Perhaps the most well-recognized event in LGBTQ history is the Stonewall Riots of June 29, 1969. The riots took place in the streets of New York City after a popular LGBTQ-friendly bar, the Stonewall Inn, was raided by police and queer patrons fought back. While these riots galvanized queer people and signified a shift toward more radical queer politics, Stonewall is far from the only police raid that pushed queer people to fight back.
A month after the Stonewall Riots, Atlanta’s queer community experienced a similar police raid dubbed “Atlanta’s Stonewall,” which history has largely forgotten.
It occurred on August 5 during a movie screening at the Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema near Midtown. The movie was Andy Warhol’s “Lonesome Cowboys,” a satire of classic Hollywood westerns featuring gay cowboys and homoerotic themes. The film’s production was monitored by the FBI, which conducted an in-depth investigation by interviewing several actors and people in the filming area, according to the Pittsburgh City Paper.
The cinema was known by Atlanta locals as a queer-friendly space to view edgy and alternative films, according to an article from Smithsonian Magazine.
In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Atlanta local Abby Drue recalled her experience that night. According to Drue, it was only about 15 minutes into the film when the police barged in and started blowing whistles, shining flashlights in peoples’ faces, and questioning and photographing them. About 70 people were in attendance and police ended up arresting some of them and charging them with public indecency and illegal drug possession. The manager of the theater was also arrested and officers told the AJC they were attempting to weed out “known homosexuals.”
Six days later, several dozen people protested outside the offices of the Great Speckled Bird, a local counterculture newspaper of the time. Officers responded by pepper spraying the protestors, again according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Similar to the Stonewall riots, the political energy that erupted in the queer community after the police raid at Ansley Mall was more ferocious than ever before.
“I truly believe the Lonesome Cowboys raid was the spark that ignited the Atlanta homosexual population,” Drue told Smithsonian Magazine.
In the months following the raid, Atlanta’s queer community held a large public meeting where the Georgia chapter of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was organized by activists Bill Smith and Berl Boykin. The Gay Liberation Front itself was formed following the Stonewall Riots, meaning both of these events directly led to an increased presence of LGBTQ activism.
In 1971, a year after the Georgia GLF was founded, members organized Atlanta’s first march in Piedmont Park, with about 125 people in attendance, many covering their faces with paper bags, according to the Atlanta History Center. The following year, the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance was formed.
Atlanta’s growing queer visibility wasn’t just political. In the years to come, various queer nightlife spaces opened, including the popular club Backstreet, which opened in 1975.
While it was common for police across the country to raid queer spaces in the ’60s, this hasn’t been the case for quite some time. Shockingly, however, another police raid happened to Atlanta’s queer community, this one as recently as 2009. Over 20 officers stormed the Atlanta Eagle, shouting homophobic slurs and ordering patrons to the ground, eventually arresting eight people, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. These charges were dropped and six officers were fired, with nine others being disciplined for lying, violating civilians’ constitutional rights, and attempting to cover up and destroy evidence.
In 2010, artist collective John Q held a series of events commemorating Atlanta’s LGBTQ history. The event series ended with a screening of “Lonesome Cowboys” at Ansley Square, close to the location of the Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema where the raid occurred decades prior.
While the Ansley Cinema raid and resulting riots go largely unmentioned, their impact on LGBTQ activism and queer life in Atlanta is undeniable.
See archived materials about the Ansley Cinema raid here. You can view a timeline of Atlanta’s LGBTQ History here.