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Atlanta remains a hotspot for new AIDS/HIV cases

AIDS in Georgia

For years, Georgia has been near the top of states with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS cases. In parts of Atlanta and the metro region, rates are as much as eight times the national average, and researchers say they rival levels found in some developing countries.

How did metro Atlanta become an epicenter of the HIV/AIDS epidemic?
Blame poverty, lack of health insurance, inadequate sex education, and stigma—particularly for young LGBTQ+ people who are shunned by their families and end up on the street. These problems exist in many urban areas; however, Atlanta is also majority Black, and the virus is disproportionately affecting Black people—especially young Black men who have sex with men. According to AIDSvu, a database produced in partnership with Emory University, the rate of Black men living with HIV in Atlanta is five times that of white men. For Black women, it’s 15 times greater.

Why is there such a disparity in infection rates?
According to a 2014 Emory University study that focused on metro Atlanta, young Black and young Hispanic men who have sex with men don’t have more sexual partners and don’t engage in riskier sex. However, they are more likely to live in poverty, have poor health literacy, not have health insurance, and lack access to condoms or medication that can prevent the onset of infection after possible exposure to HIV. “When you see something that’s persistent for this long, it’s not about individuals,” says Aaron Siegler, an associate professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “It’s about the system.”

What can be done?
To prevent new cases, Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties offer routine HIV testing at health clinic locations and encourage clients to begin preexposure prophylaxis. Commonly called PrEP, the daily pill regimen reduces the risk of HIV transmission by 99 percent when used correctly. According to a recent study conducted by Siegler and his colleagues, states that expanded Medicaid and provide financial assistance for PrEP had a 90 percent higher participation rate than those that didn’t. Georgia Republicans, however, have thus far resisted extending the federal healthcare program to more people living on low incomes.

I’ve heard PrEP is successful, especially in other cities like San Francisco.
According to several studies, more than half of gay and bisexual men in San Francisco take PrEP, and between 2013 (the year after the medicine was approved for use) and 2016, new infections dropped by 43 percent. But that’s partly because San Francisco has made PrEP a fundamental part of its HIV strategy and showed support by funding “navigators” who connect people with low- or no-cost assistance or even offer funding assistance themselves. AID Atlanta and county health departments offer navigation services, but the more resources local governments and nonprofits can provide—not to mention leadership in ending the stigma around seeking care—the better. “We have the tools at our disposal,” says Siegler. “And the question is, do we have the will to bring them to bear?

This article appears in our October 2020 issue.

A road trip along Georgia’s coast invites travelers to take a walk on the wild side

Coastal Georgia road trip map

Illustration by Steven Stankiewicz

Georgia’s coast has long called to visitors with its rich cultural history and world-class hospitality. From the nation’s first planned city, Savannah, known for its lush public squares and centuries-old structures; to Jekyll Island, once an enclave for America’s Gilded Age elite; to Sea Island, the only resort in the world to receive four Forbes Five Star ratings twelve years running, many of the state’s coastal destinations may well be regarded as wholly civilized. But there’s another side, a wilder side, to this 110-mile stretch of coastline and its fifteen barrier islands, which holds its own timeless appeal.

Forests of pine and magnolia, live oak and cabbage palm roll up to sweeping salt marshes bright-green with cordgrass and cut through by tidal creeks. These enchanting landscapes, along with miles of dunes and beaches, are home to an astonishing diversity of life—from hermit crabs and alligators to wild horses and armadillos. More than 300 species of birds flock to the area—migrating songbirds, wintering waterfowl, even nesting egrets and wood storks—making it a birder’s paradise. In addition to exploring the varied ecosystems and spying native wildlife, visitors to coastal Georgia will discover a bison ranch, a sea turtle hospital, and a renowned jewelry store selling wildlife-inspired pieces such as shark vertebrae necklaces and rattlesnake rib bangles.

Tybee Beach Ecology Trips

Courtesy of Tybee Beach Ecology Trips

Tybee Beach Ecology Trips
Throughout his tenure as a professor of marine biology at Savannah State University, Dr. Joe Richardson helped local schoolteachers plan and lead field trips to the beaches of Tybee Island. When he retired a decade ago, he found himself in increasing demand as a guide. Today, he leads groups of twenty or so on walks along Tybee’s North Beach at low tide in search of live animals like sea anemones and crabs. He also nets fish and sometimes stumbles upon sea cucumbers, soft coral, and starfish that have been washed onto the beach. After the two-hour-plus tour, all animals, including the occasional stingray or squid, are released where they were found.

A cougar at Oatland Island Wildlife Center

Courtesy of Oatland Island Wildlife Center

Oatland Island Wildlife Center
For forty-six years this center just east of Savannah has been connecting visitors to the natural world. More than fifty species, most native to coastal Georgia, live on the center’s 175 acres. A two-mile nature trail, which moves through maritime forest, freshwater wetlands, and salt marsh, winds past the habitats of cougars, bobcats, alligators, and foxes. Dominating the campus is the sprawling red-brick Conductor’s Home. Built in 1927 by the Order of Railway Conductors as a retirement home for its members, it houses the visitor center, classrooms, a veterinary clinic, and the gift shop.

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is known for having a staggering range of birds

Courtesy of Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge
The history of this national refuge near Townsend is arguably as diverse as the wildlife that call it home. The land was the site of Guale Indian villages for two centuries, a Sea Island cotton plantation for decades, and a training facility for fighter pilots during World War II. Since 1962, it’s been a protected habitat for hundreds of species, most notably a staggering range of birds. In fall and spring, hundreds of thousands of songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl pass through on their annual migrations along the Atlantic Flyway. During the winter, ducks congregate in the marshes and ponds. And summer sees colonies of wood storks and other wading birds nesting in the refuge, as well as painted buntings that also come for breeding season.

Iron Bison Ranch

Courtesy of Iron Bison Ranch

Iron Bison Ranch
According to ranch owners Brian and Amy Maddern, buffalo roamed parts of Georgia as recently as 1911, when the last wild herd was eliminated in one fateful hunt. Learn about the one-ton American icon as well as the growing bison ranching industry on a guided tour of this Townsend attraction. From raised observation decks along the fence line, visitors can watch the herd of twenty-three and feed apples to some of the more outgoing animals, including the stud, Number 5, and Bernie and Ernie, a couple of high-spirited juveniles. Stop in at the general store for branded T-shirts and packages of buffalo meat.  

Open Gates Bed and Breakfast

Photo by Laurie Poole

Open Gates Bed and Breakfast
Zach Rath honed his hospitality skills as a chef on small cruise ships and private yachts. His wife, Carrie, learned the ropes of running a business in the property management industry. Together, they transformed a circa-1876 mansion built by a timber baron (whose spirit is rumored to linger) into Darien’s premier historic inn. Large guest rooms with soaring ceilings and the tranquil cedar-paneled library, perfect for reading or playing cards, are major draws, but breakfast is the main event. With a bit of luck (or a request), you’ll enjoy Zach’s award-winning mascarpone-stuffed crepes topped with fresh fruit and whipped cream.

Skippers’ Fish Camp
As you’d expect in a historic port town turned fishing village known for its Georgia wild shrimp, Darien is home to a standout seafood restaurant. Skippers’ sits on the banks of the Darien River, just steps from the docks where the local shrimp fleet brings in its daily catch. Start with a bottle of beer and a pound of peel-and-eat shrimp, then move on to the crispy, fresh-caught flounder with homemade onion rings and collard greens. Settle in for sunset views over Key lime pie or peach cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream.

Lady Jane Shrimpin’ Excursions
Following an exhaustive refurbishment, this retired commercial shrimping trawler got new life taking passengers on ecotourism excursions in the salt marshes off the Brunswick coast. Captain Cameron and his crewmates, naturalist Jeffery Benson and John Tyre, bring decades of experience on these waters to the three-hour tours, which include three trawls. With each bringing up of the nets, expect a bounty of sea life—crabs, rays, squid, a range of fish from grouper to puffer, even baby sharks—which Benson identifies and describes before returning the creatures to the water.

Village Inn and Pub

Photo by Anna and Daniel Shackleford

Village Inn and Pub
Sheltered in a stand of moss-laced oaks, this lovely little inn attracts both St. Simons locals, who congregate in the cheery pub from happy hour until last call, and couples looking for a romantic getaway. A renovated 1930s beach cottage serves as the reception area, breakfast room, sitting room, and bar. The twenty-eight guest rooms wrap around the cottage beneath the boughs of stately oaks (not a branch of which was cut during the construction of the inn), lending the property a cozy, cloistered feel.

