Lacie Bruce remembers bar hopping in downtown Athens with her girlfriends in 1997. They did this regularly back in the day — usually stopping by the now-closed, queer-friendly bar Boneshakers, dressed head-to-toe as their drag personas.
Bruce sometimes experienced some verbal harassment while in drag, but her and her friends mostly experienced “warm and accepting attitudes.”
Now, 22 years later, Bruce still performs in drag in Athens. Known off stage as Michael White, she said Athens has always been “very accepting and open” ideologically. She’s performed at every Athens PRIDE festival and has watched festival grow tenfold.
Video by Alexandria Ellison
At the first PRIDE in 2006, coordinators approximated that 150 people would attend the festival. At the 2019 festival on Sept. 29, Athens PRIDE stage organizer and event director Cameron Harrelson estimated there were around 1,500 attendees.
In the past five years, queer pride celebrations have gained popularity on a national level, too. Pop culture celebrates queerness, with favorites such as the Netflix-original show “Queer Eye” to Taylor Swift’s anti-homophobic “You Need to Calm Down.” Biopics about Freddie Mercury and Elton John were released in the past two years depicted their sexualities, despite criticism of the Oscar-nominated “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
It’s taken a long way to get to this point of acceptance in pop culture and in everyday life, though, and important steps toward equality are as recent as the past five years. In Georgia and on a federal level, fear of discrimination existed in many forms, and queer people weren’t assured protections on the state level until the 2010s.
In a 1992 Red & Black article, one student studying to be a teacher was afraid of being outed because, at that time, queer public employees in Georgia could be fired for their sexual orientation.
This discrimination continued in Georgia throughout the following decades.
In 2004, 76% of Georgia citizens voted that same-sex marriage should be banned in the state, creating Georgia Amendment 1.
Without marriage, same-sex couples were not legally equal to straight couples. While married straight couples could file jointly on tax forms, unmarried same-sex partners couldn’t.
This ban continued until 2015 when U.S. Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges mandated marriage equality for everyone regardless of sexual orientation, overruling the state amendment.
Two years later in the Georgia General Assembly, an amendment to the 1978 Fair Employment Practices Act prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which was not the case when the act was first created.
A move toward equality at UGA
Throughout the battle against oppression for the queer community in the state and nation, the University of Georgia, home to about 30,000 college students, made its own progression toward more inclusion for LGBTQ+ students and faculty and staff.
On the UGA campus, the LGBT Resource Center connects students with multiple queer-friendly organizations such as Pride Alliance (formerly Lambda Alliance) which aims to meet the needs of all queer students. The center also puts on multiple events throughout the year such as Bisexual Visibility Day and an inclusive prom.
But UGA wasn’t always as accommodating to its queer students and employees.
Janet Frick, a psychology professor at UGA, worked on the faculty benefits committee in the early 2000s. She was on the frontlines of the battle for securing benefits for UGA’s domestic partners, tackling the issue of healthcare equality.
Non-married partners of UGA employees couldn’t receive full benefits, such as healthcare or access to on-campus facilities. This disproportionately affected same-sex couples as they couldn’t marry per Georgia law during this time.
Frick said the committee saw the issue of obtaining health insurance for an employee’s same-sex partner as “a basic fairness and justice issue.”
In a 2002 University Council proposal, professors urged UGA former president Michael Adams to ask the Board of Regents to approve benefits for domestic partners, including healthcare coverage. The board oversees healthcare coverage for all University System of Georgia schools.
Though it was approved by Adams, USG denied the request.
In 2005, the University Council asked UGA for “benefits not administered by the Board of Regents” to be applied to domestic partners and children of employees — such as a UGA card which gives access to campus amenities. Soon after it reached Adams’ desk, these “soft benefits” went into effect.
“We saw this as a victory,” Frick said. “It took some work.”
While Frick was working on healthcare rights, Adrien Childs, associate director for research and graduate studies in Hugh Hodgson School of Music, wanted to make sure queer students and employees at UGA felt safe and welcome.
In 2002, he worked with GLOBES to bring visibility to the fact the UGA Non-Discrimination Anti-Harassment Policy protects people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“Sexual orientation” was added to the policy in the early 1990s with the aid of Annette Hatton, the now-retired founder of GLOBES, but Childs said not many people knew about the addition.
Childs, a self-identified gay man, was a part of the force that helped expand inclusive spaces on a local level. He was married twice — with a nonlegal ceremony and with a legal one in California in 2013.
“I think that, now, people who identify within the LGBTQ+ community feel less of a need to only look to a community for support,” Childs said. “We feel like we belong more to the campus and the community.”
