Once or twice a
week the women's drum circle gathers to practice. Drum
Sista's members pound and caress the skins, bonding through
the rhythm in an atmosphere of like-minded
women—activists and artists, all
African-Americans, all lesbians.
It is no accident that they found one another in Atlanta.
The city and its suburbs have, in recent years,
become a mecca for black gays and lesbians. The region
now is home to the biggest concentration of black
same-sex couples in the South, with nearly as many as the
Chicago area, which has more than four times as many
blacks. Many make their homes in Atlanta for the same
reasons that tens of thousands of other blacks have
relocated to such states as Georgia, Florida, and the
Carolinas: a moderate cost of living and the familiar
culture of the South, where most black Americans have
Though Atlanta's blacks generally reflect
African-Americans nationwide—many are
religious, socially conservative, and critical of
homosexuality—lesbians and gays in town are courted
by elected officials, and they have access to some of
the nation's best HIV-fighting resources geared toward
African-Americans. Each year the city hosts what organizers
say is the largest black gay pride festival in the world.
"I had never seen that many black gay folks in
my life, and I was blown away," said Duncan Teague of
his first visit, a two-week vacation from Kansas City
in 1985. "I was out of the closet, but not as out as I
was down here. I could be whoever Duncan decided to be. And
I was." He cashed in his return plane ticket, he said,
and has lived there ever since.
"This is our home," said Mary Anne Adams, a
social worker and chair of Zami, an advocacy group for
black lesbians that organized the drum circle. "This
is the place that needs us the most and that we need
Census data on same-sex couples show that the
metro areas of New York, Washington-Baltimore, and
Chicago have more gays than Atlanta. But local
residents and experts say the booming Southern city is
growing as a destination. Two years ago about 15,000
attended Atlanta's annual black gay pride festival
over Labor Day weekend. A year later that number had
doubled, said Michael Slaughter, cochair of In the Life
Atlanta, which organizes the event.
"In Atlanta you can stand out on Peachtree in
front of a gay bar and very rarely is someone going to
say something to you," he said. "It's just not the
same" in other cities.
Several of the nation's most vocal black leaders
supporting gay rights are based in Georgia, including
Democratic representative John Lewis, Atlanta mayor
Shirley Franklin, and Coretta Scott King. And though
advocates say more help is needed, a significant portion of
the city's AIDS resources are focused on the black
community. For example, the Ponce Center serves 7,000,
most uninsured and black, who are battling AIDS, the
top killer of young black men.
David Malebranche, a physician who teaches at
Emory University and works at the Ponce Center, said
many black lesbians and gays settle in Atlanta because
they "feel ostracized from the white gay community because
of racism. People will migrate to a city where there
are a lot of black people in general, and then within
that you find your niche."
Indeed, many agree that Atlanta's gay community
remains largely racially separated. "This is still the
South. We have that kind of mind-set," said LaMont
"Montee" Evans, an advocate and health outreach
worker. "And then we have megachurches and
megapreachers," he said, referring to tensions between black
gays and some black churches.
In December, Bishop Eddie Long, whose New Birth
Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta reports 25,000
members and counsels gays to "become heterosexual,"
led thousands in a march against same-sex marriage.
Another local black minister last year called same-sex
marriage "a threat to who we are and what we stand for."
Bishop Wellington Boone of the Father's House
church in Atlanta said in an e-mail interview that he
does not hate homosexuals but feels morally bound to
speak "strongly against the lifestyle." Of Atlanta's
black gays and heterosexuals, he wrote, "Other than
geographically, the two populations do not coexist.
There is a gay lobby, a gay culture, and gay clubs.
Then there is the Church.
Tensions have surfaced elsewhere too. In 2002 at
Atlanta's Morehouse College, the nation's only
all-male black university, a student suffered a
fractured skull after being beaten with a baseball bat by
another student who suspected he was gay. Such
incidents help explain "why so many influential
African-Americans [in Georgia] who are gays and lesbians
have not come out," said Chuck Bowen, executive director of
Georgia Equality, a statewide advocacy group that
lobbied unsuccessfully against a new state law
reserving marriage for heterosexuals.
Outside Atlanta, he said, Georgia's generally
conservative politics make gay advocacy tough. But
even so, two small Georgia cities—Macon and
Albany—have one of the highest ratios of black gay
couples relative to all gay couples, according to a
study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Advocates say black gays in Georgia must now begin to
flex their political muscle more effectively.
"In Atlanta we
have a large gay population that votes," said Adams of
Zami, which awards national scholarships to black gays and
lesbians. "There are bread-and-butter issues that the black
gay community cares about. We're doing better at
leveraging that." (Erin Texeira, AP)