Gogo Jewelry

Courtesy of Gogo Jewelry

Gogo Jewelry
Jewelry designer Gogo Ferguson, a descendant of Thomas Carnegie, spent many childhood summers at the family’s estate on remote Cumberland Island, often searching for natural treasures with her grandmother, Lucy. She returned to the island in the late 1980s to live full time, and today she continues to seek out rattlesnake bones, boar tusks, and armadillo scales from which to create necklaces, rings, bangles, and sculptures. Fans include Hillary Clinton, Bill Murray, and the late John F. Kennedy Jr. Stop in at her boutique on St. Simons Island to pick out a piece of your own.

Georgia Sea Turtle Center

Courtesy of Jekyll Island Authority

Georgia Sea Turtle Center
The only sea-turtle rehabilitation facility in Georgia, this Jekyll Island center treats sick and injured animals and offers visitors the opportunity to see their care firsthand. In addition to the chance to visit patients and watch surgeries and other medical procedures, visitors can get in on the action on ranger-led programs, including dawn and night rides with the island’s sea turtle patrol in search of nesting or injured animals.

Wild horses on Cumberland Island

Photo by Peter Frank Edwards

Cumberland Island
Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, Cumberland is among the state’s most remote locales and the site of some of its most pristine landscapes, from dense maritime forests inhabited by wild horses and nine-banded armadillos to expansive marshes and wide spans of beach. In addition to the wildlife, visitors enjoy ranger-led tours of the ruins of Dungeness Estate, the once-grand Queen Anne mansion built by Thomas Carnegie in the 1880s. Note: This island is only accessible by a passenger ferry operated out of St. Marys by the National Park Service; check for times and availability of seats.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.

The Chastain takes over the old Horseradish Grill space with a former Atlas chef at the helm

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Cinnamon rolls

Courtesy of the Chastain

After 26 years in Chastain Park, Horseradish Grill closed in February. But come late October/early November, the former country store will be occupied again, this time under the leadership of executive chef and operating partner Christopher Grossman. Called the Chastain for its park-side location (4320 Powers Ferry Road Northwest), it will serve a seasonal menu of ”reinvented” New American classics.

Grossman—who previously worked at Atlas at the St. Regis Atlanta, Aria, and Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry—says he’ll serve “elevated comfort food for everyday dining.” The Chastain will serve dinner nightly, and eventually lunch and brunch. Locals can also stop in for a coffee, pastry, or light breakfast to-go in the mornings.

“There are so many people always out exercising—we want to be of service to the community,” Grossman says.

He and his business partner, Andy Heyman worked to keep the timeless feel of the restaurant with a neutral color palette and large windows that bring the outside in. The patios seat nearly as many people as the dining room (140), and the space features an active garden that attracted Grossman to the job.

We spoke to him to learn more.

Executive chef and operating partner Christopher Grossman

Courtesy of Michael Thompson

When and why did you leave Atlas?
I didn’t feel like I was done at Atlas. [But] with a location like this, it almost felt like destiny. When [my wife and I] moved to Atlanta, we lived in Sandy Springs, and I was working at Aria. I began driving by Chastain [Park] every day and walking the park for exercise. For some reason, we never came in [Horseradish Grill].

Andy Heyman, of ASH Ventures, knew me from Atlas. He asked what it would take for me to leave. My response was a garden. [When I walked into Horseradish Grill], I had goosebumps. I didn’t realize this gem was right here in the city. It had that innate charm, the history, the bones, and the garden out back. I knew this was where I was meant to be.

How will the Chastain be similar to Atlas?
It’s more locally focused than Atlas but with that same level of execution and respect for the ingredients. My inspiration comes from produce from local farmers. We’ll source some ingredients from the on-site garden, but it’s not big enough for everything.

What’s on the menu?
There will be about 20 menu items, including fresh-made pastas, risottos, salads, soups, and vegetables. Dishes will go from small to large, including something for the table or to feed a family of four. [Dishes might include] cornmeal tempura okra, charred broccoli salad, glazed turnips with toasted peanuts and pesto made from turnip greens, and pepper steak with chevre and fresh herbs. 

What about for breakfast?
Avocado toast, maybe a build-your-own breakfast sandwich and sheep’s milk yogurt. Christian Castillo is in charge bread production, morning pastries, and dessert. He’ll make croissants and naturally fermented breads. For me, a restaurant starts with bread and butter. It’ll be baked fresh every day. It should get the same attention as everything else on the menu.

Tell me about your coffee program.
I am a coffee snob. I drink way too much of coffee. One of the best coffees I’ve had in Atlanta is with Brash. They are doing with coffee what we are doing with vegetables as far as sourcing. I’m very excited to partner with them. We’ll have drip coffee, tea, lattes, cappuccino, and espresso.

What’s on the bar menu?
I want to source really good spirits and reinvent the classics with them. Juan Cortes is the lead beverage manager. He’ll do spins on the Old Fashioned and the Daisy. We want a well-stocked wine program with about 30 wines by the glass. Beer will be local—New Realm, Creature Comforts.

What have you done to renovate the space?
We wanted to save as much of the charm of the building as we can. The fireplace stones were repurposed into garden beds. The chimney that has been on this property since the ‘30s is now the foundation for the vegetables we’re growing.

The whole space is lighter and brighter. The Old Oak Terrace serves as an extension of the dining room with tablecloths. The patio you see when you first walk in from the parking lot has a more casual bistro feel with umbrellas and wood tables. It’s come as you are.

The bar is marble and U-shaped. We doubled the seating around it, focused around an arched window.

Are you concerned about opening a new restaurant during a pandemic?
Yeah. You want to be open for the community, but you want to keep everyone safe. We will be social distancing the tables. We’re trying to expand outdoor seating as much as we can. I want people to feel comfortable.

Your top 10 questions about voting absentee in Georgia, answered

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How to do I request and submit an absentee ballot in Georgia?
A canvasser processes mail-in ballots in Maryland.

Photograph by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With a pandemic still surging and a presidential election on the horizon, it’s not a huge surprise that more than a million Georgia voters requested absentee ballots by mid-September. Although absentee voting has long been a part of Georgia elections and every registered voter is eligible for an absentee ballot, many will be using the method this year for the first time. Here’s how to request a ballot—yes, there’s still time—and how to ensure it gets counted.

Do I need a reason to request an absentee ballot?
No. You just need to be registered to vote in Georgia.

How do I apply for an absentee ballot?
Complete an application online (all you need is your county, state ID number, birth date, and legal name). Alternatively, you can fill out this PDF and return to your county board of registrars via mail, fax, or email. You will need to sign the PDF application, so make sure it matches the signature the state has on file on your ID. October 30 is the last day to request an absentee ballot, and if you do request a ballot that late, be prepared to put your ballot in a drop box, rather than send by mail, to ensure it arrives in time.

What if I never receive my absentee ballot in the mail?
Double-check the ballot tracker on the state’s My Voter Page to see where your ballot is in the process. If you’re still unsure, contact your county board of registrars to figure out if you have time to request another absentee ballot or if you should plan to vote in-person. If you do end up voting in-person, be sure to tell the poll worker that you never received your absentee ballot, so they can cancel your absentee ballot. If you still feel unsure about the process and want more guidance, you can call a voter protection hotline from voting advocacy groups like Fair Fight (888-730-5816) or the Election Protection coalition (866-OUR-VOTE).

When does my absentee ballot need to be returned by?
Despite some fighting in the courts, your ballot must be received by your county election office—not just postmarked—by the time the polls close on Election Day: 7 p.m. on November 3.

Can I trust the mail to return my ballot in time?
Yes, but expect delays. The United States Postal Service recommends you allow at least one week for delivery, which means your ballot should be postmarked by October 27 to hit Georgia’s Election Day deadline. Stamps are required, but technically USPS should deliver your ballot regardless of if you have the correct postage.

Can I drop my ballot off in person?
If you’d prefer not to use the mail or want to save money on stamps, you can drop off your ballot at one of your county’s drop boxes anytime before 7 p.m. on November 3. Here are dropbox locations for Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, and Gwinnett counties. Clayton County’s dropbox is located at Clayton County Board of Elections & Registration, 121 South McDonough Street, Jonesboro.

