Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: Death before dishonor

The line that forms outside of Bulldogs on weekends tells a story of gay fear, progress and hope. Instead of oral history, it’s a bit of “aura” history: individuals occupying a space and writing a narrative that spans generations.

For about 15 years, the guys who stand outside Bulldogs waiting to enter the cozy hip-hop club nestled beneath the Midtown skyscrapers have been part of the most conspicuous expression of black gay manhood in Atlanta. Nowhere have masses of black gay men been as consistently visible to general passers-by than those lined up beneath the rainbow flag at 893 Peachtree St.

When I moved to Atlanta in the early 2000s, street cruising seemed to be a bigger part of Midtown’s nightlife than it is today, with midnight traffic so dense that the parade of cars along Peachtree Street was as vibrant as most of the surrounding clubs. Back then, the scene outside of Bulldogs was almost like a homosexual safari, as cars filled with black heterosexuals crept down Peachtree Street and folks craned outside of windows to gawk at, and occasionally heckle, the unfamiliar phenomenon of black gay men.

The demographics of Atlanta and culture of Midtown have changed since then, but bemusement still seems a popular reaction when the straight white millennials who now predominate the neighborhood realize that the throngs of black men they might otherwise fear are harmless, highly fashionable gay men. You can see the anxiety melt from some people’s faces.

At the front of the line is a security guard, historically lesbian, who checks IDs and pats down patrons to make sure no one brings a weapon into the bar. Suddenly any annoyance I might’ve had about the length and pace of the line at Bulldogs is replaced by gratitude for someone doing anything to make sure Atlanta does not endure the type of tragedy that shattered Orlando.

I’ve worried about the vulnerability of LGBT clubs since my earliest days of partying. I remember looking down into the crowded dance pit of Backstreet in the months after 9/11 and trembling at the thought of how easy a target we were for anyone who wanted to lash out against what they considered American decadence and depravity.

Just a few months ago, with the religious liberty debate taking place during an exceptionally angry era of American discourse (a bitterness fueled by racism and homophobia), I was waiting to get into Bulldogs and had the horrifying fear of someone driving down Peachtree and firing upon the lineup of black gay men. It’s terrifying to consider that there is no gun law or pro-LGBT initiative that can prevent such an attack.

However, as I inched toward the front door of Bulldogs, I was inspired by the strength of those who stood beside me, and those who have waited in that line throughout the years. Unlike in the past, I didn’t see any Bulldogs patrons facing the wall or otherwise standing in a way clearly intended to hide their face from the cars passing down Peachtree.

Desperate for hope after the overwhelming trauma of the Orlando shooting, I find solace believing that, whether at Pulse or any LGBT nightclub in America, any victims of anti-gay violence likely won’t experience death without having embraced the worthiness of our lives.