Growing up in repressive rural Georgia hours north of Atlanta, I dreamt of going to Pride in Piedmont Park – a chance to experience freedom, joy, hope, and love in the expression of the queer identity. Now at college and in my third year in the city, I am a few months out from attending my third Atlanta Pride. It has been everything I hoped: the colors, smiles, excitement, compliments, free mom hugs, drag queens swinging from poles on moving floats, seeing old friends, making new connections, and overwhelming emotion at the scale of LGBTQIA+ representation. Pride at Piedmont Park and the larger community provides the most electrifying, knowing, and supportive environment where one can see those both alike and different. Every year the smaller-than-you’d-think community gathers bumping into exes and impending self-realization yet are happy in the light air of the large gathering of a normally stigmatized and disjointed community. Experiencing this I found myself curious as to how such a setting, and Atlanta Pride, were born – what people, places, and ideals coalesced to create the resonant gay culture that midtown has become known for? 

It has been suggested that gender and sexual nonconforming individuals have been on the scene between Downtown and Midtown and Atlanta since the late 1800s1. There are journal reports from key Atlanta papers such as the Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Journal dating back to the early 1900s. Still-existing documentation is often rhetorical and offensive reflecting defamatory, violence-spurning journalism often utilized by Atlanta’s elite. At this time such tactics were most used to stigmatize African American communities yet were broadly used against any identities that could be sold as not aligning with Christian values. The intersectional nature of such minority communities and their resistance throughout Atlanta’s development are apparent. 

Well into the 1930s most non-straight and cisgendered individuals in Atlanta, especially those of color, operated in self-repression and behind closed doors leaving little tangible trace of their lifestyles or even existence. There are a few traceable key gay individuals and instances leading into the 1950s. Much of the remaining documentation of gay Atlantans of the early 1900s exists in the form of advertisements due to the tourist-attracting and commercialized nature of gay identity expression and to what extent it would be allowed. Adverts from the 1920s and 1930s demonstrate “female impersonators” who functioned as entertainers and often a tourist attraction experiencing little freedom elsewhere.  

Pride is far from the only outlet for the gay community in Atlanta – the city is known to boast a variety neighborhoods and establishments catered to this group that, in addition to private placemaking, has given way to a few safe and resilient queer spaces. This expansive and amplified gay culture in the otherwise traditional old south has led Atlanta to be heralded a “Gay Mecca”2 of the south. Despite notable influences of ongoing queer visibility Downtown that grounded the early gay scene, the critical visibility and action for Atlanta’s Gay Rights movement in the 1970s largely surrounded the area of Midtown shown on the map. While such activity led to the most publicized and palpable progress for the community, the origins of gay culture in Atlanta are more deeply rooted than one might expect.

In addition to attacks from the media and outside of commercialization, same-sex relations and gender non-conformity were criminal acts that often resulted in violence and lengthy prison time, especially in Atlanta more entrenched in the old-south mentality than what was advertised. Places pinned as gay gathering spots were raided and queer individuals were arrested in bars, parks, libraries, and virtually any non-private space3. In midtown gay individuals largely held private meetups and parties in tight-knit apartments neat Piedmont Park but remain largely undocumented. On maps we can see areas known to house this community – the park, streets, and apartments, but little is known outside of that.   

In Downtown Atlanta in the 1920s there were a couple notably successful individuals whose queer identities were “open secrets”. Norris Bumstead Herndon was the son of Atlanta’s first Black Millionaire and prosperous heir to his father’s life insurance business on Auburn Avenue. His same-sex attraction was known among his associates and friends, yet he was known to be rather reserved and reclusive, perhaps due to the danger in this identity. The entertainment scene of the nearby “working class block”4(Five points, Decatur, Edgewood, Whitehall, Marietta) allowed some expression in the 1920’s. This area was known for both cheap entertainment for the working class and to draw tourists. It had nightclubs, bars, burlesque, and perhaps most notably vaudeville that, despite ongoing raids, was profitable and provided visibility. Ma Rainey, who some hail as the mother of Blues, performed at the 81 Theatre on Decatur Street and had songs hinting about her bisexuality5. Such representation and the crowds it drew fostered a culture of tolerance in this block for some time, yet a lack of acceptance from the larger community limited this area being mobilized for gay rights in Atlanta.