Drop boxes are arguably the most secure way to return your absentee ballot. They are nailed to the ground on government or county property, tamper-proof, and under 24-hour video surveillance. If you’re monitoring your absentee ballot status, note that the drop boxes are emptied every 72 hours.

How do I ensure my absentee ballot is counted?
You can use the My Voter Page to track the status of your ballot all the way from your request to the ballot’s acceptance. It’s like the Domino’s Pizza Tracker, but for politics.

What can disqualify my absentee ballot?
The biggest disqualification would be if the ballot is received after 7 p.m. on November 3. Beyond that, following instructions is key: Make sure to fill in the bubbles completely with black or blue ink. Check marks or Xs cannot be read by the scanner. Then insert your ballot in the oath and privacy envelope and sign that before you put it in the outer envelope. Many absentee ballots are rejected because of a failure to sign the envelope.

What happens if my ballot is rejected before Election Day?
Don’t panic. Your county board of registrars should contact you to “cure,” or correct your ballot envelope. This is why it’s vital to return your ballot as early as possible to handle any hiccups that come up before Election Day.

I changed my mind; can I still vote in person?
If your absentee ballot has been accepted, it counts as your vote for the election and any attempt to vote again is considered voter fraud. But if you haven’t yet submitted your absentee ballot, you can still vote in person. Just bring your absentee ballot to your polling place and hand it to a poll worker, who will cancel your absentee ballot and allow you to vote in person.

Backstreet: An oral history of Atlanta’s most fabled 24-hour nightclub

Cabaret performer Raven “The Goddess”
Cabaret performer Raven “The Goddess”

Photograph by Russ Bowen-Youngblood/ Eclipse & DAVID Magazine

It was the Studio 54 of the South even before the infamous New York club opened its doors in 1977 and, miraculously, it endured nearly 10 times as long. In 1975, at the dawn of disco, Backstreet officially opened for business at 845 Peachtree Street in the heart of Midtown.

In the beginning, the massive, three-level, 10,000-square-foot space (it had housed Lang’s Interiors in the 1950s), catered almost exclusively to the city’s burgeoning white gay male population. But by the time it closed in July 2004, Backstreet had become a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week playground for the entire city.

Or, as the Backstreet staff T-shirts more succinctly stated, “Always Open & Pouring.”
As other nightclubs, including the Limelight, Club Anytime, the Velvet Room, Club Kaya, Esso, and Club Rio, opened and shuttered around them, Backstreet remained party central for nocturnal revelers for nearly 30 years. But as the century drew to a close, Midtown, once a haven for hippies, slowly reinvented itself into a swanky live-work-play district, with million-dollar penthouses near the club’s main entrance—condos owned by working professionals who wanted to sleep at night.

Over the decades, the club was featured in the HBO documentary Dragtime, Comedy Central’s Insomniac, and MTV’s ElimiDate. In 1981, the space even served as the set for the NBC TV movie For Ladies Only, starring Gregory Harrison and Marc Singer, a peek inside the Velcro-fastened, police-uniformed world of a male strip club.

In 2003, after years of battling neighbors and city hall, Atlanta officials declined to renew the club’s 24-hour liquor license, the sole remaining one in the city.

On July 17, 2004, the club closed for good and is now the site of the 36-floor Viewpoint luxury condos, built in 2008.

Here, we chronicle Backstreet’s infamous 10,000-plus nights of dancing, drag, drugs, and debauchery, spanning the years from 1975 to 2004—recounted by the people who owned the club, worked there, documented its life span, and, of course, partied inside the legendary Atlanta nightspot.

VICKI VARA: Backstreet was owned and operated by the Vara family, first by founders Carmine and Janice, then by their children Vicki and Henry. The siblings managed and owned the club from the early ’80s to 2004. Now 65 and retired, Vicki lives on Lake Lanier. Back in the 1960s, in Boston, our grandfather [Henry D. Vara,] my dad’s dad, owned the Punch Bowl, one of the most prominent gay bars in Boston. People went to the basement to dance. Lights and a bell would go off if the cops showed up. My grandfather knew gay clubs were big money. My father and mother came down from Boston first, and Henry and I followed a few years later.

HENRY VARA: Now 63 and retired, Henry lives in Sarasota with his wife, Nancy, and owns a farm. Our dad, Carmine Vara, ran gay nightclubs in Boston and Provincetown. Back when I was a child, my dad’s clubs were located in Boston’s Combat Zone—basically, it was the red-light district. He also owned a place in Provincetown called the Crown & Anchor, which was a hotel, gay bar, and cabaret for female impersonators. He was always looking for investment opportunities in different cities. Gay clubs made good business sense. Gay people played hard, they drank hard, and they danced hard and had more money to spend than the straight crowd. It was definitely a lucrative business.

VICKI: At first, the doorman would go up and down the line like they did at Studio 54 in New York and decide who got in the door. They were looking for the well-dressed pretty boys and their companions. It was that way for a short period of time.

Lena Lust still performs at Blake's On The Park
Lena Lust still performs at Blake’s On The Park

Russ Bowen-Youngblood/ Eclipse & DAVID Magazine

LENA LUST: From 1993 to 2004, Lena Lust (aka Lester West), a Black singer who came here from St. Louis, became a drag performer at Charlie Brown’s Cabaret, which opened upstairs in 1990. Now 69, Lust has continued entertaining fans at Blake’s on the Park and plans to return after the pandemic. The first bar I went to as soon as I got off the plane was Backstreet. People in Atlanta didn’t know me, so I had some problems getting in. And there was some prejudice at the time. They were charging people different rates. They wanted to charge me $30 because that’s how Carmine wanted it at the time. He wanted it to be a white male gay club. I didn’t think too much of it at first. Then, I saw that other minorities who were trying to get in were experiencing the same thing. This was the South, and I was used to how things were in the North. It was one of many incidents I had to endure when I first came to Atlanta. I learned, living through the civil rights and the gay rights eras, how to deal with it. I knew one day it would pass, and it did.

HENRY: In the early years of the club, there were a lot of door policies in place you certainly couldn’t do today. For example, women couldn’t come in unless they were escorted by men. The club wanted to maintain a gay, male-dominated bar. We also had a dress policy designed to keep out drug dealers. Over the years, the times changed, and we changed with them.

LUST: All that stopped when Carmine stepped down and Henry and Vicki took over.

VANESSA VARA: Henry’s daughter Vanessa, now 40, worked for her parents. Post-Backstreet, she went to work in the food industry, attending culinary school and training in Italy. She now works for the food-distribution company, U.S. Foods. Married to Sean O’Shea and residing in Lawrenceville, she is mom to Rowen, six, and Veda, four. I loved hanging out at the door with my dad. A lot of action happened at the door. When people were digging through their purses looking for their ID, all sorts of weird shit would inevitably come falling out—dildos, coke, pills, you name it.

ANDREA VARA ERWIN: Henry’s other daughter, Andrea, also worked at the club. Now 38, Andrea studied business administration at Georgia Southern. She and her husband, Reid Erwin, reside in Johnson City, Tennessee, and she’s currently staying at home with her son Mickey, age four, during the pandemic. Checking IDs could get tricky because there were a lot of transgender people who still had their biological appearance on their IDs, but they would be dressed as the opposite sex. So, that could be a challenge. Everybody was always really polite about it.

CHARLIE BROWN: The emcee of Charlie Brown’s Cabaret, which ran upstairs at Backstreet from 1990 to 2004, Brown was married to technical director Fred Wise on December 29, 2019, on Brown’s 70th birthday. They’ve been a couple for 43 years. Brown was still entertaining fans at Lips, an Atlanta drag restaurant, until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now 70, he plans to return to work postpandemic. Fred Wise and I met in Knoxville in 1977, and by Christmas 1978, we had moved to Atlanta. Everyone in Knoxville and Nashville had heard of Backstreet.

FRED WISE: Wise is now 64 and retired. The club kept these intentionally long lines to get in. They would cherry-pick who they wanted inside. At the time, Backstreet was not very drag queen–friendly.

BROWN: They didn’t want to let us in.

WISE: It was the hottest club in town, and Charlie wasn’t going to be denied.

BROWN: When we finally got inside, I was blown away. I was from Tennessee—with all those tiny gay bars—and, suddenly, I’m standing inside a three-story club.

