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Development of Gay Rights Movement in Atlanta

Development of Gay Rights Movement in Atlanta

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Published by Laura Gentle
This study focuses on the gay and lesbian rights movement in America’s most conservative region, the South, and its major urban center, Atlanta. Gays and lesbians benefited from a changing political opportunity structure as they overcame severe pressures to develop their own neighborhoods, build a wide range of organizations, and become an important electoral bloc. The movement built upon the city’s civil rights legacy and benefited from the dissipation of it opponents, but it has not posed a major threat to what has been labeled Atlanta’s regime.
This study focuses on the gay and lesbian rights movement in America’s most conservative region, the South, and its major urban center, Atlanta. Gays and lesbians benefited from a changing political opportunity structure as they overcame severe pressures to develop their own neighborhoods, build a wide range of organizations, and become an important electoral bloc. The movement built upon the city’s civil rights legacy and benefited from the dissipation of it opponents, but it has not posed a major threat to what has been labeled Atlanta’s regime.

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Published by: Laura Gentle on May 01, 2011
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HITTING BELOW THE BIBLE BELT: THEDEVELOPMENT OF THE GAY RIGHTS MOVEMENTIN ATLANTA
ARNOLD FLEISCHMANN
University of Georgia 
JASON HARDMAN
University of Georgia 
ABSTRACT:
This study focuses on the gay and lesbian rights movement in America’s mostconservative region, the South, and its major urban center, Atlanta. Gays and lesbians benefited  from a changing political opportunity structure as they overcame severe pressures to developtheir own neighborhoods, build a wide range of organizations, and become an importantelectoral bloc. The movement built upon the city’s civil rights legacy and benefited from thedissipation of it opponents, but it has not posed a major threat to what has been labeleAtlanta’s regime.
R
esearch on social movements in the United States has expanded recently to include afocus on new social movements and movements occurring at the local level. This articleextends previous work by analyzing how the gay and lesbian movement in Atlantacompares to other US cities and theoretical models of social movements.
THE GAY RIGHTS MOVEMENT AND URBAN AMERICA
D’Emilio (1998) has chronicled how World War II facilitated the development of gayidentity in large American cities, particularly those that were major military staging areason both coasts. As it developed, this subculture grew from social networks to include gaybars, social clubs, publications, and gay-themed literature. Organizations formed duringthe 1950s in New York and California in clandestine fashion due to fear of policeharassment, public ostracism, and the loss of employment. One of the earliest organiza-tions, the Mattachine Society, started in 1951 in order to ‘‘unify isolated homosexuals,educate homosexuals to see themselves as an oppressed minority, and lead them in astruggle for their own emancipation’’ (D’Emilio, 1998, p. 67). Early efforts also includedpublications, such as
ONE 
, whose May 1954 issue had over 5,000 copies in circulation.
*Direct correspondence to: Arnold Fleischmann, Department of Political Science, School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-1615. E-mail: arnie@uga.edu
JOURNAL OF URBAN AFFAIRS, Volume 26, Number 4, pages 407–426.Copyright
#
2004 Urban Affairs AssociationAll rights of reproduction in any form reserved.ISSN: 0735-2166.
 
By the mid-1960s, homosexuals had mobilized in several major cities around the UnitedStates in what was called the Homophile movement. Mattachine Societies flourished inNew York, Washington, and San Francisco. Los Angeles had One, Inc.; New York,Chicago, and San Francisco had chapters of the lesbian organization known as theDaughters of Bilitis, Inc. The Janus Society of Philadelphia had supporters in 27 states.There was a Homosexual Voters Advisory Council, a Homosexual League of New York,and the New York City League for Sexual Freedom. Also, the East Coast HomophileOrganization (ECHO) held annual conventions and lobbied in the nation’s capital. Move-ment leaders made attempts to influence the clergy, physicians, social workers, and otherprofessionals who treated homosexuals during the era. There were court cases related togovernment sanctions on publications, gathering places, and employment. In 1965,lesbians and gay men picketed the White House and the United Nations asking for anend to the purges of homosexuals from federal government employment and an end togeneral discrimination. There were debates, however, over the use of protest and theproper image of the movement (D’Emilio, 1998; Kaiser, 1997; Meeker, 2001).Following on the heels of the civil rights movement and the 1969 Stonewall riot in NewYork City, a gay power movement emerged by the early 1970s, based on liberationideology and claiming that the system was an instigator of sexual conformity and oppres-sion. The movement quickly built national organizations, including today’s National Gayand Lesbian Task Force (1973), Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (1973), theHuman Rights Campaign (1981), and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation(1985). The first national protest march in Washington occurred in 1979 and was followedby others in 1987, 1993, and 2000. The movement became more institutionalized by the1990s, with money, campaign activity, and lobbying used to build political alliances,particularly within the Democratic Party. In the private sector, many firms adoptedpolicies to cultivate gay workers, stimulate purchasing and investment, and shape corpor-ate images (Bull, 2000; Cain, 2000; Clendinen & Nagourney, 1999). Within a generation,the movement had secured state government policy changes dealing with discrimination,hate crimes, domestic partnerships, sodomy repeal, and related issues (Human RightsCampaign, 2002).
The Gay Rights Movement in Theoretical Perspective
Button, Rienzo, and Wald (1997) classify the gay rights movement as one form of identity politics, in which ‘‘people may band together on the basis of some seeminglypersonal or private trait when that quality becomes the basis for the way they are treatedby larger society’’ (p. 5). Many scholars label this activism of the late twentieth century
New Social Movements
(NSM), which are distinguished by new lines of political cleavage,broad goals, and a wide range of tactics. In terms of cleavages, organizing based on age,gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity stands in contrast to traditional divisionssuch as economic classes, industries, and labor unions. Goals extend beyond the economicto include social treatment, symbols, public attitudes, and similar aims not readily meas-ured by dollars or legislative enactments. Tactics, too, extend to many unconventionalpractices not often associated with interest groups (Button, Rienzo & Wald, 1997).Some scholars hypothesize that social movements progress through identifiable stages.Friedman and McAdam (1992), for example, argue that the first two stages involve usingexisting networks and organizations to launch a movement, then moving beyond this baseto attract new members to build a new identity and new organizations. In the third stage,identity and cultural symbols often become public goods, a transition that poses a threat
408
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JOURNAL OF URBAN AFFAIRS
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Vol. 26/No. 4/2004 
 
