From Whence We Came: Our LGBTQ ATL History

In 1846, you didn’t travel much at night — not in this town of 6,000 people. Streetgangs and unemployed scoundrels waited for unsuspecting passersby in the thickets of darkness just off the patchwork of Marthasville’s dirt roads. Even well-meaning travelers in horse-and-buggy wouldn’t brave the blackness, for deep erosion holes routinely snapped their beloved beasts’ legs with a poorly placed step ruining, in the process, the thick, woolen clothing monied gentleman donned in those days. Smartly, one wouldn’t dare that riskiness Marthasville, the lean-to Southern city without street lamps or cobblestone roads, known a year later as Atlanta.

The Lorelei Ladies

But it wasn’t tomfoolery alone that early Atlantans carried out in the darkest corners of our fledgling city. No, the concealing nature of darkness allowed for much more salacious, illegal, and highly sexualized goings-on between men and women, even after the installation of 1855’s coal-burning street lamps. There are some things for which even light and the gamblesome dance of on-again, off-again attention from authorities won’t hinder, even to this day. We shall revisit those very street lamps — now streetlights — and the effect the city tried to impart upon her more “craven” citizens later in our historical journey.

For now, let’s begin with an acknowledgement that the streets we travel on a near-daily basis (Piedmont, Cheshire Bridge, the Peachtrees, and the likes) were once occupied by not only the well-to-do in their oft-tipping bowler caps and curtsying petticoats, but by soil-tilling slaves planning their ways out, and forsaken white mothers bouncing fatherless babies in their worried arms planning all the same alongside the dirt roads the more affluent upstanders were traveling via carriage.

Inequality has always held the deepest of roots in the Georgian soil beneath our feet, but bravery and gumption entangle therein, too. When it comes to our LGBTQ ancenstors and activists of yore, one must never mistake that we’ve long woven our fury and fortitude into the dirtwith blood, sweat, and generation upon generation of tears — clandestine and behind megaphones at the Capitol alike.

Gov. James Hammond
There are many things General Sherman’s torches could never destroy, and our proud, LGBTQ populace comprises the most iridescent of phoenix feathers that epitomize the mythology-come-to-life of this town.

So please: Walk with us through the story of our beloved ashes-to-riches story and see if the spirits of our LGBTQ ancestors — those who shouldered the stalwart, unyielding, often life-threatening demands for change — perhaps lives on through the heart that beats within you today, for these qualities, dear reader, are from whence we came.


1826: The first known love letters between two men here in the South come from 22-year-old law student Thomas Withers and future governor James Hammond. Wrote the young Jeff: “I feel some inclination to know whether you yet sleep in your shirt-tail, and whether you yet have had the extravagant delight of poking and punching a writhing Bedfellow with your long, fleshen pole — the exquisite touches of which I have often had the honor of feeling.”

Francois Renault, aka Anthony Auriemma

1913: Anthony Auriemma arrives on the scene, the first known female impersonator. Anthony donned women’s clothing and paraded around Peachtree Street to protest the ban on men wearing women’s garb. He would, in 1924, become a Vaudevillian actor known as Francois Renault.

1918: Eight decades after her death, Dorothy Vogel’s daughter exposes her mother as an Atlantan lesbian in a tell-all, recounting her mother’s relationships with women in a series of photographs — photographs that would have damned her mother in the anti-homosexual turn-of-the-century.

1937: The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce distributes a tongue-in-cheek publication, Gay Atlanta. Who paid for the magazine? Ad revenue from the growing clique of local drag performers!

1939: With WWII just underway, lots of ladies were left behind. Left to their own devices, The Lorelei Ladies, a softball team, is formed. Word on the mound? Lots of hookups among the players was a good way to show you were a team player.

1944: Seeing the popularity of women’s sports teams, other women — straight, bi, and lesbian alike — The Tomboys, a basketball team, joins the female fray of sportsters. They eventually branch out into softball to give The Lorelei Ladies a run for their money.

