On October 11, 1994 AIDS activist John Kappers died in his own bed in Little Five Points surrounded by his partner and a few close friends. Although he had slipped into a coma, I whispered in his ear, “John, do you know what today is? It’s National Coming Out Day!”
Of course he knew what day it was. John didn’t just know LGBTQ history, he lived it. And he is one of hundreds of Atlantans in the 1980’s and 90’s who dedicated their lives, whether short or long, to the belief that all people were equal and deserved to be treated as such by the government, their families and all of society. It was not just an idealistic stance, it was a radical and often dangerous one. John did it anyway.
Six years before John’s death, in 1988, National Coming Out Day was celebrated for the first time. That same year the first issue of Southern Voice fell into the hands of a few thousand LGBTQ Atlantans. I launched the newspaper with the help of a few volunteers who were so excited to be a part of history that they worked without pay and without recognition other than their names in the staff box or on a byline. We had little money, only a small corner in the office of a non-profit arts organization, no fax machine and no telephone number of our own. Somehow, we managed to sell enough ads to just enough brave business owners to cover the printing bill for that first issue on March 1. I had no idea if we could afford a second issue. But time and time again, the money showed up. Within eighteen months, we had our own office, our own fax machine and a few were able to be paid.
By the time we sold the paper in 1997, we were a well paid staff of 12, owned a building, our weekly press run was 25,000 and our revenue was just shy of a million. How? How was that possible? Simple. The community needed the paper, they demanded a voice of their own. At our inception we established a few inviolable rules: focus on the news and not bar events; equally balance the coverage and images of men and women; limit advertising of a sexual nature and have a cover that LGBTQ Atlantans would feel comfortable reading on MARTA. In other words, a newspaper they could be proud of and even take home to Mama.
Southern Voice was born from my personal need to take action against the system that deemed my then partner as an “unfit” mother because she was a lesbian. We lost custody of our son in 1987, and it would be nine years before he returned to us. When he was old enough to choose where he wanted to live, he chose us. During his visits before his return, he loved to go to Pride. I have photos of him proudly displaying his SoVo t-shirt. And I have photos of him and John at the beach when we vacationed together. He was devastated by John’s death. Maybe that is one of the reasons that now, as a grown man with children of his own, he remains an advocate for all people who are not treated fairly.
When he came home, a surly teenager, we had to make a choice. SoVo demanded all of our time, as it had for almost a decade, and we needed that time to knit our family back together and give our son the attention he needed. A few months into his return we were approached by a group of lawyers to gauge our interest in selling the paper to them. It took many months of soul searching and weighing the pros and cons to decide what to do. I wished that John had been alive so we could talk to him. But, I think I knew what he would say. We opted to give our energy to our son and agreed to sell.
The company that bought SoVo also bought other LGBTQ newspapers–the Washington Blade was the best of them. Their goal was to establish a profitable chain of LGBTQ papers. We didn’t know that when we sold. We also didn’t know they would never ask us one question or seek our advice on how we managed to be so “successful.” It turns out that our definitions of “success” were quite different. In 2009, with no warning to staff, they declared bankruptcy and left only a note on SoVo’s front door announcing the paper was closed.
I reached out to two people that day–Laura Douglas-Brown, who I had hired as an intern and who was editor when SoVo closed, and Tim Boyd- John Kapper’s partner and the smartest businessman I have ever known. We launched GA Voice in March, 2010 and used the same philosophy as SoVo’s. GAVO just celebrated its 10th anniversary.
If I had the space here, I would name very volunteer, staff member, advertiser and investor of both papers. They are why Atlanta still has a LGBTQ newspaper. And on National Coming Out Day- they are who I celebrate- and John, most of all.