Safe spaces in the Classic City
A strong community for queer people has thrived in Athens since at least the early 1990s, providing student and locals with a space to express themselves.
Athens hosts the all-day PRIDE festival every year, with this year’s event being the largest yet. The rainbow balloon arch welcomed attendees to East Washington Street, with booths from local businesses, such as Athens Queer Collective, and national organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign.
Local drag queens and Eureka O’Hara from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” performed to a full crowd of rainbow-wearing onlookers. Like a lot of urban cities in the U.S., Athens actively embraces pride, and not just for one day of the year.
Multiple Athens drag troupes, such as The Kourtesans and Athens Showgirl Cabaret, perform packed-out shows at bars downtown. They perform at queer-friendly bars, such as Sister Louisa’s Church Bar and the soon-to-close Go Bar. Before Sister Louisa’s Church opened in 2014, Athens’ queer citizens could rely on Boneshakers if they wanted to go out for some cocktails, a gay bar which closed in 2005.
Backlash against queer identities
Though queer people could find support in these places, it still wasn’t safe for them to be public about their identity. In places outside those designated for LGBTQ+ people, queer citizens feared — and continue to fear — multiple forms of discrimination and violence in this city and across the world.
In 2017, Ava Le’Ray Barrin, young transgender woman, was shot and killed in Athens, making her the youngest transgender murder victim in the U.S. that year, according to the Humans Rights Campaign.
The Human Rights Campaign reported 22 transgender or gender-non-conforming people have been violently killed this year in the United States. Last year, the organization tracked 26 in total. And in the most recent data, the FBI reported that there were 1,338 hate crime offenses based on sexual-orientation in 2017.
Athenians see how discrimination currently exists through threatening encounters.
Skyler Jay, a UGA employee and transgender activist, has lived in Athens since 2007. He remembers going to downtown bars, during a late weekend night, and getting into “physical altercations” or having someone insult him before his top surgery in 2017 gave him passing privilege.
“Passing” is someone’s ability to be regarded as a member of an identity group where they wish to belong. When a person does not pass, it means they do not fit into conventional standards for a certain identity group.
Connor Lawhead, a senior ambassador at the LGBT Resource Center on UGA’s campus, feels safe “for the most part” in Athens, also because he said he passes as a straight man. People who are transgender and gay or of a different race and queer “probably feel less safe” due to that double-minority status, Lawhead said.
Because of past discrimination, though, Jay wouldn’t go into the section of downtown he called “the khaki line.” This line, for Jay and other townies, represents an intangible border between which side of town locals and students separately thrive in their night lives.
Jay avoids the student side of khaki line to bypass the negative encounters. Along with newfound passing privilege, Jay’s recognition from appearing on the Netflix original “Queer Eye” has added to a feeling of safety.
“Cisgender men approach me because they’ve watched the show and want to talk to me,” Jay said. “Before, it was from a place of violence or it was a threatening encounter.”
His appearance also brought attention to another issue which Jay was facing head on — healthcare inequality.
A continuing battle
Jay, who paid $16,200 out of pocket for his top surgery, sued the University System of Georgia for excluding trans healthcare in its policies.
“In fact, the university blocks the healthcare, even if it’s deemed medically necessary by a physician,” Jay said.
In a 2019 settlement, the exclusions were removed, and transgender employees can now receive medically necessary healthcare expenses.
His exposure from the appearance on “Queer Eye” is when Jay finally felt heard by the Board of Regents. In the settlement, Jay received $100,000 in damages and the board removed the trans healthcare exclusions from their policies.
Similar cases involving LGBTQ+ rights are in the works around the country.
The U.S. Supreme Court will be a potential venue for monumental change for LGBTQ+ rights again when decisions come out on three cases.
In Bostock v. Clayton County, Altitude Express v. Zarda, and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the court will determine whether gender identity and sexual orientation is included in discrimination protections in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A conservative-leaning court with two appointees from President Donald Trump will put out a decision on the interpretation, expected in the late summer, according to NPR.
Locally, there is some push back to make LGBT resources known on UGA’s campus, Lawhead said.
As an ambassador, Lawhead hosts LGBT Resource Center-sponsored programs across UGA — such as in Greek life organizations and in classrooms — varying from topics such as “how to be an ally 101” to general programs promoting the center and LGBTQ+ issues.
He said he has noticed resistance from some professors and others in power about hosting these programs. He thinks that safe-space training should be required for faculty on campus.
But despite this general movement toward LGBTQ+ equality, the queer community still faces obstacles from both local and national players. With these obstacles, Jay said that those wishing to make a change must practice persistence.
“Institutional-wide issues aren’t a one-time conversation with one person,” Jay said. “It’s over and over and over again until your voice is heard.”