RUSSELL BOWEN-YOUNGBLOOD: Atlanta gay nightlife photographer Bowen-Youngblood was a Backstreet customer from 1994 to 2004. Beginning in 1999, he captured Atlanta’s club scene for David magazine, Eclipse, and Southern Voice until Backstreet closed in 2004. Now 61, he is a marketing consultant and shoots for Q ATLus magazine and Project Q Atlanta. The first time I walked into Backstreet was in 1984. It was around 8 p.m. and the place was empty. I went back in 1994 to see Charlie Brown’s Cabaret. A friend took me. Backstreet became my destination after that.

AVEDON ELLIOTT: A Backstreet customer from 1998 to 2003, Elliott was then a flight attendant. Now 45, Elliott is based in Frisco, Texas. She currently works as a licensed counselor. When I moved to Atlanta in 1997, I was all into hip-hop. It was Club 112, Kya, Esso. I was all over those places. One night, friends convinced me to go to this cool club. They told me it was a gay club, but that didn’t matter to me. It was a club. That’s what mattered to me. I couldn’t believe the size of the place. It was my first experience inside a gay club. I saw all these men without their shirts on, gorgeous men. Different flavors—vanilla, chocolate, caramel. It wasn’t like I was attracted to gay men. It was more about the beauty of these men dancing together. I even remember the song that was playing—[Barry Harris’] “Dive in the Pool (Let’s Get Soaking Wet).” I was just mesmerized.

BILL BERDEAUX: Backstreet DJ from 1997 to 2004, Berdeaux is now 50 and currently works with his former Backstreet colleagues Lena Lust and Shawnna Brooks as a DJ at Blake’s on the Park. I was from Montgomery, Alabama. I felt like the tiniest fish in an ocean of people. At the bar I had come from, Hojons in Montgomery, everybody knew everybody. In comparison, Backstreet was a small city. I couldn’t get near the DJ booth. It was like this fortress in the sky. I knew I needed to get inside that DJ booth. My whole plan in moving to Atlanta was to become a DJ at the biggest club in the Southeast—Backstreet.

LUST: The walls were covered in red carpet. The stainless-steel DJ booth was built into the wall. I loved it.

VICKI: I walked into Backstreet for the first time in 1980. I had never seen such plush carpet. The upstairs bar had a huge fishbowl and a bird aviary.

HENRY: When I got there in 1980, the rooftop bar had lots of couches, lots of mirrors, and nooks and crannies for people to hang out and be, well, intimate with each other.

BROWN: In 1990, I had a show in Buckhead at a lesbian bar named Tallulah’s, and I had just been served my notice. Bev Cook was the manager at Backstreet at the time, and she had been coming in to see the dinner show. She said, Don’t sweat it, bitch. You’ll be opening at Backstreet in two weeks. Henry was out of town at the time, and he wasn’t too happy that Bev booked a drag show on the third floor of his club. But he got over it real quick when we started packing that room and bringing in money.

VICKI: The cabaret changed everything. It was our crowd starter. The show got so popular, it went all night.

BROWN: Before the cabaret opened upstairs in 1990, they had tried everything up there. People would just go up there to cool off from dancing and to do some drugs, and then, they’d go back downstairs. They couldn’t get anything to work. Charlie Brown’s Cabaret worked. It stuck. People were standing on the shrubs on the island so they could see the show. I got them to tear that out. Then, the fountain went. We knew we were a hit when they finally took out that goddamn barbecue pit.

LUST: At its peak, we had nine cast members in the cabaret show. The show ran continuously all night. We started before 11 p.m., and it was daylight when we got out of the bar. You would see folks all dressed up, on their way to church.

ERWIN: One of my jobs was restocking the vending machines. That was unique. They were filled with things like rolling papers, condoms, snacks, lube, and video head cleaner people sniffed to get high—basically, anything you needed to stay for the entire weekend.

BERDEAUX: I was originally hired to work the floor, which meant taking out the trash about 20 or 30 times a shift. You couldn’t get through the crowd because there were so many people dancing. The DJs wouldn’t let us sweep the floor or even take the trash cans from around the dance floor. That would interrupt the party. Sometimes, I wouldn’t get to sweep up until 1 or even 2 p.m. People were still dancing. It was truly a 24-hour metroplex.

ELLIOTT: I was a flight attendant at the time. I would come back on a “nap” from my last leg of flying at 7 o’clock in the morning, go home, change, and go to Backstreet. Or I would tell my friends to let me get some sleep and to wake me up by 7 or 8 a.m. so I could go to Backstreet. That’s how addicting that place was.

VANESSA: We had our family birthday parties there. I was 10 and Andrea was eight, and our brother, Carmine, was about age six. We had a ’50s dance party. Dad brought in a DJ, they had the lights going, and our friends got to go behind the bar and use the fountain drink guns. Even today, sometimes, when I walk into a bar, I can smell my childhood.

ELLIOTT: You generated friendships there. Even if you didn’t communicate with these people on the outside, you looked forward to seeing these same folks at the club. They were always there on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

HENRY: I would get the call from the managers of celebrities asking if I could discreetly get them in. It was our job to do it quietly.

BROWN: Elton John would come in incognito in a hat and without the wig. The first time he came in, I discreetly went over to his table, introduced myself, and said, You’re here to have fun. No one in my cast will ever mention your name from that stage.

A Backstreet staff photo
Bowen-Youngblood shot this staff photo in the early hours of January 1, 2004 after Backstreet abruptly closed at midnight. He says, “I looked down on faces filled with uncertainty of what the new year would bring.” Henry and Vicki Vara hold a sign, which read, “Backstreet Will Be Closed at 12:00 AM.”

Russ Bowen-Youngblood/ Eclipse & DAVID Magazine

HENRY: Word got around that celebrities could be anonymous inside Backstreet. I got to escort Madonna into the club one night in disguise, the Baldwin brothers, Lenny Kravitz. Janet Jackson and Jermaine Dupri had a whole entourage. There were black SUVs and, traveling behind, was a Bentley.

BROWN: Their people had called ahead and wanted reservations. This was on a Saturday night at midnight. The place was packed to the rafters. I just walked out on stage and pointed. I need this table, this table, and this table to move. They said, Why? I said, Cause Janet Jackson’s ass is gonna be sittin’ there! Then, I told the room, Listen up, when she comes in, I don’t want y’all asking for autographs or bothering her. She’s here to enjoy the show. That’s how I handled it whenever somebody famous was on the way.

LUST: Janet Jackson tipped me $50 for performing my Tina Turner medley. She had the tip sent up to the stage. I never saw her personally. It was nice to know she appreciated what I did. Queen Latifah came in a couple of times too. This was before she was out of the closet, but we all knew—her posse was all girls! She stayed to watch me do Eartha Kitt’s “Champagne Taste.”

“Bitch, if you’re Cathy Rigby, do a backflip for us.” She stood up in that chair and did a backflip all the way across the motherf**king stage.

BERDEAUX: After I’d been working the floor for maybe a year, Stuart “Sweet Daddy” Gardner, the big downstairs DJ, needed the night off and asked me if I would open for him. Talk about nervous! Playing those first records was one of the most electrifying moments that I’ve ever had in my whole life. It was magical. Then, 1 a.m. rolled around and no DJ. It’s Saturday night, and the dance floor is packed. Then, I get the phone call in the booth from the office: Bill, do you think you can carry the whole night? I almost dropped my chin on the floor. The rest is history. That’s how I got what turned out to be the primetime shifts on Friday and Saturday.

HENRY: In the ’80s, when they were looking for a nightclub location for For Ladies Only, we agreed to let them shoot inside Backstreet. The only rule was they had to shoot during the day, break everything down, and be out before our crowd came in at night. I watched a lot of the scenes being filmed. We were paid very well for that. They hired extras to come in to play the crowd for the stripping scenes. They had these big generator trucks that showed up. They had their own power system.

VICKI: It was a scramble on some nights, but they had enough crew to break everything down. Honestly? I just wish the movie had been a little bit better. They even brought in their own dance floor. They left it for us. We never used it. Nobody liked it. I mean, it lit up like Saturday Night Fever, and this was in the early 1980s when those Disco Sucks stickers were on everything.

