Preserving Atlanta’s gay history

Craig Washington (from left), Anthony Antoine, the Rev. Duncan Teague and Charles Stephens were all members of the Second Sunday group that met from the early '90s to the early 2000s near the Historic Fourth Ward Park, where a historical marker will be erected. Ben Gray/For the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was legally a crime for gay people to have consensual sex in their own homes, let alone get married to each other, Atlanta was still considered the one city in the deep South where it was somewhat safe to be gay.

There were still dangers. Being out could mean the loss of a job, harassment, or deathly violence. Yet, regardless of race, for a lot of gay people Atlanta was a place large enough to offer anonymity and community. However precarious, life outside the closet — whether lived tentatively or boldly — was possible in the city supposedly too busy to hate.

In the way Atlanta measures time, which often seems in the issuance of building permits, the period is virtually ancient history. So, what happened in the bedroom of a Virginia-Highland house 38 years ago this month between two men was intimate, viewed as criminal, but also historic. The same is true for a gathering of Black gay men who met to talk in 1992 at an apartment near Old Fourth Ward Park. While not illegal, the meeting was nonetheless historic because it was an early effort, during the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, for Black men to talk monthly about issues beyond the disease and not have their lives defined by an epidemic.

Now, in a city with a poor reputation for safeguarding significant structures, a new preservation organization is trying to get historic markers installed to commemorate those pivotal events in Virginia-Highland and Old Fourth Ward. The group, Historic Atlanta and its LGBTQ advisory committee, is working with the Georgia Historical Society and the City of Atlanta to get two markers placed this year.

The first marker would stand near the Virginia-Highland home that set the stage for the landmark 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Bowers v. Hardwick. In that decision, which was overturned 17 years later, the court ruled that a constitutional right to privacy didn’t cover intimate relations between people of the same sex.

The Virginia-Highland house where Michael Hardwick was arrested for sodomy in 1982, leading to the historic Bowers v. Hardwick decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Ben Gray/For the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The second marker is proposed for Old Fourth Ward Park. It will commemorate Second Sunday, the movement for Black gay men started in the condominum of Maurice Franklin who lived not far from the park.

The building where the men held their first meetings is long gone. Today the landscape is filled with sprawling, anonymous, modern apartment complexes. Yet, the importance of Second Sunday has not been lost on those who were there in the early days, or on those who came of age when gay marriage was legal and HIV was treatable.

“As LGBTQ spaces are disappearing from the urban landscape, it has really concerned the community,” said Charlie Paine, who chairs Historic Atlanta’s LGBTQ advisory committee.

Paine recently received a $5,000 fellowship from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation to help Historic Atlanta document the city’s remaining gay landmarks and develop a plan to preserve them. Mark McDonald, president and CEO of the Georgia Trust, said the fellowship was the first in its 47-year history that the trust has awarded to an LGBTQ initiative.

Losing historical landmarks or having them go unnoticed by subsequent generations is an eternal issue for many communities. For the gay community, however, it is particularly complex. For generations, being gay and surviving meant hiding. So documentation of lives people led can be difficult to find even now. Many stories were lost to the closet.

“You can sometimes find photographs of buildings but very little of what was happening inside,” said Randy Gue, urban historian and Curator of the Political, Cultural and Social Movement Collection at the Rose Library at Emory University. “You might find a club flyer or advertisement but photos, not so much. Atlanta was still a Bible Belt, conservative kind of town in the ’70s and ’80s, so there were real world consequences to being outed.”

Abby Drue (from left), Charlie Paine, Dave Hayward and Gil Robison look over articles while gathered near the Virginia-Highland house where Michael Hardwick was arrested for sodomy in 1982, leading to the historic Bowers V. Hardwick case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Ben Gray/For the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

In a fashion, that’s what happened to Michael Hardwick. He worked at a bar and was cited by an Atlanta police officer for allegedly drinking in public outside the bar. When police later went to Hardwick’s house to serve an arrest warrant, they entered and went into Hardwick’s bedroom where he was having sex with another man. Hardwick later sued in federal court and the case eventually wound up before the Supreme Court. Hardwick lost. The 5-4 decision, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in his concurring opinion, “To hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching.”

That opinion was overturned in 2003 by the Court in Lawrence v. Texas.

The house where Hardwick lived is now a private residence, but its role as a site in the battle for LGBTQ rights is clear.

“It’s important to understand the folks that went before us, that gave us the rights and privileges we have today,” said Paul Fulton Jr., community historian who runs the website Gay ATL Flashback, which documents several former and current gay landmarks. “Physical markers can put this information into a community and on the street where more people can access this important information.”

No such building remains to mark Second Sunday, but early attendees such as Craig Washington remember its impact. Washington, now a social worker, was in his early 30s in 1993 when he started attending the meetings, which were started by Franklin and others. This wasn’t a political action group, rather it was a group whose very existence was in and of itself political, said Washington.

Anthony Antoine (from left), Craig Washington, Charles Stephens and the Rev. Duncan Teague were all members of the Second Sunday group that met from the early '90s to the early 2000s near the Historic Fourth Ward Park, where a historical marker will be erected. Ben Gray/For the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

“We talked about everything: What it means to be out as a gay man, interracial relationships, intergenerational relationships, intimate partner violence, safe-sex education and risk reduction, racism within the LGBT community,” Washington said. “Even having a discussion group has more significance than some people with more privilege might ascribe to it. These were men who in other aspects of their lives didn’t have those outlets and therefore couldn’t benefit from the affirmation and wisdom that comes from a group like that.”

Meetings were advertised by flyer or snail mail. Topics were chosen from a hat for discussion at subsequent meetings. Participants had to prepare their arguments as if readying for a debate, Washington said, and that “meant a certain attention to quality.”

One memorable meeting on interracial relationships was presented as a mock trial, with participants arguing for or against them.

There was flirting at some meetings, but there was also fellowship and community, Washington said.

“It was an understanding that this means more than you,” he said.

The group initially met at members’ homes but quickly outgrew that model. They later met in community spaces, and the group ran for about 15 years. Even so, by its existence and persistence, Second Sunday had become another chapter in the city’s history.

Paine’s committee at Historic Atlanta has other places on its wish list for historic designation. To make these first two happen, the group has partnered with Lambda Legal and the Counter Narrative Project to cosponsor the respective markers. For as long as the list might be, historians such as Fulton say it’s important that commemoration move quickly.

“Not only have we lost places, the people who have the stories are being lost to time,” Fulton said.

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