On Oct. 9, throngs of onlookers cheered as rainbow-festooned floats wound through Midtown, led by LGBT men and women working in unity.
For Lorraine Fontana, a founding mother of Atlanta’s lesbian feminist scene, the united front represented a major turn from the Atlanta of old.
Fontana remembers being a young graduate student, falling in love with the city, yet feeling shunned by its male-centric gay scene. It was the early 1970s and gays were becoming liberated, but not, as she and other women soon discovered, integrated.
And so Fontana and a group of largely lesbian activists formed the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance.
The group would last until the early 1990s before fiscal strains and social shifts caused it to disintegrate.
As we celebrate LGBT history this October, the Georgia Voice is looking back at local LGBT icons and examining their role shaping today’s queer Atlanta.
For ALFA, that legacy includes being among the first such groups of its kind in the country, formed to tell lesbians it was okay to demand their own voice.
“We were part of making ourselves more public and connecting our struggle with other peoples’ struggle,” she said.
Their place at the table
Formed in 1972, ALFA lasted a relatively short amount of time, yet its legacy is wide. Academics still study archives of the group’s monthly publication, Atalanta, and other documents now housed at Duke University. Meanwhile, references to everything from the group’s newsletter to minutes from its frequent meetings pepper many books.
Its staying power is strong – though Fontana said that’s not what motivated the group of women. Rather, she said they were simply a group of radical, progressive women frustrated with a gay movement they saw as exclusive.
Graduate school led Fontana to Atlanta, where she studied psychology and envisioned herself working in education. Before long, Fontana said she fell in with a circle that helped her recognize two passions: women and social justice.
“I met a lot of other women who were feminist who were also coming out as lesbians and I discovered who I really was,” said Fontana, who laughs when she recalls her life in a glass closet.
“I never dated in high school or had boyfriends,” she said.
Her coming out coincided with the emergence of what was then called “gay liberation,” the movement that urged queer men and women to use radical action to move their sexual orientation into the mainstream. When the movement spread to Atlanta, Fontana said she and her friends attended dances and tried to socialize, but quickly found their gender being sidelined.
Soon a separate organization just made sense.
The women had no blueprint when they started.
“These women all came together and decided we were feminist and we were lesbians and we wanted to have a social justice organization where people would be encouraged to come out and be who they were,” she said.
The result was a group that was a few hundred strong, she said. The group focused on creating safe spaces for women, including hosting queer-identified parties and social justice events. ALFA published the periodical, and even rented a series of houses where women could hold gatherings and live communally.
“ALFA was a broad group where we tried to include everybody in everything,” Fontana said, adding that the group gradually came to include broader ethnicities and political affiliations.
The formula worked for years before the passage of time took its toll. For one, Fontana said the LGBT community became much more integrated, minimizing the need for such a strongly female-aligned group. Then there were the inevitable social changes in many members’ lives. Some formed more niche groups; others drifted toward new political identities. And still others, like Fontana, simply moved further into the suburbs and had less time to be active with the Candler Park-centered group.
By the time the remaining members renovated a house in Kirkwood – ultimately a huge time suck, Fontana said – the group was on its last legs.
“It was a combination of just the normal kind of growth process,” she said. “People [were] leaving and not having the energy for ALFA.”
The group disbanded in 1994.
Years later, the spirit of activism is alive and well in Fontana, though she’s not sure if she thinks Atlanta’s social justice scene is as strong as it could be.
Fontana, 69, points to groups like the short-lived Queer Progressive Agenda as evidence that social justice movements struggle to maintain similar agendas long enough to create change.
Still, as she prepared to celebrate the city’s multi-gender, multi-cultural Dyke March on Oct. 8, it was hard not to see the growth in the queer scene – even if ALFA hasn’t played a recent role.
“I don’t think there was a need for that organization [anymore],” Fontana said. “But what came later was more diverse, more colorful and complete.”