World War Two and the war effort have been linked to the growth of gay culture as independence grew in communities at home and those returning from war likely experienced new exposure to unspoken same-sex relations in the military. The 1950s and 1960s in Atlanta were marked by the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Feminism movements with a broader air of liberation that bolstered growing gay rights and visibility. With this is of course city and corporate leaders welcoming forms of gay visibility they deemed acceptable to boost queer tourism6 , midtowns incoming residents were primarily white middle to upper class indivudals drawn in hopes of escaping limiting, often rural, hometowns. Organizing of softball teams through the Atlanta Lesbian-Feminist Alliance (ALFA)7 and other organizations is one example of how this community subtly connected and utilized their space springboarding off intersectional movements. This growing representation was, of course, still bolstered by crowd-fascinating entertainment, especially in what would become known as drag. 

The sense of revolutionary activism and liberation was not an Atlanta-only phenomenon. As anti-war efforts, civil rights activism, and gay rights spread nationally, Atlanta was carried along. The Stonewall Riot of 1969 in New York is often noted as a catalyst for the Gay Rights movement in Atlanta that really kicked off heading into the 1970s. Still centered in Midtown, bars such as Sweet Gum Head, performers such as Lil Diamond and Phyllis Killer, and gay activists such as the leader of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) Bill Smith provided momentum for gay rights in a breach of invisibility that would ultimately liberate the gay community in the city8. This is, in part, due to the gathering and organizing of large and diverse LGBTQIA+ individuals in a confined area of space. The area surrounding Piedmont Park known as the “strip” was becoming a gay safezone. This was not only a safe zone for gay individuals but for a broad and socially subversive “alternative” community. As part of a commercializing area, these communities gained representation through publications such as the “alternative” newspaper The Great Speckled Bird (GSB) which largely employed gay individuals. In 1969 the press held a free concert in Piedmont Park that was raided by police with little warrant, part of ongoing attempts to subdue any alternative culture further demonstrated by a new police station nearby called the Pigpen for related arrests. While the station faced protest and eventual closure, police interference and oppression caused challenges for places in the alleged “safe zone” such as the GSB which was demolished and moved locations several times in the span of a few years. Cops lurked in the park and on the streets to bust out same-sex interaction and raided gathering spaces to end and erase their existence – this only private gatherings such as home dinner parties and community organizing that would make the movement forever visible. With this, Gay Atlanta fully flourished throughout the 1970s

In 1971 Bill Smith and GLF are noted to have started the first Atlanta Pride march from the Capitol, through downtown and midtown, and eventually into Piedmont Park9. The first official Gay Pride Parade was held the following year in 1972 drawing decent crowds. This was a catalyzing event, public perceptions grew favorable, and the community had the freedom to connect and make change. Outside of noted growing community organizations such as GLF and ALFA, the metro Atlanta community church, the SE Gay Coalition, the Gay Political Action Committee, the Board of First Tuesday, and innumerable others aided in building and growing the community. Local events such as the Mr. and Mrs. Gay Atlanta Pageants at the Sweet Gum Head and broader events such as the Hotlanta River Expo (1980) further coalesced the community. Gay Publications such as The Barb (1974), Sister Wisdom (1976), Cruise (1976), the Southern Voice (1980), and Gaybriel (1979) were created providing information to support the larger cultural expansion of the queer movement as well as the larger social liberation movement of the time.

These ideas did not, of course, only stretch the strip. The Decatur Street area, home to Georgia State University by the 1970s, had many student-led during this time – in 1972 Smith attempted to lecture and organize at Georgia State but was ultimately unsuccessful. This is perhaps indicative of the physical barriers such as interstates as well as social and class barriers that arose from the proceeding decades. As this movement developed in-fighting as well as overarching social norms created expansive yet distinct subsects and intricacies of the community that require separate attention to properly address. The Black Queer community has faced heightened and ongoing stigmatization developing separate leadership and movements to support broader community interests to be further explored in Black literature such as that of Michael Bartone10 which specifically explores this identity in the Black Gay Mecca with a focus on historic and social considerations of such. Action here influenced relations between the gay community and the political sphere contributing to the larger culture of acceptance such as that of Mayor Jacksons’ pride proclamation in 1976. Black-lead organizations such as the Gay Atlanta Minority Association (GAMA) founded in 1979 were created due to discrimination against minority individuals in the developing gay scene in Atlanta garnering visibility and traction by hosting pageants at Sweet Gum in the 1980s. At this time the distinct geographic lines of the gay community became blurred with ongoing socio-demographic changes in the city.

