Everyone knows the South as a red wasteland. The ten most religious states reside, not surprisingly, in the Bible belt region. From serious discussions over the role of the Confederate flag, to arguing women’s entitlement to more reproductive rights than cattle, most of us are ingrained with the South’s rocky history of intolerance since primary school. A history birthed from bigotry and perpetuated by an everlasting dragging-of-heels in terms of progressive legislation, the South is not much changed, except for its safe spaces. Wussy Mag is one of few Southeast publications whose intention it is to create queer inclusivity and foster these safe spaces. However, in Atlanta, the term “queer” may have a separate definition than the rest of the country. “Our view of gender and sexuality is quite simple: Queer really just means ‘F*ck you!’,” writes Zaida J, Features Editor of Wussy.
In 2015, the Advocate ranked Atlanta, GA, as the second queerest city in the United States. Whereas it may seem like a random anomaly — my top-of-mind association would go to San Francisco — Atlanta’s gay Southern pilgrimage makes sense. “Atlanta is a close proximity haven for those who didn’t quite fit the mold of the average Southerner,” comments Zaida J, who in addition to writing for Wussy, lives as a transitioning Black and Filipino woman. “Atlanta has an interesting cultural history that is peppered by racially-specific influx and exodus. Prior to the current multicultural populace make up, the city was predominantly Black. A large Black population in a red state is what lead to the city becoming a starkly blue dot with its progressive social policies which ultimately attracted LGBTQ individuals from the surrounding Southern states.” A phenomenon that attracts Northwesterners to Seattle or Portland, Northeasterners to New York City, and Southwesterners to Los Angeles, also known as gentrification.
But why aren’t other Southern capital cities fostering liberal safe-havens of the same scale or influence? This dates back to the Civil War, when Atlanta was a Confederate epicenter of production, building up most of its infrastructure, and later burning it down in Sherman’s March to the Sea. When other Bible belt states put as many hurdles in the way of civil rights reform as possible — i.e. Jim Crow practices — Atlanta was attempting to rebrand itself, to learn from the media frenzies that backlashed cities like Birmingham and New Orleans. In Anna Simonton’s documentary, I Believe in Atlanta, historian Cliff Kuhn, a professor at Georgia State University, cites how Henry Grady’s “New South” and Mayor Hartsfield’s press quote “the city too busy to hate,” attempted to revitalize Atlanta by attracting Northern investors. To this day, Atlanta prefers cloaking problems in new developments over fixing the bedrock.
Thankfully, Atlanta’s own communities are doing the work that the state government chooses to ignore. “Wussy cares about a number of causes, namely: feminist activism, LGBTQ youth, transgender equality, the preservation of the arts, and the continued vibrance of nightlife. We care about serious issues affecting LGBTQ Southerners and queers all over, and above all we care about the power of their collective voice,”elaborates Zaida on Wussy, just one of many burgeoning Atlantan publications making their niche. Scalawag Magazine, a culture publication that focuses on news and analysis, has also made it their civic duty to get conversations started on what needs to change. “So is the city a haven for queer folks? Sure, compared to places that are mired in the culture wars. Atlanta has been savvy about not getting stuck in that mess. But if you're poor, Black, and queer, good luck,” says Anna Simonton, Editor for Scalawag.
Coming out is an emotional hurdle all its own. Part of the queer reality is facing the added layer of judgment in the eyes of state government. Zaida J, for Wussy Mag writes, “White southerners settled in suburbs and rural areas of Georgia and along with it, so did their staunchly conservative traditions. Essentially, Atlanta was not a place the traditional Southerner would ever call home.” Atlanta bore a strong example of “white flight,” a mid-century phenomena that drew whites out of the cities and into kitschy suburbs, presumably because they were “too busy to hate” overtly. Atlanta, among other major cities, are currently experiencing what might be later known as, “reverse white flight” or “rapid gentrification.” When cities have vested interest in gentrification by whites to drive up property values, what does this mean for cities predominantly colonized by “less valuable” races?
“It’s a stretch to say that queer life is ‘thriving’ in small towns, especially considering how many of us flee those small towns,” writes Zaida J. Groups like Lost-n-Found Youth, Southern Fried Queer Pride, Just Us ATL, and YouthPride organize to make up for what the city fails to provide, which is far and away of what any small town could offer. Perhaps it’s Atlanta’s history as Terminus, the last stop for the country’s railroad lines, that brings progressives in to the city. Or maybe the scatter-brained city projects aiming to bolster value, only to inevitably bottom out, that fills the city with more transplants than natives. Whatever it is, the jewel in Atlanta’s crown can’t be historical revelations, tourism, or landmarks, it is its compassionate community.
Starting with the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta’s history of freedom fighters, Atlanta covets an enviable lineage of Black superstars. Along the way, this outspokenness coalesced into a strong Black drag culture, made internationally famous by ATL-transplant, RuPaul. “The Southern queer has a unique challenge in the relentless weight of the traditional Southern identity. Most of us who find ourselves have difficulty with the ideological molting process that precedes a fully-realized queer identity; however Southern queers have much more internalized rhetoric to purge than those in other parts of the country,” writes Zaida J. But thank the lawd, Atlanta has drag, and the passion for fashion is spirited in the A-Town. “It’s harder to say that you’re transgender when you’re growing up in a community of color. Think about how hard it is for a Black man to be gay, or a Black woman to be a lesbian. It’s hard for any kind of feminine representation to prevail. A lot of us find ourselves through drag.”
Atlanta’s drag scene is so influential, the Huffington Post has a blog segment dedicated to it. Five out of eight seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race has featured a homegrown drag star, with Violet Chachki taking home the crown last season. This year, drag superhero Dax Exclamation Point sashays for the family honor in season eight. The city recognizes the influence that queer culture extends to the identity of Atlanta, an identity that has always lacked substance. Atlanta Pride Weekend, which coincides with National Coming Out Day, is one of the largest and oldest pride celebrations in the country, welcoming over 300,000 patrons each year to Piedmont Park. For last years celebration, crowdfunding campaigns spent $44k to paint temporary rainbow crosswalks in Atlanta’s gay district, money that Wussy pointed out in an October 2015 article, could have been poured back into the queer community.
So what is it like being queer in the South?
I suppose being queer in the South is as complex and rich as the South’s generally checkered past. In true dignified Southern fashion, we tend to keep our skeletons close, so as never to forget what they meant, so as never to repeat the past. As the South does with things it fears, the general populace created our pockets of culture by shunning certain communities into seedy corners to incubate. These pockets in Atlanta, Mobile, Savannah and New Orleans built safe havens for ostracized many in the Southeast region, and helped forge identities for those who couldn’t find acceptance elsewhere. This tradition continues, but out in the open: “We’re hoping to magnify the South’s Queer voice; it’s already there and we’re just here to make sure everyone knows it,” says Zaida J. Creative Loafing elaborated in their 2015 Pride Issue: “Atlanta’s queer scene has transformed into a gigantic project to turn a concrete landscape into an inclusive space.”
As complicated, exhilarating, and terrifying as the South can be, it’s a good time to be queer.
Images via Jon Dean for Wussy Mag.
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