As much as leadership and right-winged white Americans might say otherwise, the United States has a racism problem.
That means so does 2018 Atlanta, even in the LGBTQ community.
“Just because you’re LGBT doesn’t mean you’re not going to be racist. Unfortunately there are a lot of racists still existing and they teach their kids to be racist. You would think that as a gay person they’ve been discriminated against, that would make them less prone to be racist, but that’s not true,” said Gee Smalls, co-founder of The Gentlemen’s Foundation. “Things like this that happen at Burkhart’s and things with the Trump administration is fueling the fire and it is causing a lot of closeted racists to come out of the closet. The only way to address it is to face it head-on and be honest about it.”
He said the only way racism will die is for racists to die and take their beliefs with them.
“People who are racist, it’s deeply embedded and it’s hard for them to come out on the other side,” he said. “You’re not going to make anybody feel less racist. That’s going to have to be an experience of growth for them. But I might convince somebody to realize they’re racist.”
That’s uncomfortable. And that’s precisely what some believe is necessary to address racism.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
“No one wants to be uncomfortable. I’m really uncomfortable right now. That’s why we’re talking about it: We’re sick of being the only ones who are uncomfortable,” said comedian Kia Barnes, better known as Kia Comedy. “We need to be more open to having these conversations and extending the olive branch across the aisle. It’s OK to feel guilty. It’s OK to feel angry. But we have to be able to have these conversations. It’s the only way we’re ever going to make any progress.”
The discomfort in this moment arises from racist Facebook posts attributed to Palmer Marsh, the owner of Burkhart’s in Midtown’s Ansley Square shopping center. On Jan. 19, WUSSY Mag shared screenshots calling President Obama “a stupid n*****,” among others that praise the Confederacy and Republican values. Many of the posts date back to 2015.
“I was overwhelmingly offended,” Barnes said. “I felt outraged that they would be so blatant with this. … Just the commentary and knowing that they were profiting off of our community and the thought that they might use that profit to donate to legislation that directly disenfranchises us, it broke my heart.”
Smalls said he wasn’t surprised when Marsh’s comments were published.
“It was just another incident that exposed a racist. I wasn’t surprised that it happened in regards to Burkhart’s, because Burkhart’s has a reputation for being a bit racist,” he said. “I’ve been there enough and … there’s a noticeable way they’re treating black patrons versus treating white patrons.”
Smalls said he heard from employees and entertainers that Burkhart’s management used racial slurs and discriminated against their black staff, and he doesn’t understand how or why they could put up with this behavior for so long.
Alissah Brooks started at Burkhart’s in February 2011, and said almost immediately she was exposed to the direction its leadership wanted it to go. And though it made her uncomfortable, she felt she couldn’t speak out for fear of losing her job.
“[Princess Charles’] show got canceled because it was too black,” she said. “They were trying to steer the staff and the entertainers to bring in a certain type of crowd.”
She said Burkhart’s leadership used the n-word, referred to people as “riff-raff” and “EBT people.” That’s not the only time such incidents occurred: entertainer Amber Divine left The Armorettes in 2017 after 20 years with the group because of alleged racism at Burkhart’s.
“Burkhart’s is a racist bar. It condones racism and uses the n-word predominantly,” Divine said in a Facebook post. “It is time someone stood up and told the truth.”
In an editorial for Project Q Atlanta, Eric Paulk called scenes like those at Burkhart’s “Jim Crow: The Club Remix.”
“I often did not find community in these spaces [when I was coming out], but rather racism and white supremacy; a cover charged tacked-on on nights where the clientele was blacker than usual, policing of my wardrobe by the creation of a new ‘no hats, no timbs’ policy, or being subjected to a ‘pat-down’ more rigorous than the Transportation Security Authority,” Paulk said. “The result of the [Burkhart’s] fallout has been an effort to ignite community dialogue about racism in the LGBTQ community.”
Absent from much of that conversation, however, are black LGBTQ voices, Paulk said.