BROWN: Cathy Rigby, the Olympic gymnast, was doing a show at the Fox Theatre and she turned up one night sitting at the edge of the stage. Someone yelled, That’s Cathy Rigby! I walked over to her and said, Naw, you ain’t Cathy Rigby. Bitch, if you’re Cathy Rigby, do a backflip for us. She stood up in that chair and did a backflip all the way across the motherf**king stage. The response in the room was so loud, security came running up the stairs.

VICKI: DJs like Bill Berdeaux made us. Everyone who came in knew these DJs were the best. Any new music that came out, they had it on the turntables. Our DJs were Billboard reporters, so they were hooked into everything new. Plus, we hired big names to perform the Sunday Tea Dance: Gloria Gaynor, Bonnie Pointer. Gladys Knight came as a visitor, but we got her on stage. Sylvester was a regular performer for us.

LUST: Sylvester and I used to party a lot together. Grace Jones and I partied many nights together. She was a trip. She loved her party favors, let’s just say.

BROWN: Celebrities never really got me tongue tied. I never really got fazed unless there was a redneck in the room. I’d always know because Fred would come back to the dressing room and say, You’d better get out here. I didn’t even care what I had on. I’d hit that stage, man, and grab many a redneck, spin his arm around his back, and march him out those double doors. One night, this guy was really putting me through it, and I grabbed him and took him to the door. He turned around and spat in my face. Just like that, 400 people shut completely up. He took off running, so I took off my wig and my heels and went after him. He went down those steps so fast he rolled down the last flight and right under the feet of Henry.

WISE: As that redneck went down the steps face first, everybody in the upstairs cabaret jumped up, and 400 people had their faces pressed to the glass of those French doors across the entire back of the room.

BROWN: When I walked back inside that room, there was no sound, no music, nothing. A customer handed me a napkin and said, Charlie, you’ve still got spit on your face. I said, Don’t you f**king hate when that happens? I wiped it off and got back up on that stage. I paid my rent with the tips that night.

HENRY: For years, it was mostly a gay crowd. But after we got the 24-hour liquor license [in 1987], it was a gay bar until all the other bars in town closed and then, everyone piled into Backstreet. The later it got, the straighter it got.

VICKI: I had been working at Backstreet, a gay club, for years but I didn’t officially come out until I was 32. I was just afraid. I knew that my dad didn’t want his daughter to be gay. It really hit him hard. But it was such a relief off of me. I didn’t have to hide it anymore. Once Dad got over the shock of it, he came around. He was a good dad.

HENRY: My father was a manly man. He had this rugged exterior. He wasn’t thrilled at first, but he accepted it. I mean, it wasn’t like we were going to start discriminating against gay people. It was our family business. I hope that working in the environment of the club made it easier for Vicki to come out.

LUST: One night in 1997, my equilibrium was off. I just thought I was working too much. Fred told Charlie, Lena looks green. Charlie told me to take my ass to the doctor. Thank God, my health insurance had kicked in two months before that so I could actually go.

BROWN: We had 401(k)s, and they made sure we had health insurance.

WISE: Backstreet had nearly 100 employees on payroll.

Backstreet represented the good old days of gay life in Atlanta. We had the best clubs, the best bars, the best discos, and when they all shut down at night, they came home to mama, Backstreet.

BROWN: We lost a lot of people over the years, some of them cast members. We would work a number into the show each night and do a collection for the ones we could help.

HENRY: I started at the club in 1980 as the AIDS epidemic was starting. It was probably the most frightening time of my life. I had young children, and, back then, we didn’t yet know how it was spread. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do, what to touch, what not to touch. Eventually, I got educated. We started handing out free condoms. Our customers and our employees were dropping dead. They had Kaposi sarcoma. It was a horrible thing to watch. As they would pass on, I would meet their families. We would try and put them up in hotels, give them traveling expenses, and help with burials. It was a nightmare. We did what we could to help.

VICKI: I would get so upset when a staffer or a customer would tell me, Well, I just can’t use a condom, sorry. And then, they would end up dead. I got so angry. I remember saying, You guys aren’t paying attention here. We put out condoms, but we couldn’t make anyone use them.

VANESSA: We held many, many memorial services at the club up in the cabaret.

LUST: I’m a longtime survivor. I was officially diagnosed with AIDS in ’97. The doctors told me I likely contracted it 10 years before that. I shouldn’t be alive. I was in denial for a long time. I had lost so many friends and boyfriends over the years. When I finally got diagnosed, my T-cells were at six, and my viral load was over two million. They immediately put me on the cocktail. I was lucky.

ELLIOTT: The weirdest thing I ever saw at Backstreet? Weird is subjective. A lot of stuff went on in the parking lot, okay? I went out to get into my truck one night, and I looked in the car parked next to me and saw two guys involved. I had never seen that before. I didn’t want to be rude, so I watched for a while.

VANESSA: One night, I begged my dad to take me with him to the club. I was maybe 13. He told me, We’re not coming home if you get tired. You’ll have to stay the whole night. I ended up sleeping on some boxes on the floor of the liquor room. In the morning when we left, the sun was out as we walked to the car. This was before the Dakota condos were built across the street. There in the field, we saw two dudes just going at it. My dad and I both kept our eyes straight ahead. We never spoke of it again.

HENRY: [laughs] Their mother was in charge of having those kinds of conversations with them.

VANESSA: Growing up at Backstreet, you kind of got desensitized to things like that after a while.

ERWIN: Because we were exposed to gay people at such an early age, it made us more open-minded. People became members of our family. They came over on Christmas, and we went on vacations together. I think it made us better people.

VANESSA: James Brooker, who was known as Jim or Peaches, worked as the head bartender downstairs. He took me to buy dresses for homecoming and prom. The cabaret’s tallest drag queen, Ziggy Stardust (Chester Phelps), was my dad’s right-hand man. Ziggy took me into the cabaret dressing room and taught me how to put on false eyelashes.

ELLIOTT: Everybody was just kind. Your skin color, gender, your sexuality, socioeconomic status—none of that stuff played a role at Backstreet. You could just be yourself.

Backstreet packed full of dancers

BOWEN-YOUNGBLOOD: My favorite photo I ever took inside Backstreet was shot from the balcony overlooking the dance floor. It was the same vantage point where I had stood the first time I went there and realized I wasn’t the only gay person in the state. Coming from a small North Georgia town, that was how I felt for so long. It was at Backstreet that I realized for the first time it was okay to be me.

VANESSA: It was a place where black, white, Asian, Latin, gay, straight, business people, nerds, everybody could come together and party. When you walked through the door at Backstreet, the lines that existed elsewhere in your life, those lines were erased. Everybody was welcome.

BERDEAUX: Getting a key to the Backstreet DJ booth was like getting the keys to the kingdom. On big weekends like Hotlanta River Expo, no one on the dance floor had a shirt on or, sometimes, no clothes, period—if security hadn’t gotten to them yet. It would get so hot from all the lights and all the body heat, the condensation from the ceiling would rain onto the people dancing below.

HENRY: Going into 2004, the city had refused to renew our liquor license. On New Year’s Eve, we were packed at midnight when the cops showed up.

LUST: The music stopped, and there was dead silence.

VANESSA: The liquor license had expired at midnight.

LUST: Henry and Vicki tried to get a dance hall license, and we hobbled along pouring Coca-Colas and water. Nobody was coming in. The club finally closed down for good [on July 17, 2004].

VICKI: It was a home for so many gay people. So many customers would come up to me and say, Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you’ve done here. It’s been 16 years, and I still miss it. How much money? [laughs] C’mon, don’t ask me that. I’ll say this—one night, one of the bouncers remarked, We make more money than God. And I remember thinking, He’s actually close.

BROWN: When we lost Backstreet, it was like the city’s gay community losing its grandmama. That’s what it felt like. When you walk into a gay bar today, everybody’s on their phone. They’re staring at some app, looking for a hookup a few feet away from them. Backstreet represented the good old days of gay life in Atlanta. We had the best clubs, the best bars, the best discos, and when they all shut down at night, they came home to mama, Backstreet.

This article appears in our October 2020 issue.

A half-century of LGBTQ+ milestones in Atlanta

Participants in the 1977 Atlanta Pride Parade
Participants in the 1977 Atlanta Pride Parade

Photograph courtesy of Jerome McClendon/AJC/GSU collection

August 5, 1969

Atlanta Police raid Ansley Mall Mini Cinema’s screening of Andy Warhol’s gay-themed Lonesome Cowboys, taking photos of the approximately 70 attendees. A manager is arrested, and the film is seized by police. The raid inspires the formation of the Georgia Gay Liberation Front.

