a Hub for Black Gays
Dres Jubera, Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
In his mid-20s, Byron Mason was in
San Francisco, living the life of many gay mens dreams - an
apartment near the Castro district, a deejay gig at a funky nightclub,
artsy friends and plenty of potential boyfriends within easy eyeshot.
But one thing was often missing: other
black gay men.
Nearly two years ago, Mason moved
to the land of black gay mens dreams - Atlanta, where he can
go to black gay bars, black gay house parties, even black gay book
Atlanta is definitely a mecca
for black gay men, said Mason, 31, an HIV prevention researcher
at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You see
so many types of African-Americans here, so many professionals,
including so many who are gay.
Whether Atlanta is a mecca, a magnet
or merely a newfound hometown, it is viewed around the country as
a fast-growing if imperfect center for black gays and lesbians -
in much the same way as it is considered all those things for straight
Many black gays talk about visiting
Atlanta and never leaving, staying after attending one of the historically
black colleges, of finding themselves surrounded by so many others
like themselves that they feel a comfort level not experienced anywhere
According to the 2000 census, Atlanta
ranked third among cities with a population of more than 100,000
in the number of same-sex households, behind San Francisco and Seattle.
It ranked second in the number of African-American same-sex households,
behind only the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area.
The perception is, in Atlanta,
you can be who you are in a big city and you can still live in the
South, said Donna Payne, who visits Atlanta often. She is
a field organizer for a Washington-based organization that lobbies
for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights.
You can go out and be freer
than you can in other communities, added the Memphis native,
who noted that when one travels 20 miles outside other Southern
cities, you hit the Bible Belt mentality. But its Atlanta.
The feel and the vibe is its a little bit freer.
Yet few black gays and lesbians view
Atlanta as paradise. Almost no mainstream, predominantly black churches
welcome them, and some are openly hostile. Some black gays find
themselves disguising or denying their sexual orientation because
of a lack of acceptance in the general black community. Some black
men say they are on the down low - often in relationships
with women but having sex with men.
In a national Gallup Poll, only 40
percent of black respondents - 11 percentage points fewer than whites
- felt homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle.
When asked whether marriages between
homosexuals should be recognized as legally valid, less than a third
of black respondents thought they should - 5 percentage points fewer
than among whites.
A recent Gallup Poll also found that
a slightly higher percentage of Southerners favored a constitutional
amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman than did respondents
in any other region.
Mississippi native Mary Anne Adams,
49, who moved to Atlanta in 1988, said it was important for the
black gay community to distinguish itself from its white counterpart.
Adams, for instance, said she faced triple jeopardy: Im
black, a woman and lesbian. We have our own set of issues. This
is not a monolithic community.
These swirling, often opposing forces
in Atlanta - a burgeoning black gay community amid a black straight
community that is largely hard-shell conservative on gay issues
- are being felt by black representatives since the constitutional
amendment banning gay marriage moved to the Georgia House after
approval in the state Senate.
Blacks in the General Assembly will
play a crucial role in deciding whether the proposed constitutional
ban on gay marriage passes. But the subject is complex for them
and encompasses issues ranging from religious and sexual beliefs
to race and civil rights. It creates cross pressures,
said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, for black
Democratic legislators, whose party is liberal on gay issues but
much of whose constituency is not.
Sen. Ed Harbison (D-Columbus), chairman
of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, said the group of African-American
lawmakers had not taken an official position on Senate Resolution
595 or on the issue of same-sex marriage.
The caucus is not voting as a bloc,
Harbison said, even though all 10 black senators voted no Monday.
The House has 39 black members.
There is a feeling and mind-set
that believes that marriage is defined as man and woman, Harbison
said. But the black community has always been uncomfortable
oppressing other people.
Despite his vote against the proposed
amendment to ban gay marriage, Harbison said he personally opposed
Mainstream black churches - a vital
part of the African-American community at large - have distanced
themselves from Atlantas black gays and lesbians. Black gays
talk of funeral and memorial services where the deceased have been
heterosexualized and where AIDS-related deaths have
been glossed over as cancer. They talk of pastors bashing
gays from the pulpit.
Why should we go in and get
beat up, then try to fish out of that experience what is affirming?
said Craig Washington, 44, who moved to Atlanta from New York with
a partner almost 12 years ago.
The Rev. Timothy McDonald is pastor
of First Iconium Baptist Church in East Atlanta, where he said at
least two men and one woman were gay but not out to the 2,000-member
The black church is still very
conservative when it comes to the issue of homosexuality,
he said. The visibility is almost nil in the black church.
At times there is still hostility. That makes it difficult for gays
who happen to be black to relate to the church.
But at a recent Buckhead conference
of 400 interdenominational black pastors from around the country,
McDonald heard several talk openly about homosexuality.
That was the first time Ive
seen that kind of open discussion among black pastors, he
said. I said, OK, were getting there.
Added the Rev. Kathi Martin, pastor
of God, Self and Neighborhood Ministries in Atlanta, who has presided
over about 15 same-sex marriages, I do see a shift [in attitudes
at black churches], but its very slow.
Still, for many black gays and lesbians,
Atlanta remains a revelation.
Washington had what he called a Midnight
Train to Georgia moment - You now, Id rather
live in his world than live without him in mine, he
said - when he and his former partner moved here from New York in
1992. The first place they walked into together was a Waffle House,
where people said, Hey, how you doing? We were
like, Wow, people are really friendly here.
Atlanta, he said, is the only
city I would consider living in in the Southeast.
Trevor Pettiford had a similar experience
before moving here from Orlando in 1998 to be a reporter with Fox
5 Atlanta. While attending Atlanta Pride, the annual gay celebration
at Piedmont Park, he was amazed to see politicians and firefighters
marching along with throngs of gay people, many of whom were black.
Its so nice to see yourself
in other people, said Pettiford, 40. You get a sense
that you can make it here because you see other African-Americans
who have made it, straight or gay.
As Pettiford sees it, Atlantas
pull as a black gay mecca is largely a numbers game. With so many
African-Americans and so many gays here, the city is an oasis for
people who are both.
But the spring runs deeper, he said.
Atlantas reputation as the cradle of the civil rights movement
provides a steady inspiration. Pettiford, who lives in Grant Park
with his partner, frequently drives by the Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr.s tomb and birth home.
This is a city that effected
so much change around the country, he said. You feel
its a city that still wants to effect change.
Added Mashaun Simon, 24, an Atlanta
native attending Georgia Perimeter College, For me, its
all about being comfortable. Here in Atlanta, there are a number
of places I can go if I want to be around what I call my people
- other African-American homosexuals.
Kevin Bynes, like many black gays
here, acknowledges the good and bad of Atlanta. But ultimately he
sees the city as a better place for people like himself than almost
I dont like to use the
term mecca because mecca is like a representation of
this holy and perfect place, said Bynes, 28, who moved here
from his hometown of Oakland, Calif., to attend Clark Atlanta University
and who works for AID Atlanta. Theres still a lot of
bigotry in Atlanta, even as much as we want to pride ourselves on
being The City Too Busy to Hate.
But, he added, Coming here for
the first time as a black person in general and a gay black person,
you see Atlanta being like no other city. Theres a certain
level of pride of blackness here, black people doing well professionally
and financially, black people running things.
Most of us end up coming here
not because its a black gay mecca, but because its a
black mecca in general.