The 1969 Stonewall Riots were rooted in naughtiness: gay men and women partying at the Stonewall Inn during a time when it was forbidden for homosexuals to gather in public, and their rowdy defiance when New York police attempted to break up their party by hauling people off to jail.
So it’s fitting that one of the marquee events of Atlanta’s Stonewall Month – the East Point Possums drag show – also originated with a little mischief.
“When I first went to East Point [city officials] for the permits, I billed it as a Shakespearean variety show,” said Rick Westbrook, aka Sister Rapture Divine Cox, who helps organize the annual drag extravaganza.
Anyone going to the East Point Possums show expecting to see Olde English, high-brow theater would be in for quite a shock, as it’s really an evening of drag queens raising hell in the square of downtown East Point.
The Possums celebrate the 15th year of their roadkill brand of drag with this year’s show, which takes place June 16 and will feature about 30 drag queens performing. This year marks the seventh year that the Possums have overtaken the Commons in downtown East Point, and getting city approval no longer requires campy deception.
“Now, I just go down there and say, ‘It’s time to do our drag show again, and they’re like, ‘OK, what do you need?’” Westbrook said.
The East Point Possums show has become the marquee event of Stonewall Month, the Atlanta Pride Committee’s effort to commemorate the Stonewall anniversary since the Atlanta Pride Festival moved from its traditional June date to the fall.
“Since we moved the festival to October, Stonewall events provide us a platform for additional programming that allows us to remain engaged with the Atlanta community during this timeframe,” said Atlanta Pride Board Chair Glen Paul Freedman. “It is important to the Atlanta Pride Committee that we recognize the occasion, as it is such an important one for our community. These events mark the beginning of the modern-day gay movement in the U.S.”
While Stonewall Month features a bevy of lectures, discussion panels and film screenings, Freedman believes it is fitting that the centerpiece of the festivities is part of gay nightlife, since it was patrons of a gay bar that sparked gay liberation. And with the variety of acts within the Possums show – amateurs alongside drag icons, campiness alongside consciousness – Freedman believes it’s an opportunity to be entertained and educated.
“They have tackled everything from LGBT bullying to living with HIV/AIDS, the importance of safe sex and more,” Freedman said. “So, the Possums show is definitely great fun, but it is for a great cause.”
The Possums have donated proceeds from their drag show to Atlanta Pride and another charity for the last half decade, and this year the Phillip Rush Center is a beneficiary.
“It’s turning into a gay community center, so we thought that was the perfect charity for us to choose this year,” said Westbrook, who estimated that the Possums have raised about $60,000 for Atlanta charities over the years.
“The first year it was $300, then the next year it was $600 and it just went up over the years,” he said. “We’re very proud of it, for just a little booger drag show that we have down here in East Point.”
‘A win for the gay community’
Even with heavy rain preceding the event last year, the Possums show packed hundreds into downtown East Point, showcasing how much the event has grown since it started as a Fourth of July backyard drag party 15 years ago.
The city of East Point has changed in that time, too, Westbrook said. When Westbrook and his partner first moved to the city just south of Atlanta, they placed a sign in their yard supporting an openly gay candidate for City Council.
“The neighborhood association that we were living in at the time stopped by the house and said, ‘I have to talk to y’all’” Westbrook recalled, “‘Look, I know y’all are gay, but if you put that sign out there everybody’s going to know that y’all are gay.”
Westbrook didn’t think there was any problem with his neighbors knowing he was gay then, and certainly not now.
“We’ve actually gone to neighborhood association meetings and had people tell us, ‘We were sort of iffy about East Point, but our Realtor told us to come to this little drag show and as soon as we saw that we knew we had to buy down here,’” he said. “So not only is it a win for the gay community, but it’s a win for East Point.
“In the past we’ve had women who go, ‘I want my husband in the show. Here’s his wig, here’s his dress, here’s his show, here’s his number,’ Westbrook added.
Top photo: Jaky Alba performs at the 2011 East Point Possums Show (by Dyana Bagby)