Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series examining the history of gay culture in Athens. Look out for the second, which heads on campus.
Once a month, Athens comes out.
Smokers lounge on the patio, hopping through conversations, while inside patrons at the bar watch a younger crowd dance to the sounds of Madonna, Lady Gaga and Dierks Bentley. Near midnight, moving from one end of the small venue to the other becomes impossible. In the space of a few hours, Georgia Bar is transformed into GA(Y) Bar.
“It has blown me away,” said Joshua Barnett, a senior communications major and production manager at The Red & Black who helped organize the event. “I never thought we would have a line out the door on a Tuesday night. Within five minutes I’m talking to my young 21-year-old friends who are just coming out, and the next I’m talking to a middle-aged drag queen and another moment I’m talking to a 75-year-old person in the community.”
A few years before, this gathering would have been improbable — going to a drag show or gay-friendly event meant waiting for an annual gathering, being in the right place. But now, finding community is a near-daily opportunity — McCoy’s Bourbon Bar, Copper Creek, Little Kings Shuffle Club and Max Canada show inclusion through gay nights and drag shows. Athens Pride evolved from a Sandy Creek park picnic to a weekend of beer busts, commitment ceremonies and dance parties.
All of which proves one thing about gay life in Athens — when there’s no designated space, the community will create its own.
“There’s no official gay bar, but there’s definitely whisperings about where the gays are going to be,” said Whitney Dekle, executive director of University’s Lambda Alliance. “Every now and then, you’ll ask your friends and you’ll be like ‘So, where are all the gay people going right now?’ and they’ll be like ‘Oh, they’re going to bar x or bar y.’ Since no one’s given us a space, we kind of invade, and we get the word out.”
Gay life in Athens has not always been plentiful, but it has also not always been barren. Finding a common space has been its own sort of battle, with its own small victories and habitual set-backs.
And it all started with a road trip.
Some getaways lead not only away from a problem, but also toward a solution.
For a group of gay men, dealing with strict social codes in the South was the problem. The solution — ultimately involving dresses, high heels, wigs and charity — was found during a trip to Charleston, S.C.
“Boybutante began in 1989 as an idea among a group of friends who happened to all be gay men,” said Yancey Gulley, former chair of the Boybutante AIDS Foundation. “They had gone to Charleston on vacation and had some experiences there and came back and said ‘We want to start a drag ball in Athens.’”
But the end of the ’80s saw an Athens limited in its resources. Though there were a few gay-oriented events, such as the 40 Watt’s “Gay Friendly Monday Nights” and a lesbian social group, there was no one place for the community to call home.
“So [Boybutante founders] were really groundbreaking in starting not only the drag movement in the community but also the gay movement in the community,” Gulley said.
Together with Atlanta-based drag troupe the Armorettes Boybutante, they raised $800 for AIDS Athens and a battered women’s shelter, according to the Boybutante website.
That first year of tucked and turned out fundraising was hosted in Rockfish Palace — a bar remembered for its broken-down decor; though the venue, while small, gave stage time to acts like Widespread Panic and The Normaltown Flyers.
“The Rockfish Palace was just a little venue for bands but it was maybe the de facto gay place,” said Mark Bell, owner of 9ds Bar and 8es Bar. “They’ll tell you stories of no air-conditioning and dirt floors.”
Despite defunct conditions, Boybutante caught on, and in the years since, the blowout has gone from cramped conditions and little-known acts to a sold-out annual party at the 40 Watt, where professional and amateur drag performers lip-sync to success.
“We used to have multiple meetings and phone calls and now I just hand them a key,” said Barrie Buck, owner of the 40 Watt. “In that regard, it just gets really easy to put it on even though it’s a big production. It’s something that I look forward to. I’ve got some employees that are students and they’ve never seen anything like it and they’re like, ‘This is awesome.’”
An era called to the dual power of dance and drag demanded more places for gays, lesbians and dedicated partiers.
And so Boneshakers opened.
First dance, last call
Renovations can repair history, but they can also make it.