June 1970

On the first anniversary of New York City’s Stonewall Uprising in Greenwich Village, Atlanta’s first Gay Pride rally, comprised of a ragtag group of about 100 people, mostly white men in jeans and T-shirts, takes place in Piedmont Park—with some bravely strolling sidewalks carrying “Equal Rights for Gays” placards. Atlanta is among a handful of cities to mark the anniversary.

July 1972

Approximately 100 Atlanta “Gay Pride Day” participants marching down Peachtree Street are greeted with “stony contempt,” “disbelief,” “smiles,” and “flashed peace signs” by onlookers, reports the Great Speckled Bird, a long-running local underground newspaper.

June 1973

A photo published in the Atlanta Barb, one of the city’s first gay newspapers, shows a female participant marching with a paper sack over her head and carrying a sign that says, “If I Showed My Face I Would Lose My Job. How Would You Like To Live Like This?” For members of Georgia’s LGBTQ+ community, this danger remained until the U.S. Supreme Court granted workplace protections on June 15, 2020.

1974

Linda Bryant and Barbara Borgman open Charis Books & More in Little Five Points, one of the nation’s first feminist bookstores. The word Charis, from the Greek lexicon, means grace or gift or thanks. Among the store’s first author visits: Maya Angelou.

1975

The legendary 24-hour disco palace Backstreet debuts.

1976

Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson issues the city’s first Gay Pride Day proclamation. A group of Southern Baptists tries unsuccessfully to get the proclamation revoked.

1978

Bulldogs, a tiny bar which is still the epicenter of Atlanta’s Black gay party scene, opens.

Hotlanta Raft Race
The Hotlanta Raft Race launched in 1978

Photograph courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, Georgia State University Library

1978

Sometimes described as the granddaddy of Atlanta’s gay circuit parties, the first Hotlanta Raft Race floats down the Chattahoochee River with about 200 participants. The annual summer tradition (later called the Hotlanta River Expo) lasts for a quarter century.

RuPaul & The U-Hauls on The American Music show
RuPaul & The U-Hauls on The American Music show

Photograph by James Bond

1981

Producer Dick Richards—a media pioneer whose video archives of Atlanta’s queer life are now housed at Emory University—launches the low-budget Atlanta public access TV show the American Music Show, chronicling the city’s underground music and drag scene. Running until 2005, the show helps to launch the career of RuPaul Charles. In his autobiography, Lettin It All Hang Out, RuPaul dedicates an entire chapter to the show and, during his 2018 Emmy acceptance speech, publicly thanks Richards, who dies of leukemia just days before the telecast.

1982

Founded by Graham Burton and originally located on Charles Street, AID Atlanta opens. Caitlin Ryan becomes the organization’s first executive director. In 2020, with offices in Atlanta and Newnan offering testing, education, and prevention programs, the nonprofit has evolved into one of the most comprehensive AIDS service organizations in the Southeast.

1982

Local bartender Michael Hardwick is arrested on sodomy charges when a cop enters his apartment to serve a warrant (later ruled invalid) and finds him having sex with another man. Hardwick sues Georgia attorney general Michael Bowers, and the case makes its way to the Supreme Court, which on June 30, 1986 upholds the law in a ruling for Bowers and the state. In 1997, Bowers, then the leading Republican candidate for Georgia governor, admits to a decade-long affair. In a 1998 interview with George magazine, Bowers’s mistress, Anne Davis, says, “As far as sodomy is concerned, Mike Bowers is a hypocrite.” Later that year, Georgia’s own Supreme Court overturns the state’s anti-sodomy law, ruling that private consensual sodomy between adults is protected by state privacy rights (Powell v. State). SCOTUS reverses itself in 2003.

1984

Diamond Lil (born Phillip Forrester), a pioneering drag performer and social activist, releases a full-length album, Diamond Lil Sings Silver Grill.

1985

Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, two childhood friends and former Shamrock High School chorus members from Decatur, perform their first acoustic show as the Indigo Girls.

1985

Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young signs the first city proclamation celebrating Gay Pride Week.

1986

With support from then councilman John Lewis, Atlanta city council passes an amendment to the city charter prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion, national origin, age, handicap, or sexual orientation. Mayor Andrew Young signs the ordinance, making Atlanta the first city in the South to pass gay rights legislation.

1987

Spearheaded by activist Rebecca Ranson, Atlanta’s award-winning LGBTQ+ film festival, Out on Film, debuts. It remains one of the oldest and most attended such festivals in the country.

1988

The AIDS Survival Project has its first board meeting. The statewide nonprofit becomes a much-needed resource for community-based advocacy and HIV treatment education before closing its doors in 2008.

1988

Christina Cash and Leigh VanderEls launch the now-defunct LGBTQ+ weekly newspaper Southern Voice, which would attract 100,000 readers. Cash helps start Georgia Voice in 2010.

Elton John
Elton John supported local aids nonprofits.

Photograph by Express Newspapers/AP

1988

Borrowing an idea from a San Francisco meals on wheels program, Michael Edwards-Pruitt rounds up some of his neighbors to cook and deliver meals to 14 friends who were dying from AIDS. Project Open Hand first operates out of  St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Lavista Road. Elton John would personally deliver Project Open Hand’s 25 millionth meal. Now called Open Hand Atlanta, the nonprofit has expanded its mission to cook and deliver 5,000 meals daily for disabled Atlantans. In 2020, OHA is also delivering emergency meals in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

1988

For his work on behalf of gay rights, Congressman John Lewis is honored with the inaugural Dan Bradley Humanitarian Award, named for one of the Human Rights Campaign’s founders, at the queer advocacy nonprofit’s Atlanta dinner.

1989

The first Jerusalem House, located in the city’s Druid Hills/Virginia-Highland area, opens to house five Atlantans with AIDS. Serving more than 600 Atlantans in 2020, the nonprofit is the oldest and largest provider of permanent housing for the city’s low-income and homeless individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS.

1990

Members of the Atlanta chapter of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP, open and close the year with a pair of headline-grabbing protests. In January, the group marches on the state capitol to protest government inaction on the AIDS epidemic. In December, members are arrested while protesting at the CDC on behalf of women diagnosed with AIDS who then were not included in the official definition and, as a result, were excluded from government assistance.

An act up protest at the Georgia State Capitol
An act up protest at the Georgia State Capitol

Courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, Georgia State University Library

1990

The city’s first AIDS Walk (From All Walks of Life), benefiting AID Atlanta, is led by Mayor Maynard Jackson and Elton John, who would buy a penthouse here the next year and become a part-time Atlanta resident. The Indigo Girls perform to launch the march. In fall of 2020, AIDS Walk Atlanta will celebrate its 30th anniversary.

1991

Atlanta IBM computer salesman E. Lynn Harris publishes Invisible Life, a coming-of-age novel about a young, gay Black man, selling copies out of his car trunk at Black beauty salons and barber shops, before selling the rights to Anchor Books. Harris and playwright Pearl Cleage bonded early, both starting as self-published writers. Cleage says of the New York Times best-selling author, who passed in 2009, “We were both passionate about telling the stories we knew, and we both loved the process of getting those stories into the hands of readers who would recognize themselves in the pages.”

1993

Marietta’s Theatre in the Square becomes a national flashpoint in the culture wars after staging playwright Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, which included references to homosexuality. The production helps spark Cobb County’s infamous anti-gay resolution. The next year, after months of protests, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games pulls the volleyball competition out of Cobb County.

1993

Outwrite Bookstore and Coffeehouse opens. Owner Philip Rafshoon recalls, “On the corner of Piedmont and 10th, Outwrite helped the intersection become the center of the Gayborhood for 16 years. Some of my favorite author signings included Olympic diver Greg Louganis’s 1995 signing for his Breaking the Surface biography and Tammy Faye (Bakker) Messner’s surprise 2003 appearance where she led fans in singing ‘We are Blessed.’”

Nalda Rodriguez at the 25th annual celebration in Piedmont Park
Nalda Rodriguez at the 25th annual celebration in Piedmont Park

Photograph by Dwight, Jr. Ross/AJC/GSU collection

1995

The gay rights advocacy group Georgia Equality is formed. In 2020, the nonprofit turns 25, continuing to advance fairness, safety, and opportunities for LGBTQ+ citizens with an increased focus on youth, family, and trans communities.