The Burkhart’s fallout
“GayTL is finally acknowledging its race issue and all it took was a couple of old white heteros to piss everyone off,” Georgia Voice columnist Ashleigh Atwell wrote in a recent editorial. “I’ve never felt comfortable going to Burkhart’s, Blake’s or almost any other ‘gay’ space in Midtown. If it has a dress code against ‘urban wear,’ I probably won’t go. … So, when I see people lament about where LGBTQ people will go if Burkhart’s is closed, it makes me laugh. For once, it seems like the gatekeepers are getting the gates shut in their faces. The people who wanted to kick trans sex workers off of Midtown’s streets are sweating bullets. The same type of folks who swear up and down that the LGBTQ community doesn’t have a race issue have been yelling at each other over Facebook over racism.”
Burkhart’s is now shuttered — Smalls said he won’t miss it one bit — but many of its entertainers and staff found homes at TEN Atlanta and My Sister’s Room. Queens United, a group of the bar’s former entertainers created in the wake of the controversy, aims to put together a series of workshops to teach others about the history of Atlanta’s drag scene, groom new performers and share business and branding tips with established queens.
“We are seeking other spaces around Atlanta that might want to have a show, or might have a lovely stage that never thought to have an alternative night that was more entertaining,” Brooks said.
Smalls said now is the time to put more concentrated effort into supporting welcoming businesses, especially those that are owned by LGBTQ people of color. To put that point across, he led the organization on a bar crawl to black LGBTQ-owned venues: Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours, The Daquiri Factory, Soul Bar at Pals Lounge and b.142 Bar & Lounge were the stops. Cirque Daquiri Bar & Grill and Mojo’s Motown Eatery are also owned by LGBTQ people of color, but were not involved in this event.
Starting the conversation
“Definitely we have some pretty stark segregation,” said James Brian Yancey, founder of Rainbros. “It’s probably most visible between the corner of 10th and Piedmont and those bars versus walking over to Bulldog’s.”
Yancey helped formulate a community-led meeting that originally was aimed at figuring out an effective response that would lead to a statement of some sort by the Burkhart’s staff, but by the time the meeting happened, the entertainers already walked out on the bar.
“It’s not something that we the queens can just turn the other cheek on because it’s our paycheck,” Brooks said. “We were pressured to react and we reacted in the most professional way possible, and that was to resign.”
Barnes and Smalls both attended the community meeting. Both said they didn’t feel like it did enough to start the conversation.
“It’s not like these problems didn’t exist, it’s just now we feel like we have no other option than to address it,” Barnes said. “I think it was beautiful how the community came together to address this issue, but I was disappointed that even in the meeting about racism, they really did not seem to want to discuss racism.”
Yancey said there was some confusion on that front.
“That particular meeting was never meant to be a discussion on racism. We believe that to have an hour or so to talk about racism wasn’t going to be an effective format,” Yancey said.
He said one of the committees that came out of this initial meeting looks to plan an in-depth, weekend-long forum on addressing racism in the LGBTQ and greater Atlanta community.
“I think the most fundamental issue is building friendships across races. We need to, at the same time, talk about the academic side and the philosophy of why racism occurs,” Yancey said.
He said many times when an organization wants to become more diverse, its leadership turns to the people of color and puts the burden on them to invite their friends — which may be innocent in its intention, but doesn’t necessarily help solve the problem. Yancey hopes that more groups will intentionally hold casual events that invite people from all walks of life to meet each other, so that it will feel natural going to bars and clubs together later as friends.
Smalls challenged the white community to change racism.
“The oppressed can’t change it,” he said. “It’s going to be the minds of the allied of the oppressed to make real change.”
Barnes said there are intentional behaviors Georgians can take to address the problem, including encouraging diverse hiring practices, holding events at venues owned by queer people of color and supporting businesses and clubs owned by diverse demographics.
“When I’m in Buckhead and Midtown, I see people canvassing all the time for LGBTQ organizations. But I don’t see those same organizations in Bankhead,” she said. “Go to communities where you can find queer people of color. Set up to sponsor or vend events that represent more queer people of color.”
In his Project Q editorial, Paulk offered expectations for the rest of the community and its allies: educate themselves about racism without expecting black or other communities to do it for them; support black- and people of color-owned businesses and clubs; “identify, interrupt and disrupt” racist behavior when they see it; challenge Atlanta’s leadership to fight to dismantle racism and discriminatory behavior; and most of all, “do not expect to be rewarded for not being a racist.”