On April 7, Atlanta’s LGBTQ community gathered to celebrate Berl Boykin’s birthday. It’s been 74 years well-lived for the Miami-born gay pioneer, whose activism helped lead the city’s fight for LGBTQ equality as far back as 1963. That was the year Boykin was expelled from Emory University because of his sexuality.
“The dorm counselor had a skeleton key and came in on me at the wrong moment. So they gave me 48 hours to get off the campus,” Boykin told Georgia Voice. “It was a different world then.”
The sudden end to his collegiate career launched Boykin’s path in a new direction. Together with his band of LGBTQ brethren and straight allies, he battled on behalf of his community so that one day, no one would face this treatment because of their sexuality or gender identity.
“I can’t remember when I actually met him, but I always knew who he was,” said gay Atlanta historian Dave Hayward, founder of Touching Up Our Roots. “It was really a collective movement and Berl was one of the key people, but we all really participated.”
THE SUMMER OF ’69
“It was like being a part of any other persecuted and prosecuted minority. You fought back as you could and when you could, because you pretty well had to,” Boykin said. “No one else is going to take up for you, so I did.”
Boykin credits the civil rights movement and black activists of the day with helping to inspire the push for LGBTQ equality. Though he and the late Shelby Cullum had previously founded The Georgia Mattachine Society to support gay rights, push came to shove in August 1969 after an Atlanta theater was raided by the police during a showing of the Andy Warhol film “The Lonesome Cowboys,” just a few months after the Stonewall riots in New York.
“We decided to have a meeting to see if we could organize a Georgia Gay Liberation Front like the one that was in New York at that point,” Boykin said. “We were popping mad. People were jumping up and down with anger.”
The next spring, members tabled at Piedmont Park during the Arts Festival and “distributed propaganda that we’d printed off.” The following summer, Boykin and his Georgia Gay Liberation Front members took to sidewalks.
“I certainly never thought, when I was organizing the first gay Pride march here, that it would get up to 300,000 strong. We had 125 people the first time in 1971 by actual count,” Boykin said.
He should know — he counted twice.
“We could not get a parade permit from the city,” Boykin said. “We marched up Peachtree from the Federal Building downtown … by the Baptist church at 5th and Peachtree, just as they were getting out of church and they were freaked out.”
The march continued to 14th Street and then on to Piedmont Park, where the 125 marchers gathered for speeches. Boykin served as grand marshal for that event.
CONFRONTING GOV. CARTER
Years after his activism began, Boykin was honored by the Georgia Legislature. One of the sections in the House resolution commended him for being among three men to present “the first official petition to a sitting Georgia governor for lesbian and gay equal rights under the law.”
Boykin, joined by the late activists Klaus Smith and Bill Smith, met with then-Gov. Jimmy Carter on July 14, 1971. It was Bastille Day, and they had a bone to pick. “For the first time in the history of Georgia, [Carter] outlawed lesbianism,” Boykin said. “He instituted a 20-year prison sentence for sodomy for lesbianism. He did reduce the male sentence from 30 to 20 years.”
Though they were unable to get any women to join them that day, the three went to visit Carter during his open office hours. “He wasn’t expecting us, but there we were. We demanded that he lend his voice to a repeal of that law,” Boykin said.
The governor didn’t give in at the time, but there is a sequel.
“A few years back, we had an amendment here in Georgia that was against any pro-gay law being passed. That year I wrote a letter to Jimmy Carter, along with Dave Hayward, and I pointed out what I just went over,” Boykin said. “At a vital juncture in 2004, he came out and supported civil unions, which I know is half-cake and sort of superceded now, but it was vital at the time to have the support from a prominent public voice. I’m proud that I could do that much by just writing a letter and putting a guilt trip on him.”
IGNITING A FIRE
“We’re a long way from full equality, because even with the things we achieved, there’s still a lot of racial prejudice, still a lot of prejudice against gay people in society and it still has to be struggled against, or they’ll put us right back in the closet,” Boykin said. “The eternal struggle is the price of liberty. I think it’s a price worth paying.”
In the heyday of his activism — which was peppered between writing jobs for the alt-newspaper The Great Speckled Bird, delivering film, living in England, writing a book, working for public radio and radio theater — there was a key group taking charge of LGBTQ rights in Atlanta. Boykin had friends who were killed for their beliefs and their sexuality. The groups he was part of fizzled and factioned, but their fiery spirits never wavered.
“If you were out, you were generally out and doing something,” Boykin said. “Today, people get together at Pride, and then for the most part they disappear into the woodwork.”
That’s one reason he believes LGBTQ Atlanta shouldn’t forget its roots.
“People need to know now, younger gay people, how bad the oppression was in the old days and how it had to be fought against for people to even get to the relative state of liberation we’re in now,” he said. “Never forget the struggle. Our enemies won’t, and they will definitely have the energy to push us back. … Struggle on until you get more freedom in each aspect. … Until we get full equality, every way with straight people, no more, no less, things are not over.”