Charles Stephens: A look at black gay men living in Atlanta

Every year young black gay men, and some not so young, make their way to Atlanta for adventure, for romance or to follow their dreams. Many of them come here for school: Morehouse or Clark Atlanta or even Emory, where they become English, Psychology, or Spanish majors. They are from places like Birmingham, Charlotte, Augusta and Memphis, though my personal favorites are the ones from Jackson, Mississippi. They always seem the most sincere in their desires. Then there are those from larger cities: New York of course, and Detroit (so many black gay men in Atlanta seem to be from Detroit these days), St. Louis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago.

The brothers from the Northeast are usually disappointed the quickest. They will complain about the slowness of the city: The pace is too slow, people walk too slowly, people talk too slowly. They even claim our accents are indecipherable (I say this as someone who doesn’t really have a Southern accent except for when I get excited or angry). And yet they arrive, and they remain, leaving bad winters and bad memories, to reinvent themselves here. They will reminisce about subway systems with 24-hour service as if such a quality is the defining mark of civilization. This sort of persona was depicted perfectly in the character of Joshua from the Tarell Alvin McCraney play, “Marcus; Or The Secret of Sweet.”

Not all of them come here for school. Some have partners with jobs that bring them to Atlanta. In the 1990s they might have moved to East Atlanta, Lithonia or Stone Mountain. Now they are more likely to move south of the city: to East Point, Camp Creek, South Atlanta or West End. They get connected to the house party circuit. Buy gym memberships. Go to the Dominican Republic for vacation. These are the men E. Lynn Harris described in his novels.

Then there are those of us from Atlanta; those of us who grew up poor or working class. We come from Bankhead, Adamsville, Pittsburgh, Decatur or Lithonia, and went to high school at Washington, Douglass and Open Campus. The middle-class black gay boys who grew up on Cascade Road or in one of the southwest Dekalb subdivisions attended Mays, Westlake, North Atlanta, or Stephenson High. We would find each other on various chat lines, websites, or just out and about.

When I came out as a high school student in the late 1990s, back when Atlanta wanted to be New York, rather than Hollywood, the sensibility of the city seemed a bit different. Then, the most visible black gay men were activists, writers and organizers, and if you wanted to be visible you became an activist, writer or organizer. Now the most visible black gay men are reality stars. So if you want to be visible, you try to become one of the many “Atlanta celebrities.” This is a very important shift.

Before, you could go to Outwrite bookstore, sit on the patio and make three new friends in a night. The same might be said of Innovox Lounge, the 24-hour coffee shop that was in Midtown back in the day. Or you might find yourself in one of the endless discussion groups and join a committee. I think at some point everyone was on the Second Sunday Topics Committee, for example.

There are still traces of the old Atlanta. The dreams that bring black gay men to Atlanta are the same, even if the city isn’t. At a restaurant a few months ago, I ran into someone I kind of knew, but we weren’t close, from around, who worked there as a waiter. He sat down with me and we reminisced about the latest Black Gay Pride and our hopes for the next one. He told me about the fun he’d had, and I listened and smiled.

Charles Stephens is a writer and activist. He is the Executive Director of Counter Narrative and co-editor of the anthology Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.