Emory exhibit documents Atlanta’s LGBT community

Back in the 1970s when Atlanta’s gay community had some of its first Pride parades, for some, participation was an act of courage.

The proverbial closet kept many people away. For those bold ones who did march, some tempered their courage and wore paper bags over their heads with holes cut out for sight. They wanted presence with anonymity. This was neither the bold community of New York City nor the laid-back community of San Francisco.

“To be a member of the LGBT community in Atlanta back then was a statement,” said Randy Gue, a curator at Emory University’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Book Library. “And with Pride, it was fear-based. With the history of violence and bigotry in the South, the closeted culture here was much deeper.”

Fast forward to this year when the Pride committee had to turn away applications for the fall event because there was so much interest in participating, said Alex Wan, Atlanta City Councilman, District 6 and director of development for Emory Libraries.

The trajectory of Atlanta’s, and by extension the Southeast’s, gay and lesbian community is documented in “Building a Movement in the Southeast,” an exhibition now at Emory’s MARBL Gallery in the Woodruff Library. It runs through May 16.

There are obvious cultural markers in the exhibition, especially ones documenting the impact of HIV/AIDS on a city that was for many gay Southerners a destination. For young people who grew up in an era where an HIV diagnosis could be viewed as a manageable chronic disease rather than a death decree, seeing the notes of playwright Rebecca Ranson’s groundbreaking play “Warren” might seem out of date. Yet reading Ranson’s handwritten reasons for penning one of the nation’s first theatrical productions about the AIDS crisis is a jolting reminder of what has changed. The University of Georgia graduate scribbled notes about the play, dedicated to her friend Warren Johnston, on a flight from Atlanta to San Francisco just 30 years ago.

“ ‘My true pragmatism comes hopping out as always—write a play about him that gets done before he dies. Think it would make him feel good about his legacy worries,’ ” Ranson wrote.

Johnston died from complications due to AIDS before the play went into production at Seven Stages Theatre in Atlanta in 1984. It has had countless regional productions since and is considered a landmark in theatre.

Then there is the documentation of how Atlanta dealt with and didn’t deal with the disease. The papers of AID Atlanta, the city’s oldest HIV/AIDS services organization, are part of the collection as well. There are tales of how some were were shunned and abandoned after a diagnosis, and how others were loved and cared for by a handful of compassionate volunteers until their deaths. It’s in those papers where viewers see that it also took courage back then to be public in one’s support of an HIV/AIDS patient.

“A lot of people wanted to support AID Atlanta, but nobody wanted to write a check that said AID Atlanta,” said Dr. Jesse Peel, an Atlanta psychologist who donated his papers to the exhibit and who has been a cornerstone in the city’s gay community for decades. “There was so much paranoia. So people would write a check to Helping Hands, which would then give the money to AID Atlanta.”

There are other moments in the small show that demonstrate what a haven Atlanta was, and in some respects still is, for those leaving small, Bible Belt towns or pasts they’d like to leave behind.

There are fliers for events at Alpha House, on McLendon Ave., which was like a community center for lesbians with its potluck suppers, lending library and softball team. In one case in the exhibit, scribbled in colored markers on a poster board, are the names of the cast and crew of the Atlanta community-access television program “The American Music Show.” Among them, RuPaul Charles who, before he became known simply as RuPaul, was a fixture in the city’s Midtown drag/punk scene in the 1980s. The cable-access show back then was one of his first television gigs, a precursor to his current hit TV show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Much of the material for the exhibition was acquired or donated, some from donors who remained anonymous. In fact, Gue and Wan have been told of treasure troves of ephemera and memorabilia that have been thrown away upon a potential donor’s death either because the person was not out or because descendants or friends learned of a person’s orientation while going through his effects.

Yet, Wan and Gue are trying to grow the collection even after the exhibition closes. And if there is any weakness in the exhibition it is the documentation of gay Atlanta’s political muscle. That may have more to do with the realities of the city’s as well as the state’s political history than a lack of preservation instinct.

“Atlanta and the South’s trajectory on gay rights has been flat,” said Wan. “In talking with other elected officials in other places, we are behind.”

Wan pointed to the 2004 legislative fight that etched a ban on gay marriage into the state constitution. State Rep. Karla Drenner (D- Avondale Estates), who is openly gay, led the fight against the ban.

“Karla kept all of her emails from that time,” said Wan, and he considered a majority of them hateful. Yet he holds out hope that one day sentiments will change and the ban will be erased. “Then we can juxtapose the reactions from 2004 to then.” he said.

That will likely be a very long wait.

Yet, “Building a Movement,” shows that monumental change happens, in lifetimes brief and long.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.