Winecoff Hotel

1946: We Atlantans like to think that the first LGBTQ-friendly church in the city would be the First Metropolitan Church of Atlanta. For those, Bishop John Kazankts and George Hyde (a seminary school dropout) would like a word. Fed up with being shunned by their own churches, they formed the Eucharist Catholic Church, holding their meetings in the Winecoff Hotel (what we now know as The Ellis). There, they lead a congregation of 85 straight and gay parishioners. Not too bad for the 1940s.

1953: Using a two-way mirror in the bathroom of the Carnegie Library, the Atlanta Police Department busts 20 men for sodomy, then a felony. Their names, addresses, and places of employment are published in the Atlanta Constitution (the city’s morning paper) and the Atlanta Journal (our evening publication). The incident was labeled The Atlanta Public Library Perversion Case, and lead to 19 of the 20 being fired from their jobs. All of the men received no less than two years in prison and are heavily fined for “lewdness.”

1953: Guy Dobbs, a female impersonator known as Terry Lynn, manages a club called the Queen of Clubs. Therein, he leads a drag troupe and brings in such performers as Bobbi La Marr and Billy Jones. “We’d run and hide in the furnace room, the beer cooler, in the ladies’ restroom,” Dobbs is quoted, concerning police bombardment of the joint. “We were scared to death, but never caught!”

1956: With a unanimous vote, Atlanta City Council votes to install more adequate lighting and police presence to deal with gay men using Piedmont Park to cruise for other gay men.

1957: Thomas Elliot wears sunglasses, a skirt, sandals, and a scarf at the Atlanta airport. His next destination? Jail. He was arrested for disorderly conduct for his typically female attire.

1959: Another arrest for the disorderly conduct of wearing typically female clothing goes to Ralph Ferguson, who had the audacity to wear a green jacket with a bandana, plaid skirt, and shoes that were obviously too small into a theater.

“Lonesome Cowboys”

1969: Activist Abby Drue, director of the Ben Marion Institute for Social Justice, is entrapped in the August an APD raid of Andy Warhol’s “Lonesome Cowboys” at the Ansley Mall Mini Cinema. The raid is the catalyst for the Georgia Gay Liberation Front to form here, at a standing-room-only meeting at Emory’s New Morning Café in Emory Village. Berl Boykin, Steve Abbott, Bill Smith, and activist Vicki Gabriner are some of the founders of the GGLF. Bill Smith insists the group be called the GEORGIA GLF to encompass the entire state.

1971: Though denied a permit to hold what was to be Atlanta’s first Gay Pride March, 125 attendees show up and chant with signs as they march along the city’s sidewalks downtown.

1972: Mayor Sam Massell appoints the first-ever community liaison Charlie St. John, an archivist and journalism working for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Mayor Sam Massell
1972: Thanks to the Georgia Gay Liberation Front’s tenacity, the first official Gay Pride takes place in Atlanta.

1972: The Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance (ALFA) was founded. An American lesbian feminist organization, among the oldest in the country, it served as a breakaway from the Gay Liberation movement and the Atlanta’s Women’s Liberation Center.

1973: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution fires Charlie St. John for distributing fliers for the next Gay Pride event. This year, however, lots of attendees wore paper bags over their head in a show of solidarity to those who have been punished for the “crime” of being out and proud.

1974: The Atlanta Barb, the city’s first official long-standing gay publication hits the stands. Shortened to simply The Barb, the paper flies in the face of discrimination to draw attention to the plights of (and the small victories in) our local gay community.

1974: Charis Books and More opens in Little Five Points. Not only a community center, it is the second longest-lived, continually operating independent feminist bookstore in the country.

John Lewis

1975: The legendary civil-rights hero and Georgia Congressman John Lewis sponsors the first-ever bill for gays and lesbians in our state. To this day, he continues to be an advocate against discriminate for our community and can regularly be seen at LGBTQ events around Georgia.

1975: Gay men aren’t manly? 1975’s inaugural Mr. Gay Atlanta, a pageant for the beautiful of physique, would beg to differ. The men competing were able to showcase the beefcake in casual, swimwear, and evening attire.

1976: A monthly magazine geared toward gay nightlife, Cruise Magazine hits stands.

1976: The Atlanta Gay Center is opened.