Overwhelming gay liberation of the 1970s in Atlanta developed a distinct culture of pride for queer identities that is present today. Past the pivotal activity of the 1970s, the 1980s saw notable challenges for the growing community from the AIDS epidememic11 that while traumatizing grew further support and demonstrated the resilience the gay-Atlanta has become known for. As pride surged into the 21st first century establishments persisted cementing the collective power of the movement. Still centered in the sect of midtown where it was rooted, the movement saw advocacy from families, legal groups, human rights organizations, and more and founded a variety of similar groups focused on gay organizations and community building. The annual pride celebration has been pivotal in maintaining a well-connected movement of such groups, yet the central and longstanding location of action is arguably the most notable prior to the 21st century. Gay pride and culture, despite residing stigmatization, have remained abundant in Atlanta. The 2000s have been marked by federal and local legislation for gay marriage and prohibiting discrimination against queer identities. The once centralized community has expanded as new generations make their homage to gay mecca equipped with a modern air of social liberation and expansion.  While the location, legality, and organization may fluctuate the community is ever-present. Now more than 50 years out from the first pride parade, thousands of individuals throughout metro-Atlanta and greater Georgia make their annual journey to be seen and experience the queer joy often unknowingly brought by a shared history of placemaking, community, and resilience born upon those hollowed grounds.

  1. Martin, 2021. A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drag, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution. ↩︎
  2. Chenault and Brauckman, 2008. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta. ↩︎
  3. Martin, 2021. A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drag, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution. ↩︎
  4. Chenault and Brauckman, 2008. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta  ↩︎
  5. Chenault and Brauckman, 2008. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta ↩︎
  6. Mims, 2022.Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists: Queer Women in the Urban South ↩︎
  7. Mims, 2022.Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists: Queer Women in the Urban South. ↩︎
  8. Martin, 2021. A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drag, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution. ↩︎
  9. Martin, 2021. A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drag, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution. ↩︎
  10. Bartone, 2015. Michael. “Navigating And Negotiating Identity In The Black Gay Mecca” ↩︎
  11. Chenault and Brauckman, 2008. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta. ↩︎

Works Cited:

Bartone, Michael. “Navigating And Negotiating Identity In The Black Gay Mecca: Educational And Institutional Influences That Positively Impact The Life Histories Of Black Gay Male Youth In Atlanta”. phD diss. Georgia State University, 2015., Martin. A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drag, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution. New York, NY: WW Norton and Company, 2021.

Chenault, W. and Brauckman, S. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta. Atlanta History Center, Arcadia Publishing. 2008.Mims, La Shonda. Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists: Queer Women in the Urban South. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2022

Mims, La Shonda. Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists: Queer Women in the Urban South. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2022

Padgett, Martin. A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drag, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution. New York, NY: WW Norton and Company, 2021.

Figures (f):

  1. 1911 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Vol. 2, s. 2. Atlanta Sanborn Maps, Library of Congress.
  2. Atlanta Constitution article, 1913. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta.
  3. Atlanta Constitution advertisement, 1924. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta.
  4. 1955 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Vol. 2 S. 217. Sourced from GSU Special Collections Hard Copy.
  5.  Norris Herndon c. 1926. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta.
  6. 1931 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Vol. 1, s. 23. Sourced from ProQuest Digital Sanborn Maps.
  7. Lesbian Softball team c. 1960s. Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists.
  8. 1955 Advertisement. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta.
  9. 1968 Photo the Great Speckled Bird. GSU Special Collections.
  10.  1969 photo of the Great Speckled Bird demolition. Sourced from GSU Special Collections.
  11.  1970 Dinner Party Invitation. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta.
  12. 1971 Map of “Gay Atlanta”. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta
  13.  Atlanta Barb Paper 1974.  Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta.
  14.  Photo from Mr. Gay Atlanta 1975.  Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta.
  15. Photo from Ms. Gay Atlanta 1977.  Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta.
  16. Photo from Hotlanta River Expo 1981.  Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta.
  17. Maynard Jackson’s 1976 Gay Pride Declaration. Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists.
  18. Mr. GAMA Pageant 1984. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta.
  19.  Photo from 1977 Atlanta Pride Parade. Images of America: Gay and Lesbian Atlanta.