1996

Atlanta hosts its first Black Gay Pride celebration. The Labor Day weekend celebration now routinely attracts some 10,000 attendees, making it one of the largest Black Pride events in the world.

1996

Charis Circle, a nonprofit arm of Charis Books & More, is formed to work with artists, authors, and activists from around the world to bring programming and events to feminist communities.

June 28, 1996

Coretta Scott King speaks at Atlanta Pride in Piedmont Park. She says, “We share common adversaries. The church burners and the gay bashers drink from the same poisonous well of hatred. I want to assure you that I will continue to support you in your efforts to rid our country of all forms of bigotry, racism, sexism, and homophobia.”

February 21, 1997

The Otherside Lounge, a popular lesbian nightspot, is bombed. A second device is found outside in the parking lot and is detonated with a robot by police. The man responsible is Eric Robert Rudolph, who had also planted bombs at Centennial Olympic Park and a Sandy Springs abortion clinic. No one is killed at the lounge.


Atlanta LGBTQ+ Political Milestones

Over the last three decades, LGBTQ+ candidates have begun to win key positions in city and state leadership. Here are some of the highlights:

Gil Robison

1988
Atlanta lawyer and gay activist Gil Robison runs for Georgia House District 40 in Fulton County. The seat is won by Cynthia McKinney.

1997
Cathy Woolard unseats the Atlanta City Council Sixth District’s 20-year incumbent Mary Davis to become the first openly gay elected official in Georgia. She would go on to serve as council president from 2002-2004 and run for mayor in 2017.

Karla Drenner

2001
On January 8, Karla Drenner becomes the first openly gay member of the Georgia House of Representatives.

Alex Wan

2009
Alex Wan wins the District 6 Atlanta City Council race, making him the first openly gay Asian American on the council.

2016
The son of Korean immigrants, Sam Park wins a close race and becomes the first openly gay male state legislator. Park Cannon, at 24, becomes the state’s youngest—and also the only queer Black female—Georgia legislator.

Renitta Shannon

2017
On the eve of National Coming Out Day, Georgia Representative Renitta Shannon comes out on Facebook. She is the first bisexual person elected to the state legislature.

2017
Stephe Koontz is elected to Doraville City Council, becoming Georgia’s first transgender elected official on a historic evening when at least six transgender candidates across the country are elected.


2000

Atlanta Pride turns 30. The B-52s (with three queer members Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland, and Kate Pierson) play a free show in Piedmont Park. Schneider recalls, “I’ll never forget that show because the next day, there I was, on the cover of the AJC with a bare midriff, a pair of Daisy Dukes, and wearing a dance belt so nothing fell out!”

2002

Q100’s Bert Show member Melissa Carter, the first out lesbian on Atlanta morning radio, is a grand marshal at the Pride parade.

Sept. 10, 2009

Two dozen Atlanta Police officers raid Midtown gay bar the Atlanta Eagle, sparking a debate about police abuse of force that continues to this day.

2010

Founded by Kirsten and Maria Palladino five years before the landmark SCOTUS decision affirming gay marriage, Equally Wed magazine debuts.

2010

After two years of shifting dates and locations due to drought, Atlanta Pride makes a controversial decision to move its Piedmont Park celebration from June to October.

2011

A group of activists led by Rick Westbrook, who would get turned away from shelters when trying to place queer teens, establishes Lost-n-Found Youth. The group remains committed to ending homelessness for LGBTQ+ and all sexual minority young people, ages 13 to 25.

May 2015

Wussy, a Southern + Queer magazine covering politics, art, and expression, launches in Atlanta. Celebrating inclusivity and body positivity, it has widespread appeal with a younger, broader LGBTQ+ audience.

June 2015

Atlanta celebrates the historic Supreme Court gay marriage decision with impromptu weddings at courthouses downtown. Celebrity chef Art Smith hosts weddings for dozens of couples at the InterContinental Hotel.

The Rainbow crosswalk at 10th and Piedmont
The Rainbow crosswalk at 10th and Piedmont debuts in 2015

Photograph by David Goldman/AP

October 2015

Atlanta’s Rainbow Crosswalk debuts at the intersection of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue as part of the city’s Pride celebration.

March 28, 2016

Under pressure from gay rights organizations, including Georgia Equality, and the city’s business community, Governor Nathan Deal vetoes House Bill 757, a “religious liberty” bill allowing discrimination based on personal beliefs, stating the legislation did not reflect Georgia’s image as “warm, friendly, and loving.” (In 2018, he signs HB 159, which reforms adoption laws and includes no restrictions against same-sex couples.)

2019

The Armorettes, Atlanta’s longest-running drag queen troupe, celebrate their 40th anniversary. Tony Kearney, aka Wild Cherry Sucret, says, “The Armorettes have raised well over $2.4 million for people living with HIV/AIDS. I became a member of the cast in 2000, after winning Miss Homecoming by raising $30,000 for the Boybutante AIDS Foundation in Athens, Georgia, where Wild Cherry Sucret was born.”

January 2020

WSB-TV’s Jorge Estevez becomes the city’s first openly gay Latinx news anchor.

May 2020

The director of Emory University’s creative writing program, Black gay poet Jericho Brown, wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection, The Tradition.

June 26, 2020

In the wake of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Governor Brian Kemp signs a hate crime bill passed by the Georgia Legislature. It includes protections from crimes rooted in discrimination against sexual orientation.

July 1, 2020

The Atlanta Pride Committee announces that, due to the pandemic, this October’s festival will be held virtually.

July 29, 2020

A crowd gathers at 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue, as a hearse carrying the body of Congressman John Lewis stops at the city’s rainbow crosswalk to commemorate his lifelong championing of LGBTQ+ rights.

This article appears in our October 2020 issue.

The rise of Atlanta’s Black Gay Pride

Men at a Black Gay Pride event

Duncan Teague was feeling cute after primping for his debut in Atlanta’s Black gay social scene in August 1984, but the recent college graduate from Kansas soon learned he was underdressed for a backyard soiree hosted by Henri McTerry.

“When I came out of the bedroom and went into the living room, I asked them, Why are y’all dressed like y’all are going to church? and they said, What in the hell do you have on?” recalls Teague, who now serves as minister for the Abundant Love Unitarian Universalist Congregation in West End. “They re-dressed me. They wouldn’t let me wear the little picnic outfit I had on because I dressed like I was going to a damn picnic.”

There were at least 200 immaculately attired attendees at McTerry’s barbecue that weekend. Witnessing such a gathering unlocked a new world for Teague.

“They were so beautiful,” Teague breathlessly remembers. “I had never seen an outdoor event during the daylight in somebody’s backyard with this many Black gay men—it was astounding.”

Men at a Black Gay Pride event Men at a Black Gay Pride event Men at a Black Gay Pride event

Teague would learn McTerry’s picnic was one of many Black gay gatherings occurring across the city every Labor Day, and those parties created a 40-year legacy of Black queer folks from across the country flocking to Atlanta during the final weekend of summer.

In the Life Atlanta (ITLA) was the first group to formalize the Labor Day celebrations into Black Gay Pride in 1996, by supplementing the weekend of partying with health workshops, poetry slams, panel discussions, and, occasionally, a march through Atlanta’s streets.
“We weren’t different or better than people who clearly came here for the bathhouse or clubs, but we really came for the whole cultural experience of what Black Gay Pride was about,” says Raymond R. Oquendo-Duke, former president of ITLA.

Atlanta has reigned supreme on the national Black LGBTQ+ Pride circuit by attracting stars like Nicki Minaj and Brandy and by evolving into a bona-fide summer festival with food and retail vendors in Piedmont Park—as LGBTQ+ families sprawl across picnic blankets like they once did in McTerry’s backyard.

Melissa Scott, owner of the promotion group Traxx Girls, which produces the Pure Heat Community Festival that is also part of the weekend, says, “Black people in Atlanta thrive, and so, when people come here, you get to feel the energy and the positivity of successful, educated people of color.”

This article appears in our October 2020 issue.