1976: Mayor Maynard Jackson declares a Gay Pride Day for the city to be held on June 26. Not to be upstaged, Citizens For A Decent Atlanta — a Southern Baptist group — ran full-page ads in local publications decrying the mayor’s proclamation. FUN FACT: June 26, 2015 is when the Supreme Court of the United States legalized same-sex marriage the law of the land in the landmark case, Obergefell v. Hodges.

Anita Bryant
1978: Anti-gay activist and national celebrity Anita Bryant speaks at an anti-LGBTQ crowd as she plays host to the Southern Baptist Convention and its parishioners. The event, drawing a crowd of 4,000, is held at the Georgia World Congress center.

1978: 300 gay men in rafts and inner-tubes take to the Chattahoochee for the first-ever Hotlanta River expo.

1978: Apparently feeling the pressure, Mayor Jackson chooses to rename Gay Pride Day something more Southern Baptist-friendly: Civil Liberties Day. Celebrants still called it Gay Pride Day, the heathens.

1979: Over 10,000 Atlantans pack up in droves and head for D.C., where the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights was centered.

1979: A mysterious and sudden outbreak of Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia is affecting a surprising amount of gay men in California. These diseases are commonly found in the elderly, so the epidemic has hit the radar of the medical community in an alarming and confusing fashion.

1981: The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control zeroes in on the strange disease and give it a name: GRID, which stands for Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. It’s also informally and callously nicknamed the “gay plague.”

1982: The CDC renames the mysterious illness taking scores of lives “AIDS,” now known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The rename comes from the fact that it’s not just a gay, male disease. Women, Haitian immigrants, and hemophiliacs — straight and gay alike, are contracting the disease.

1983: The very first Dyke March is held at Atlanta Pride.

1984: Three years into his office of Mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young has been visibly absent from any gay and lesbian events. However, he gives his blessing and acknowledgment to Atlanta’s Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights Day.

Rock Hudson
1984: The cause of AIDS is discovered: It’s a retrovirus that would become known as the human immunodeficiency virus, or simply HIV. “[AIDS] meant the end of my sex life as I knew it because one has to reveal their status — that is, if he is a moral person.” – George H. Adams, then 87, in a 2004 interview with historian Wesley Chenault.

1985: The first major celebrity dies of AIDS. The death of 59-year-old Rock Hudson shocks the world, as AIDS is mostly considered a “young man’s disease.”

1985: Congregation Bet Havarim, the first LGBTQ-welcoming synagogue, opens its doors.

1988: Our predecessor, Southern Voice, begins its historic LGBTQ coverage of Atlanta and surrounding.
The Southern Voice

Taking his seat once again as mayor of Atlanta after Andrew Young was voted out, Maynard Jackson becomes the first in his position to appear at Atlanta Pride.

1992: Emory University establishes its Gay and Lesbian Student Life office.

1992: After Cheryl Summerville, a Lithonia waitress, was fired from Cracker Barrel for being a lesbian, Congressman Barney Frank stepped in to lead a protest in her honor. Summerville was also the head of distribution for Southern Voice for many years.

Cheryl Summerville

1993: Fulton County is the first county in the state to issue an official Pride proclamation, joining Atlanta.

1988: Our predecessor, Southern Voice, begins its historic LGBTQ coverage of Atlanta and surrounding.

1996: Cobb County loses its bid to host the Olympics after area Christians against the LGBTQ community show disdain for the “promotion of the gay lifestyle.” Pat Hussain leads the effort to remove “Olympics Out of Cobb,” and succeeds.

1996: The Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Visitors Center gives the city an Olympics-worthy campaign to attract LGBTQ tourism to our welcoming city, starting with the games.

1996: Mayor Campbell orders first LGBT Visitor’s Center for the Olympics at Center Stage Theatre.
Cathy Woolard

Cathy Woolard becomes the first openly gay official elected in Atlanta. She assumes a position on City Council.

1997: Eric Rudolph, an extreme-right activist, bombs known lesbian bar and hangout The Otherside, injuring five. Rudolph, who was found responsible for the deadly Atlanta Olympic bombings, also detonated explosives at an abortion clinic in Sandy Springs.