Near the end of East Hancock Avenue, near abandoned warehouses, stood Rockfish Palace.
A venue teeming with community small talk and second-hand acts, the bar’s connection to the gay community made repairing the broken down building a worthy investment opportunity.
“I think that probably launched [Greg Martin, original owner] into saying, ‘I could fix the place up’ and ‘I could make this place actually nice,’” Bell said.
It was a venture caught in the heat of “disco.” In a town with no dance clubs and a limited number of bars, venues often doubled up on their entertaining roles — the 40 Watt would transform band space into floor space following weekend concerts, and dance-crazed downtown patrons lined-up around the block for a chance to get back in.
“You talk about a melting pot — Late-Night Disco at the 40 Watt was a big melting pot for people,” Bell said. “They didn’t necessarily play disco music, it was whatever the DJs wanted to play. You had a lot of the gay folks going, and you had a lot of the straight folks going too. But I guess they felt it was time for a full-on, properly done dance place.”
Boneshakers opened in 1992 and built its long years as a party powerhouse on drag and dance. Everyone could come, and everyone did.
But though inclusion reigned, there was some hostility.
“Every once in a blue moon you’d get some folks from out of town on a home game,” Bell said. “We always had eggs being thrown at the front door, bags of shit being left at the front door or back door. College prankish shit.”
And sometimes the problems came not from the political, but the personal.
“But we probably had to escort more people out, gay folk out, just for being unruly,” Bell said. “Some people may be fighting, 10 minutes later they’re kissing and making up in the back. That kind of thing.”
At the same time, gay men and women were meeting up all over Athens, not just in the bar scene.
“Institutions change, we change,” said Annette Hatton, a founder of University LGBT faculty and staff group, Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Employees and Supporters, and of Athens Pirde. “There’s one group called Athens Casuals that’s a men’s gay group. They like to cook, they like to eat. And they’re still together, nothing’s happened to them. Unlike the Lesbian Social Group. We used to bike together on Sunday mornings. We don’t do that now either. It’s more amorphous now, gay and lesbian social life.”
Out of the growing number of separate groups came a call for unity.
GLOBES, though created as a support group for the University, saw an overwhelming need for community events. And so, in 1998, GLOBES planned a picnic.
“Athens Pride grew out of GLOBES 15 years ago, out of the University of Georgia,” Gulley said. “They did everything for everybody, even though they were supposed to be just about faculty and staff.”
But the small number of University and community events were not enough for some. In the midst of a saturated drag market and the lure of several gay clubs in Atlanta, Bell said, the popularity of Boneshakers began to fizzle.
“You had men that were doing their supper club things and that was their social event,” Bell said. “And you take five of those guys a week who would spend between $20 and $80 bucks at a time and that adds up. And you get the kids who come here on HOPE scholarship, that made it hard because kids had to keep their grades up, so the weekdays started dying off ... And I was like, ‘Maybe it’s time to call it a day.’”
The club had two last hurrahs — one at the bar’s preliminary closing, The Omega Party, and again at New Year’s Eve at the end of 2008 as the short-lived, renamed “Culture Lounge.” Nostalgia and a montage of memorial songs and artists, such as Madonna, Cher and Christina Aguilera, played as a sea of familiar faces floated in.
“It was emotional, it was hard,” Bell said. “We had a great turn out. A lot of folks came that I hadn’t seen in years and years. And we did it right that night.”
And so, 12 years after its opening, Boneshakers was gone.
And though Bell tried again to create a gay-friendly bar in Athens, his next two locations — Detour and Blur — both lasted less than a year.
By 2009, gay and lesbian citizens were once again without a downtown space to call their own.
“It just burnt out. But it could work, there could be a gay bar again,” Bell said. “One smart thing is to not do it too frequently, which is what happened with the drag shows. It got to the point where they were like ‘Oh, well I’ve seen all those queens.’”
One ending was followed with many beginnings.
