Black queer kids growing up in southwest Atlanta, like in many other places, see ourselves as alone. Much later, after we survive childhood, we learn about the army outside the gates: how they were there all along fighting for us to be free. But how can we know that we stand on the shoulders of giants when black queer memory is erased by racist institutions? This does irreparable harm not only to our communities, our movements, but to our very psyches.
Atlanta has long been a place — dare I say a spiritual place — for black LGBT artists, activists, and freethinkers. That is a story that desperately needs to be told. Yet alongside this tradition of black LGBT warriors are also our allies, imperfect though they may be. One ally in particular stands out: Mayor Maynard Jackson.
In 1976, Jackson proclaimed Gay Pride Day in Atlanta. This single act runs counter to the all-too-often popularized narrative that black people are inherently homophobic and lag behind the far more “enlightened” white community in recognizing LGBT people. This is a horrible lie that can only be told because so much of our movement history has been distorted.
Jackson was mayor of Atlanta from 1974 to 1982, and again from 1990 to 1994. He took on the white political establishment, and won. Jackson, elected at 35, was the first black mayor of Atlanta. He was also the first black mayor of any major city in the South. This made him a political legend, but after he proclaimed Gay Pride Day, for the city of Atlanta, his legacy grew even larger.
Of course, there were consequences. A group calling itself Citizens for a Decent Atlanta (which sounds like something straight out of a John Waters film) protested the proclamation. Jackson prevailed, but the following year, and perhaps with an eye toward his reelection, he honored Human Rights Day rather than Gay Pride Day.
In 1990, during Jackson’s third term, he appointed Joan Garner, a respected and accomplished leader to his transition team, to served as his senior adviser on LGBT issues, making Jackson the first Atlanta mayor to create a high-level LGBT position. Among her many accomplishments, Garner was elected to the Fulton County Commission in 2010, becoming the first out LGBT person elected to that body. Her April 2017 passing from breast cancer is still incredibly painful for many of us in the Atlanta community.
Later political figures: U.S. Rep. John Lewis most prominently, but also subsequent Atlanta mayors from Shirley Franklin to Kasim Reed, would integrate LGBT rights into their political visions. In the 2017 Atlanta mayoral campaign, many of the candidates reached out to the LGBT community for support and guidance — a tradition that started with Jackson.
I actually met Jackson once when I was a junior at Therrell High School. He ran a leadership program for kids in the Atlanta Public Schools and I was accepted. He was a big man not just in terms of his girth, which was considerable, but he was towering. And there was that big booming voice. He used it well. He was gregarious. He told stories. He talked about Morehouse College, being an encyclopedia salesman, and his family. He was one of those old-school Southern politicians the system doesn’t make anymore. After he inspired me to attend Morehouse, it was an honor when he agreed to write one of my recommendations.
There is oppression against LGBT folks in black communities, just like everywhere else in America. And there are allies, just like everywhere else. As one of those allies, Jackson was far from perfect. There were many times he let down the community,or had to be pushed to do the right thing. But his life and work offer an example of what is possible — for allies and ourselves — if we raise our voice and fight.
Contributing editor CHARLES STEPHENS is an Atlanta-based writer and activist. He is the executive director of the Counter Narrative Project. (@CharlesDotSteph)