Kecia Cunningham

1999: Kecia Cunningham is elected to the Decatur City Commission, making her the first African-American official to take up residence in that capacity.

2000: Karla Drenner is welcomed as the first out lesbian in the Georgia General Assembly.

2002: The Atlanta Police Department cranks up its LGBT Liaison program and appoints Officer Constance Locke to be the tie that binds our local police force with our local LGBTQ community.

2003: Fulton County becomes the first county in the state to pass domestic partnership registration for county residents and municipal employees in same-sex relationships.

Karla Drenner
2004: In this year, the passage of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage stymies the recognition of same-sex relationships by our state.

2005: The General Assembly passes a law which legalizes the ability of counties to establish domestic partnership benefits for county employees.

2007: The city-county government of Athens legalizes health benefits for unmarried domestic partners.

Atlanta Eagle Protest

A total of 24 APD members now infamously known as the Red Dog Unit barged into Ponce de Leon’s Atlanta Eagle and forced approximately 70 patrons to lay on the floor of the popular LGBTQ nightclub. They were then gay bashed and searched by the unit, eight of the searches resulting in arrests. The seemingly rogue unit attempted to justify their actions by arguing that the nightclub’s patrons were using drugs and engaging in public, sexual activity. Of the accused, 28 fire back in a lawsuit that eventually shows that the unit not only violated their civil rights, encroached upon their right to legal search and seizure, and imprisoned them falsely,  but also cravenly destroyed a mountain of evidence that would have easily had the case thrown out without much ado. In total, 35 members of the force (including supervisors) are publicly reprimanded. Additionally, a settlement of more than $1,000,000 is awarded to the victims of the gay witch hunt.

2010: In response to the discomposure of the Atlanta Eagle raid, two more LGBT liaisons are appointed to the APD: Officers Patricia Powell and Brian Sharp.

2010: Simone Bell becomes the first openly lesbian African-American woman to be elected to the Georgia General Assembly.

2010: The Georgia Voice makes its maiden voyage, becoming the vanguard of LGBTQ journalism that’s based in Atlanta, but with far-reaching coverage from local stories to pieces that affect the international community at large.

The semi-monthly brought along many of the staff from the now-defunct Southern Voice, including current owner and publisher of Georgia Voice Tim Boyd, Art Director Rob Boeger, former Southern Voice staff writers Dyana Bagby, former staffer Laura-Douglas Brown (both of whom later became editors of Georgia Voice), and former owner of Southern Voice Chris Cash.

2011: House member Rashad Taylor comes out, becoming the first male, openly gay member of the Georgia House of Representatives.

2011: The Eleventh Circuit Court ruled in Glenn v. Brumby that firing someone based on gender-nonconformity violates the Constitution’s prohibition on sex discrimination, giving trans and gender nonconforming employees legal protections in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.

2012: Mayor Kasim Reed issues a statement that declares his stance on LGBTQ issues is a favorable one, a first for a relatively new Atlanta mayor.

Celebration in 2015
2015: Georgia recognizes all same-sex marriages, after the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the federal ban.

2016: With the help of a veto pen, Gov. Nathan Deal strikes down House Bill 757, legislation that made it through both bodies of our state government. The bill would have allowed state adoption agencies to deny children to same-sex couples on religious grounds.
Diamond Lil

2016: Beloved drag performer Diamond Lil passes away at age 80. The Savannah-born song-and-dance legend was well-known in the community for singing (not lip syncing) during her shows. During her youth, she was harassed for being gender nonconforming in the 1950s South. Not only was she discharged from the National Guard, she was also arrested on numerous occasions for wearing women’s clothing.

2018: The Senate passes SB 375, which calls for allowing private adoption agencies receiving state funds to deny adoptions for certain couples or individual parents based on sincerely held religious beliefs. It does not make it through the House.

2018: Soon after taking office, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms appoints an LGBTQ advisory board to help shape the city’s policies and engagements with Atlanta’s LGBTQ communities, and serve as a bridge between City Hall and LGBTQ residents.

The first-ever Hotlanta River expo, 1978.