to movement organizations. This is hardly a smooth process, however. Early efforts atbuilding identity are often based on challenging stigmas, hostile laws, and mainstreamculture (Bernstein, 1997). Moreover, as movements evolve, there are often internal dis-putes over membership, goals, strategies, and similar issues (see Gamson, 1995), all of which can undermine success.There are variants of the stages model. Many scholars identify an array of events thatcan occur as movements mobilize. For instance, if movement organizations perceive thatworking within the system (e.g., registering voters, lobbying public officials, campaigningfor candidates) is significantly more effective than cultural self-expression alone, they cantake advantage of their established networks to advocate change (Tarrow, 1994). Still,most scholars consider a movement’s life as dependent on its political opportunitystructure, by which they normally mean its infrastructure, the attitudes and behavior of political elites, and mobilization by its opponents (see Tarrow, 1994; Bernstein, 1997;Button, Rienzo, & Wald, 1997). At the local level in particular, the relative size of thegay and lesbian population and their mobilization could affect the movement’s success(Bernstein, 1997; Rosenthal, 1996).Extant scholarship, particularly in sociology, seems to pay more attention to theformation and mobilization of movements than to their long-term status. The literaturedoes trace several outcomes, however. Some movements collapse, for instance, whileothers become reform agents within the political mainstream (see Tarrow, 1994). Browing,Marshall, and Tabb (1984) argue further that movements will experience greater gains atthe local level when they go beyond protest to be included in electoral coalitions. Someobservers caution against drawing a sharp distinction between social movements andinterest groups, however (Burstein, 1998).
The Importance of Local Differences
Theories of social movements run the risk of ignoring geographical variation, particu-larly in a country as diverse as the US. This is understandable given efforts to gauge theoverall breadth and impact of various social movements. In the case of the gay rightsmovement, examining local variation is critical because of its origins in major cities wherehomosexuals were subject to social and police pressures (D’Emilio, 1998). As Bailey (1999,pp. 39–43) was careful to remind us, gay politics involves both a ‘‘deep agenda’’ that is thesame everywhere and local agendas that differ (also see Rosenthal, 1996). This is consist-ent with studies indicating that variation in ideology or political culture can producesubstantial differences in state and local policies (e.g., Erikson, Wright, & McIver, 1993;Lieske, 1993; Sharp, 2002). The gay rights movement grew well beyond major cities likeLos Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Washington. By the mid-1990s, more than120 cities and counties had ordinances against discrimination based on sexual orientation(Button, Rienzo, & Wald, 1997), and more than 100 openly gay officials had been electedto local offices (Button, Wald, & Rienzo, 1999).If one looks at local adoption of policies promoted by gay and lesbian activists, a keypattern that emerges is the limited number of protections against discrimination in theSouth. Table 1 reports nondiscrimination ordinances covering sexual orientation in placein large cities by 1999. Such laws vary widely in scope, including whether they cover boththe public sector (e.g., employment) and private sector (e.g., housing, public accommoda-tions). The table includes ordinances that cover either; it omits protections that apply onlyto hate crimes, cable television franchises, or that were extended by executive order ratherthan by city council passage of an ordinance (van der Meide, 2000).
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Hitting Below the Bible Belt 
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