On campus and outside the city, a swirling amount of activity was mounting. In 2004, Georgia legislature was joining a growing number of states considering a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, the University LGBT Resource Center was establishing itself and the University was revising its Non Discrimination and Anti Harassment Policy.
Out of the ashes, a spark.
In the face of mounting political pressure, Athens acted as a community called to action.
A potential amendment to the Georgia Constitution banning gay marriage was a clarion call for many citizens.
“There were many people who were very supportive, and against what was going on at the time,” said Michael Shutt, former director the University LGBT Resource Center.
Athens-Clarke County was one of many city-counties in which a large number of the population voted against the measure, though the amendment eventually passed both in Athens and the state. While CNN reported the amendment passed in Georgia with a 76 percent popular vote, 48 percent of Athens voted against it, Shutt said.
But where some found defeat in the measure’s passing, Athens government found loopholes. And while unable to allow same-sex couples to marry, the city’s policies were able to bring them together as families.
“The [former] mayor of Athens [Heidi Davison] pushed a vote to pass a same sex domestic partnership benefits for the county and to add sexual orientation and gender identity to non-discrimination,” Shutt said. “[She] also pushed to add a domestic partnership registry. And the reason that’s important is that Athens-Clarke County has an ordinance that would only allow two unrelated people to live together in a single family neighborhood ... [T]hey were trying to prevent a bunch student housing from popping up. Because of that law we were considered family even though we didn’t have the ability to marry.”
These community efforts allowed many a supportive space with increasingly better living benefits.
By 2008 however, community, though arguably better, was not necessarily easier to find.
“For some students, like me, the Resource Center and Lambda are not my cup of tea,” Barnett said. “So those are not the kind of things I want to go to, but I know that they’re wonderful and I know they serve a huge population.”
Rather than seeking University-centered, education-based companionship of classmates, these students want a space to be social around Athens.
“There’s also a group of us that want and need just more social events,” Barnett said. “We just want to go and have cocktails with people and chat and have a good time.”
It was for this that GayInAthens.com was created.
“[GayInAthens creators] didn’t feel like there was really a communal space in Athens,” Barnett said. “I guess this was around the same time that Blur was fading out of existence. So the gay bar scene was not very prominent. So we put our heads together and thought ‘what could we do?’ And it developed into something that was bigger, really, than what we had initially intended, which was more of an informal rants and raves from two gay boys in Athens.”
From an aggregate community and commentary site, Barnett and co-creator Carey Drake developed GayInAthens into a “dumping ground” for as many LGBT related events as the creators could find. And though GayInAthens later closed from a break in Barnett and Drake’s personal relationship, its appearance led to an awareness for the need for more and better advertised social events. It’s this role Athens Pride hopes to fill.
“We’ve watched the pendulum swing on a lot of things,” Gulley said. “It could be the biggest student organization and three years later it’s kind of dormant. [Hatton] spent the last couple of years trying and the energy wasn’t around it. We talked about how we didn’t want just the picnic ... So last year we sent out the call and said everybody meet at [Hotel Indigo], we are going to talk about Athens Pride. Anybody who wants to talk about what it should be, come, and share. And people did.”
The small hotel meeting room was packed with more than 30 people wanting to move the community event to metropolitan Pride status — starting with events such as drag karaoke and roller skating.
And it worked.
Not only did Athens Pride evolve beyond its usual picnic, but Boybutante evolved beyond its usual spring gala. The Foundation now puts on events year-round to raise for AIDS relief in North Georgia.
Where once the community seemed failing, gay life is on the rise. And though not all in the LGBT Athenians may be served by the community’s offerings, Barnett said it’s heartening to see an increase in variety — more faces, more voices.
“My experience with GayInAthens always lead me to say that not everyone has community,” Barnett said. “The transgender community in particular hit on us hard about not being inclusive and about Athens in particular not being a good place for a transgender person to live. So I don’t know how much that has changed in the last couple of years, but I do know for people like me that it has gotten better.”
Correction: an earlier version of this story listed the original date of the Athens Pride picnic as 1996