Bulldogs: Atlanta’s little gay bar that could

Two patrons at Bulldogs
Two patrons at Bulldogs

Photograph by Russ Bowen-Youngblood

Just one story tall and tucked between 7th and 8th streets on Peachtree, a tiny gay bar has built a reputation that towers over many of the skyscrapers that surround it.

“It’s not just a landmark in Atlanta; it’s a landmark globally,” says Brent Cochran, operations manager at Bulldogs, which has been located in the heart of Midtown for 42 years. “I’ve had people who would come here from Paris tell me they knew this was where you had to go.”

Magellan Thompson was 22 years old when he arrived in Atlanta from Chicago during Black Pride weekend in 2012 and found himself at Bulldogs on his first day in town.

“We went over to Bulldogs after an event because I guess it was tradition,” says Thompson, owner of the clothing line 79th & Magallenes. Although Bulldogs is known for a mature crowd, it became Thompson’s favorite bar, and he considers it a guidepost for Black gay Atlanta, linking generations throughout decades of dynamic change—although it served a predominantly white clientele until the late 1980s.

“I think we would kind of be lost when it comes to nightlife without Bulldogs,” Thompson says of the bar that has been the only constant in a Black gay party scene which often feels transitional, with promoters renting venues across the city rather than hosting at a consistent location.

Atlanta would lose something if Bulldogs ever closed as well. The line of folks who begin gathering along Peachtree Street around 11 p.m. on weekends offers a broader representation of Black gay men than media depicts. From young men dressed for the runway and others buff enough to be a UGA running back to older professionals who look like they just left the boardroom, the regulars at Bulldogs provide a snapshot of why Atlanta is considered a Black gay Mecca.

Within a few years of Cochran starting to work as a doorman at Bulldogs in 1998, high-rise buildings were replacing gay bars and no-tell motels in Midtown, and the studio apartments and triplexes that attracted young queer people for decades were being phased out for single-family housing and condos. Bulldogs has outlasted other legendary gay clubs like Backstreet and the Armory, and it has stood its ground amid persistent threats from new neighbors and developers.

“It’s never-ending,” Cochran says of the pressures the bar faces in an evolving Midtown. Having withstood gentrification, the emergence of online dating, and even the AIDS epidemic, Bulldogs now tries to survive another crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Prior to the current conditions we’re all going through, I would have said there was no chance of us going anywhere at any time,” Cochran says. “I’m hopeful things will recover and we’ll weather the storm, but I can’t predict the future.”

Rumors of closure have become as much a part of Bulldogs’s lore as its heavyweight drinks, which Thompson attributes to how frequently venues come and go in Atlanta’s LGBTQ+ nightlife. Confident of the bar’s staying power, he says, “Pretty much everything closes, but Bulldogs doesn’t.”

This article appears in our October 2020 issue.

How a tiny gay activist group defied the odds to push the Olympics out of Cobb County

Hussain and Weaver ask, “Izzy Gay?”
Hussain and Weaver ask, “Izzy Gay?”

John Van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty Images

By Pat Hussain, as told to Richard L. Eldredge

Pat Hussain, who cofounded the Atlanta chapter of GLAAD and Southerners on New Ground, launched Olympics Out of Cobb with Jon-Ivan Weaver in 1994. The protest group was formed in response to a 1993 Cobb County resolution stating “lifestyles advocated by the gay community are incompatible with the standards to which this community subscribes.” OOOC pushed for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games to move volleyball events out of the suburban county. On July 29, 1994, after months of high-profile protests, ACOG moved the venue to Athens. In 1996, Hussain and Weaver published a behind-the-scenes joint memoir of the historic protest, Olympics Out of Cobb: Spiked! For her contributions to the city, Hussain is a 2020 recipient of the Atlanta Mayor’s Office Phoenix Award.

I was not initially aware of the anti-gay resolution in Cobb County because I had spent nine months living in Washington, D.C. working on the executive committee for the 1993 March on Washington [for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights]. I had promised my wife when I got home that I was hanging up my cape for a while. It was time to say, I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m gonna sit down for a minute.

Then, one night, I was walking to my car in the parking lot of the Charis bookstore in Little Five Points, and this white guy came walking up to me and asked, Are you Pat Hussain? I’ve been told I need to talk to you. That’s how I met Jon-Ivan Weaver. He and his partner had worked on the video that helped to secure the games for Atlanta. They were excited, but then they saw ACOG had placed a venue in Cobb County.

He was clearly impassioned, so I asked him, Jon-Ivan, what do you want to do? He said, I don’t know, but I’m pissed! As someone who, for many decades now, has been known as a pissed-off Black dyke from Georgia, that resonated with me. I said, That’s a good start.

I was told by many friends not to get involved in this because there was no way we could possibly win. This was a global entity. It would be like kicking a giant in the toe. That response mystified me. I said, I didn’t know we chose our battles according to the ones we knew we could win.

So, I talked to my wife about it, and Cherry said, You really want to do this, don’t you? I told her, Yes, because these people are wrong and we need to fight this. Everyone should feel welcomed at the Olympic games.

Then, Jon-Ivan and I had to have a long talk. I had this fear that here was this white man from Tennessee who had never done any activism, with zero street cred. My fear was, in the middle of battle, he would abandon me. We swore to each other that even if it was just us getting our broken, bloody asses arrested time and time again, we would do it together.

We started out by talking to folks at ACOG and saying, This resolution is incompatible with the values Atlanta and the Olympic Games put forward. All we want you to do is get out. They basically told us to go to hell.

Instead, we got busy.

We had to get their attention. We got wind about the unveiling of the Olympic cauldron at ACOG headquarters, and we knew we wanted to crash that party. We got a protest banner made, rolled it up, and handed it off to Olympics Out of Cobb members Don George and Ed Scruggs, two old white guys who were able to walk right in without attracting any attention. It was a Trojan horse we didn’t even have to paint.

They waited until all the speeches had been given about how beautiful the cauldron was. Then, they jumped up on the stage in front of all these people and the assembled press and unfurled this banner that said, “Olympics Out of Cobb.” Security didn’t know what the fuck was happening. It was glorious.

I was told by many friends not to get involved in this because there was no way we could possibly win . . . I said, I didn’t know we chose our battles according to the ones we knew we could win.

Then, there was Izzy, this big blue sperm ACOG had dreamed up as the Olympic mascot. OOOC folks made an Izzy costume we used for picketing outside ACOG headquarters, carrying signs that read: “Izzy Gay?” “Izzy Straight?” “Izzy Safe in Cobb County?” ACOG was furious. It got us to the bargaining table. But we weren’t going to talk on their turf.

I called in a favor. I called Lynn Cothren, a gay man who had worked as Mrs. [Coretta Scott] King’s personal assistant since he was 19. ACOG couldn’t figure how we got the King Center meeting space. We met with number four in the ACOG hierarchy, who turned out to be Shirley Franklin [ACOG’s senior policy advisor and future Atlanta mayor]. She listened and said, You have every right to protest, but we’re not pulling out.

Moving the venue remained off the table. We kept protesting. We got into [International Olympic Committee Chair] Juan Antonio Samaranch’s hotel when he was in town. We scheduled a picket outside the Capital City Club where he was meeting with ACOG.

Then, the IOC surveyed the volleyball athletes, and something like over half of them were gay. My question to Shirley then was, How can you not move the venue when you know these dykes, their girlfriends, their trainers, and their coaches are going into Cobb County to play ball, along with the dykes who want to come watch them?

Someone from inside the ACOG palace—one of us—had given Jon-Ivan a list of all the direct phone extensions. What most people didn’t know was there were people in high and low places, either queer people themselves or allies who knew this was wrong, who were giving us information.

We planned a candlelight vigil for the weekend when we knew the Olympic International Committee was coming into the city. At the vigil, someone hit a member of the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus with their car. I was scared, I was mad, and I was off the rails. It was late and I was pacing the floor over this. I picked up the phone and dialed [ACOG CEO] Billy Payne’s extension. And he picked up.

I told him someone had been hit. He said, Well, nobody should be hurt. I said, Somebody could have died tonight the same way someone could die in Cobb County. [Soon,] it was over.

They issued the press release on a Friday. We had an impromptu celebration that night at Ansley Square. We were jubilant. We were euphoric. We were stunned.

Ultimately, it was about principle. It wasn’t just for us, it was for the next generation. It was for the kids who today are coming out in middle school because they know we’re here, because they know they’re not alone.

This article appears in our October 2020 issue.

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