Iconic Atlanta gay bar celebrates milestone 30th anniversary

Atlanta’s most famous gay bar has seen it all, and this month the Atlanta Eagle is reaching a new milestone: 30 years serving Atlanta’s LGBT community – or, more specifically the leather and fetish community.

The dark, stucco building at 306 Ponce de Leon Avenue first housed Renegade’s, a gay country bar opened by the Eagle’s first owner, Jay Evans, that lasted less than six months. Evans previously owned the Texas Drilling Company (where Highland Tap is now). When Renegade’s failed, he decided to paint everything black and re-open as the Eagle – though according to Robby Kelley, who purchased the bar with his partner (and current owner) Richard Ramey after Jay died of AIDS soon after opening, Jay often joked that if the Eagle failed, he’d “find a poodle, dye it pink, put it up on a pole and call it ‘The Pink Poodle on Ponce.’”

Ramey and Kelley found their way to the Eagle when they were officers in the Southern Bears Club. The Eagle has long been a home to sports teams, interest clubs and other LGBT community organizations. The manager running the bar after Jay’s death floated the idea of ending the club nights, which would have effectively severed the relationship with the many community organizations that called the Eagle home. Ramey refused to allow that to happen, and together with Kelley, purchased the bar – and fired the manager.

Atlanta Eagle bartender Kirby Morin on a recent night leading into the bar’s 30th anniversary weekend. (Photo by Robbie Medwed)

‘We embrace everyone’

As much as the bar may have changed since then – a fresh coat of paint, a redesign of the outdoor signage to add the bar’s name – the essence has remained the same, Ramey said.

“People are still looking for a place to be themselves,” he told Georgia Voice. “We embrace everyone. If you’re a drag queen, or a leather man, or you have a specific fetish, there’s a place for you at the Eagle.”

Michael Baker, an Athens resident and longtime Eagle patron, first fell in love with the bar in 1999 when he lived in Atlanta.

“My weekends would start at Hoedown’s, and then I would end my nights on the dance floor at the Eagle. I used to play on both of the Eagle softball teams,” he said.

Baker also echoed Kelley and Ramey’s favorite points of pride: “I have always found it one of the most welcoming bars in the city, and walking in after a few weeks without a visit feels like coming home.”

2009 raid, a look into future

Thirty years in business is almost unheard of for a gay bar in Atlanta, and in some ways the Eagle has seen enough ups and downs for twice that time period. Its most famous moment came in 2009 when the Atlanta Police Department’s Red Dog Unit raided the bar, acting on a tip that there was nudity, sexual activities and drug use on the premises.

“They threw us to the ground, searched everyone and everything in the bar, kicked us and stepped on us, and called us names like it was the 1950s,” Kelley remembered.

The Eagle, with the help of lawyer Dan Grossman, successfully sued the city of Atlanta and the police department, proving the charges against the bar and its patrons were false. Ramey is proud of the results of the lawsuit, noting that “the Red Dog Unit was disbanded, which was good for the entire city. This was a unit that was going after young African-Americans in other parts of the city and at other bars, too. I’m glad we helped to end that.” The APD still uses the Eagle raid in its training activities – as an example of what not to do.

Soon after the court case resolved, Kelley sold his ownership stake to Ramey and moved to Texas. The two enjoyed an 18-year business relationship and a 13-year romantic relationship and still speak fondly of each other.

Ramey spoke confidently about the bar’s future. He has plans to bring the bar a bit more up-to-date and freshen some things up, but the core of what the Eagle is will always remain the same, even as a new landlord brought questions of redevelopment.

“The new landord, Dr. Shahzad Hashmi, refused to purchase the buildings without guaranteeing we’d stick around,” Ramey said. “He’s completely supportive of us and wants us to remain successful. We’re not going anywhere.”

Eagle Anniversary and Atlanta Leather Pride Events

The Atlanta Eagle’s 30th Anniversary Party coincides with the Atlanta Leather Pride celebrations and its centerpiece events, the Mr. and Ms. Atlanta Eagle and Mr. Southeast Rubber 2017 contests at the Eagle. Those reaching for a title will need to score well not just on leather/rubber attire, but audience appeal, general confidence and personality.

Attendees to the full weekend of Atlanta Leather Pride events can expect parties featuring DJ Neon the GlowgoBear, bootblacking, BDSM demos, BBQ lunches, a wrap-up brunch at Roxx Tavern and, of course, lots of leather and kink.

Proceeds from Atlanta Leather Pride are donated to a charity each year, and 2017’s beneficiary is the Sharon St. Cyr Fund, which provides grants to organizations for American Sign Language-interpreting services for the deaf and hard of hearing and provides hearing aids to those who are hearing impaired.

Atlanta Eagle 30th Anniversary Weekend Kickoff Party
Friday April 7, 2017
10 p.m. – 3 a.m.
Atlanta Eagle

Atlanta Eagle 30th Anniversary Celebration feat. Mr. & Ms. Atlanta Eagle Contest and Mr. Southeast Rubber Contest
Saturday, April 8, 2017
7 p.m. – 3 a.m.
Atlanta Eagle