Atlanta a Hub for Black Gays
Dres Jubera, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 21
In his mid-20s, Byron Mason was in San Francisco, living the life of many gay men’s 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 men’s dreams - Atlanta, where he can go to black gay bars, black gay house parties, even black gay book clubs.
“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 African-Americans.
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 else.
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 it’s Atlanta. The feel and the vibe is it’s 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: I’m 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 such marriages.
Mainstream black churches - a vital part of the African-American community at large - have distanced themselves from Atlanta’s 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 congregation.
“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 I’ve seen that kind of open discussion among black pastors,” he said. “I said, ‘OK, we’re 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 it’s 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, ‘I’d 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.
“It’s 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, Atlanta’s 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. Atlanta’s 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 it’s a city that still wants to effect change.”
Added Mashaun Simon, 24, an Atlanta native attending Georgia Perimeter College, “For me, it’s 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 anywhere else.
“I don’t 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. “There’s 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. There’s 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 it’s a black gay mecca, but because it’s a black mecca in general.”