Bruce Garner: How sterile do you want Atlanta’s LGBT community to be?

Bruce Garner has been actively involved in Atlanta nonprofits for over 35 years and has received several awards for his volunteer work in HIV/AIDS and LGBT agencies. He currently serves on the boards of Lost-n-Found Youth, Integrity USA, The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and The General Theological Seminary of The Episcopal Church. Garner wrote this editorial in reaction to our story “The ‘sterilization’ of Cheshire Bridge: How LGBT culture can thrive amidst new developments.” Got something on your mind? Submit your guest editorial to

I was born in Atlanta at St. Joseph’s Infirmary, now Hospital, when it was located in the area where the Marriott Marquis and Hilton are now. I grew up in East Atlanta, Ormewood Park and Grant Park and am a product of the Atlanta public school system. I earned a BS in Biology from Emory University. All that is to say that I have witnessed much in our city over my lifetime … the good, the bad and, of course, the ugly. The story about Cheshire Bridge Road got my blood boiling. It doesn’t tell the historical “story” about how Atlanta has dealt with many issues.

I left Atlanta for career reasons and returned in 1978. I bought the townhouse in Midtown where I continue to live. An attractive feature was that I could walk to nine gay bars, two gay bookstores and a gay bath. I was also walking distance to many other amenities and attractions. Needless to say, Midtown has changed and I’m not sure always for the better. So-called gentrification drove out many of us queer folk, and city attitudes and zoning changes did the same with many of our community watering holes and businesses. Yes, I can still walk to maybe four gay bars and several gay restaurants, but the vibrancy of Midtown has been seriously dimmed … and a lot of it by suburbanites from Gwinnett and Cobb Counties who wanted to bring suburban living to Midtown! I’m sorry but if you want a suburban lifestyle, stay in the suburbs! Blake’s had to have soundproof windows installed because neighbors didn’t like the noises of the city. They have clearly never been to New York or Chicago!

Our City Council and its members have always been beholding to the real estate community or has had a large number of realtors as members, even back when it was the Board of Aldermen. That’s how and why many treasures were torn down in the name of progress. Someone was indebted to someone else and wanted to build a new and so-called better something or other. The near loss of the Fox Theatre dampened that destruction to a degree but only because it was such a landmark.

We once had a row of bars where the Federal Reserve Bank now sits. On the Peachtree side of the block were a variety of restaurants including one of the best Vietnamese in the city. Of course, we lost Backstreet and the Armory a few years ago so we could get yet more high rise residential buildings. It always struck me as cowardly that the city would not just enforce the law outside both bars and leave well enough alone inside. They used the same tactic to “improve” Buckhead’s entertainment district. Some people just can’t mind their own business … too busy sticking their nose into the business of others.

Yes, we have many shiny new high rise residential buildings in Midtown and now on Piedmont and Cheshire Bridge. And yes they have plenty of parking. What has not been addressed is the stress all of the new residents and cars are having on street traffic and the infrastructure needed to support thousands of new residents. No one could be bothered … they were too busy issuing building permits as soon as demolition permits had done their worst. Adding thousands more toilets to a century-plus and aging sewer system isn’t urban planning.

How many remember the entertainment we once had at Cheshire Bridge and Lindbergh/Lavista? Now we have a Whole Foods. Do they know there was once a bathhouse there? There is a straight strip club on Cheshire Bridge where the Sweetgum Head once flourished. The entrance was in the back, not out of fear but because there was another business on the front half of the building.

So is it any surprise what is going on with Cheshire Bridge? “Adult businesses” is nothing but code. It includes queer bars as well. Some folks just cannot handle the fact that LGBTQ businesses are brazen enough to exist on a major thoroughfare with entrances on the road right out in front of God and everyone in broad open daylight! Do I trust what we have been told about zoning and grandfathering? Not at all. Promises were made to the communities around Turner Field and, before that, Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium. Same for the Georgia Dome. Any evidence that they have been met? Not yet.

Bigotry, racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, et al are alive and well. They just masquerade as other things at times or as more blatant words and actions in response to us getting our rainbow crosswalks. Yes dears, funds might be better spent elsewhere, but that will always be the case in someone’s viewpoint. We might want to address our internalized homophobias that won’t allow us to take pride in our very existence. We would be of a more healthy mindset. There is an undercurrent of this under the “zoning” issues as well … good luck getting ownership for it.

We can be as passive as we have always been about claiming our rightful place in what goes on in this community as we always have been. The only rise that was ever gotten out of the LGBTQ community prior to Orlando was the Eagle raid. Then of course, we had many who were quick to distance themselves from “that kind of place.” Get over it folks … everyone knows where everyone else goes … it’s not that large a community in reality. On the other hand, we can resurrect some of the activism of the ACT UP years during the AIDS epidemic and claim who we are with pride and honor. Just think how much it would shake up the establishment if queers actually did cause a ruckus, especially if those leading it were the silver-haired elders who were finally fed up?

Remember the phrase “Silence equals death”? Well, it doesn’t just apply to HIV/AIDS. It also applies to us as a community regardless of how fractured we might appear to be. When was the last time you sounded off to an elected official about how you were being treated? Yes, I realize that both senators don’t care, but we can still flood them with calls and emails! If they don’t hear from us, they presume (assume might be better) we agree with them. Do we? Do you? Just how sterile do you want your community to be?