importance of us covering our community. Along with a small chorus of others, Chris Cash listened and started a new little sister LGBTQ+ news outlet for the entire state, Georgia Voice. In this digital exclusive for Atlanta readers, Chris recalls why she founded Southern Voice, and why having an independent queer news outlet remains imperative in 2020.

On October 11, 1994, AIDS activist John Kappers died in his own bed in Little Five Points surrounded by his partner and a few close friends. Although he had slipped into a coma, I whispered in his ear, “John, do you know what today is? It’s National Coming Out Day!”

Of course, he knew what day it was. John didn’t just know LGBTQ+ history, he lived it. And he is one of hundreds of Atlantans in the 1980’s and 90’s who dedicated their lives, whether short or long, to the belief that all people were equal and deserved to be treated as such by the government, their families, and all of society. It was not just an idealistic stance; it was a radical and often dangerous one. John did it anyway.

Southern Voice Atlanta
This 1994 issue paid tribute to John Kappers

Photograph courtesy of Chris Cash

Six years before John’s death, in 1988, National Coming Out Day was celebrated for the first time. That same year, the first issue of Southern Voice fell into the hands of a few thousand LGBTQ+ Atlantans. I launched the newspaper with the help of a few volunteers who were so excited to be a part of history that they worked without pay and without recognition other than their names in the staff box or on a byline. We had little money, only a small corner in the office of a nonprofit arts organization, no fax machine, and no telephone number of our own. Somehow, we managed to sell enough ads, to just enough brave business owners, to cover the printing bill for that first issue on March 1. I had no idea if we could afford a second issue. But again, and time and time again, the money showed up. Within eighteen months, we had our own office, our own fax machine, and a few staffers were able to be paid.

By the time we sold the paper in 1997, we were a well-paid staff of 12, owned a building, our weekly press run was 25,000, and our revenue was just shy of a million. How? How was that possible? Simple. The community needed the paper; they demanded a voice of their own. At our inception, we established a few inviolable rules: focus on the news and not bar events; equally balance the coverage and images of men and women; limit advertising of a sexual nature, and have a cover that LGBTQ+ Atlantans would feel comfortable reading on MARTA. In other words, a newspaper they could be proud of and even take home to Mama.

Southern Voice was born from my personal need to take action against the system that deemed my then partner as an “unfit” mother because she was a lesbian. We lost custody of our son in 1987 and it would take nine years before he returned to us. When he was old enough to choose where he wanted to live, he chose us. During his visits before his return, he loved to go to Pride. I have photos of him proudly displaying his SoVo T-shirt. And I have photos of him and John at the beach when we vacationed together. He was devastated by John’s death. Maybe that is one of the reasons that now, as a grown man with children of his own, he remains an advocate for all people who are not treated fairly.

When he came home, a surly teenager, we had to make a choice. As it had for almost a decade, SoVo demanded all of our time and we needed that time to knit our family back together and give our son the attention he needed. A few months into his return, we were approached by a group of lawyers to gauge our interest in selling the paper to them. It took many months of soul-searching and weighing the pros and cons to decide what to do. I wished that John had been alive so we could talk to him. But, I think I knew what he would say. We opted to give our energy to our son and agreed to sell.

The company that bought SoVo also bought other LGBTQ+ newspapers—the Washington Blade was the best among them. Their goal was to establish a profitable chain of LGBTQ+ papers. We didn’t know that when we sold. We also didn’t know they would never ask us one question or seek our advice on how we managed to be so “successful.” It turns out that our definitions of “success” were quite different. In 2009, with no warning to staff, they declared bankruptcy and left only a note on SoVo’s front door announcing the paper was closed.

I reached out to two people that day—Laura Douglas-Brown, who I had hired as an intern and who was editor when SoVo closed, and Tim Boyd—John Kapper’s partner and the smartest businessman I have ever known. We launched GA Voice in March 2010 and used the same philosophy as SoVo’s. GAVO just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

If I had the space here, I would name every volunteer, staff member, advertiser, and investor of both papers. They are why Atlanta still has a LGBTQ+ newspaper. And on National Coming Out Day every October 11, they are who I celebrate—and John, most of all.

Chris Cash co-founded the LGBTQ+ newspaper Southern Voice in 1988. In 2010, she helped to launch Georgia Voice. She now lives in Tampa and is working on a book of Southern historical fiction about the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906.