LGBT activism in Atlanta in the 1990s

Pioneering Atlanta LGBT activists of the ’90s on the trails they blazed for equality

If you were LGBT and living in Atlanta in the early 1990s, you experienced a unique scene. You danced at Backstreet till the wee hours, discovered queer literature at Charis and Outwrite or maybe fell in love with Benjamin Smoke’s heartbreaking rasp as frontman of the Opal Foxx Quartet.

But there was more to the ’90s in LGBT Atlanta than just music; you were learning how to face it.

Cracker Barrel was boycotted for its discriminatory termination of a gay employee. Age-old sodomy laws were enforced, challenged in the courtroom in Bowers v. Hardwick and later overturned. Cobb County showed its homophobic colors in 1993 after Theatre in the Square’s production of “Lips Together, Teeth Apart”— which contained a secondary storyline about a gay man with AIDS —prompted county officials to pass a resolution condemning homosexuality. Out lesbian Pat Hussain started Keep the Olympics Out of Cobb in response to the resolution, and the county had no presence in the 1996 games.

“Cobb will have that reputation forever,” Hussain said. “The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games knew going into Cobb was antithetical to what the Olympics stood for. The resolution in Cobb was just a way to say ‘we hate you people,’ not a legal ordinance.”

The birth of the AIDS epidemic

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said, “A lot of our struggles at that time were around basic recognition.” Graham, who moved to Atlanta in 1989 after completing grad school in Texas, recalled, “When I first got here, I got involved with ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power]. I went to a meeting that [current Atlanta mayoral candidate] Cathy Woolard had organized to discuss how to build on the momentum from the 1987 March on Washington and organize around what the LGBT political agenda should look like. It was primarily gay and lesbian; there were some transgender [activists], but we still didn’t really talk about it. Frankly, at that time a lot of theconversation centered around the community being known as ‘gay and lesbian’ so that women were recognized.”

But Chris Cash, who in 1988 founded the newspaper Southern Voice (which was reborn years later as Georgia Voice after Southern Voice’s parent company went under in 2009), said she didn’t start the newspaper to highlight women’s voices. “I didn’t start the paper just because I wanted lesbians to have a voice; I wanted everyone to have a voice,”Cash asserted. “But it was important to me, as a lesbian, that the paper reflected women as well as men, black as well as white. Atlanta was a part of a national surge for equality. The impetus for this wave of activism was primarily a result of the AIDS epidemic. People were dying by the thousands, but we couldn’t get the government to acknowledge it or even say the word [AIDS]. Reagan was our worst nightmare. We were united — most of the time — in fighting a common enemy, and it was clear what was at stake. I lost many friends to AIDS; all of us did. A large part of an entire generation was wiped out. I don’t think millennials grasp that,” Cash opined. “I don’t think they know our history or how many backs they are riding on. I hope I am wrong about that. But what I have seen for the last decade is not activism as I knew it in the late ’80s and ’90s. We didn’t present ourselves as victims; we were warriors.”

 ‘There was not one greatest activist’

One such warrior was former Atlantan Mark King, now a Baltimore-based blogger of the GLAAD-winning “My Fabulous Disease.” King moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles in 1993 to become director of the AIDS Survival Project.

“I was a fish out of water,” King said. “I was looked at as an L.A. queen coming to Atlanta.”

King said that as an openly gay, HIV-positive man serving as administrator of an AIDS service organization, he was thrust into the spotlight despite being more comfortable behind the scenes.

“That put me in conflict with the activist community, who wanted to see me more in an ACT UP role. Suddenly I found myself literally thrust into the street with a sign,” King recalled.

King was arrested twice for protesting and had his tenure cut short after AIDS Survival Project terminated him, which he said was painful, but he later realized he was better able to affect change through public speaking engagements and writing. King notes that the confrontational grassroots tactics of many Atlanta activists of the ’90s paved the way for others with subtler approaches.

“You have some activists out in the street causing a disruption, but that opens the door so people who are more moderate can come to the table and get things done,” he said.

Cash is grateful to have stood side-by-side with the LGBT equality pioneers of Atlanta.

“There was not one greatest activist. There were many,” she said. “Some were comfortable in the spotlight — Woolard, Graham, Lynn Cothren, John Kappers of NAPWA, Linda Bryant of Charis. And some worked tirelessly behind the scenes — Larry Pellegrini, Don George, John Howell, Lynn Pasqualetti, Michael Edwards of Project Open Hand. Some gave money, some gave time, some gave both. I had the great fortune of meeting and working with some of the best human beings on the planet.”

Hussain said that for her, activism is about refusing to submit. “There’s no right way to do the wrong thing,” she said. “The idea of letting it go, saying we can’t win — there’s something about accepting that that is a surrender. You have to use your power; if you use your silence, the problem continues. Take a moment and breathe, and you’ll figure out how alike we actually are.”