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University of Georgia
University of Georgia

ABSTRACT: 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.

Research on social movements in the United States has expanded recently to include a
focus on new social movements and movements occurring at the local level. This article
extends previous work by analyzing how the gay and lesbian movement in Atlanta
compares to other US cities and theoretical models of social movements.


D’Emilio (1998) has chronicled how World War II facilitated the development of gay
identity in large American cities, particularly those that were major military staging areas
on both coasts. As it developed, this subculture grew from social networks to include gay
bars, social clubs, publications, and gay-themed literature. Organizations formed during
the 1950s in New York and California in clandestine fashion due to fear of police
harassment, 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 a
struggle for their own emancipation’’ (D’Emilio, 1998, p. 67). Early efforts also included
publications, 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:

JOURNAL OF URBAN AFFAIRS, Volume 26, Number 4, pages 407–426.

Copyright # 2004 Urban Affairs Association
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.
ISSN: 0735-2166.
408 | JOURNAL OF URBAN AFFAIRS | Vol. 26/No. 4/2004

By the mid-1960s, homosexuals had mobilized in several major cities around the United
States in what was called the Homophile movement. Mattachine Societies flourished in
New York, Washington, and San Francisco. Los Angeles had One, Inc.; New York,
Chicago, and San Francisco had chapters of the lesbian organization known as the
Daughters 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 Homophile
Organization (ECHO) held annual conventions and lobbied in the nation’s capital. Move-
ment leaders made attempts to influence the clergy, physicians, social workers, and other
professionals who treated homosexuals during the era. There were court cases related to
government sanctions on publications, gathering places, and employment. In 1965,
lesbians and gay men picketed the White House and the United Nations asking for an
end to the purges of homosexuals from federal government employment and an end to
general discrimination. There were debates, however, over the use of protest and the
proper 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 New
York City, a gay power movement emerged by the early 1970s, based on liberation
ideology and claiming that the system was an instigator of sexual conformity and oppres-
sion. The movement quickly built national organizations, including today’s National Gay
and Lesbian Task Force (1973), Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (1973), the
Human Rights Campaign (1981), and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
(1985). The first national protest march in Washington occurred in 1979 and was followed
by others in 1987, 1993, and 2000. The movement became more institutionalized by the
1990s, with money, campaign activity, and lobbying used to build political alliances,
particularly within the Democratic Party. In the private sector, many firms adopted
policies 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 Rights
Campaign, 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 seemingly
personal or private trait when that quality becomes the basis for the way they are treated
by 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 divisions
such as economic classes, industries, and labor unions. Goals extend beyond the economic
to include social treatment, symbols, public attitudes, and similar aims not readily meas-
ured by dollars or legislative enactments. Tactics, too, extend to many unconventional
practices 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 using
existing networks and organizations to launch a movement, then moving beyond this base
to 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
| Hitting Below the Bible Belt | 409

to movement organizations. This is hardly a smooth process, however. Early efforts at

building identity are often based on challenging stigmas, hostile laws, and mainstream
culture (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 that
can occur as movements mobilize. For instance, if movement organizations perceive that
working within the system (e.g., registering voters, lobbying public officials, campaigning
for candidates) is significantly more effective than cultural self-expression alone, they can
take advantage of their established networks to advocate change (Tarrow, 1994). Still,
most scholars consider a movement’s life as dependent on its political opportunity
structure, 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 the
gay 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 the
formation and mobilization of movements than to their long-term status. The literature
does trace several outcomes, however. Some movements collapse, for instance, while
others become reform agents within the political mainstream (see Tarrow, 1994). Browing,
Marshall, and Tabb (1984) argue further that movements will experience greater gains at
the local level when they go beyond protest to be included in electoral coalitions. Some
observers caution against drawing a sharp distinction between social movements and
interest 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 the
overall breadth and impact of various social movements. In the case of the gay rights
movement, examining local variation is critical because of its origins in major cities where
homosexuals 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 the
same 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 produce
substantial 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 like
Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Washington. By the mid-1990s, more than
120 cities and counties had ordinances against discrimination based on sexual orientation
(Button, Rienzo, & Wald, 1997), and more than 100 openly gay officials had been elected
to local offices (Button, Wald, & Rienzo, 1999).
If one looks at local adoption of policies promoted by gay and lesbian activists, a key
pattern that emerges is the limited number of protections against discrimination in the
South. Table 1 reports nondiscrimination ordinances covering sexual orientation in place
in large cities by 1999. Such laws vary widely in scope, including whether they cover both
the 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 only
to hate crimes, cable television franchises, or that were extended by executive order rather
than by city council passage of an ordinance (van der Meide, 2000).
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Nondiscrimination Ordinances in Cities of 200,000 or More Residents, 1999

Southa (11 of 32) Year Adopted

Austin 1975
Atlanta 1986
Raleigh 1988
New Orleans 1991
Tampa 1992
Dallas 1995
Virginia Beach 1995
Houston 1998
Miami 1998
Lexington-Fayette, Kentucky 1999
Louisville 1999

Non-South (34 of 56) Year Adopted

Minneapolis 1974
Portland, Oregon 1974
Madison 1978
San Francisco 1978
Detroit 1979
Los Angeles 1979
Seattle 1980
Philadelphia 1982
Buffalo 1983
Rochester, New York 1983
Boston 1984
Columbus, Ohio 1984
Oakland 1984
Scaramento 1986
Long Beach 1987
Baltimore 1988
Chicago 1988
Honolulu 1988
Denver 1990
Milwaukee 1990
Pittsburgh 1990
St. Paul 1990
San Diego 1990
San Jose 1990
Phoenix 1992
St. Louis 1992
Kansas City, Missouri 1993
New York 1993
Cleveland 1994
San Jose 1996
Riverside, California 1997
Salt Lake City 1998
Toledo 1998
Tucson 1999

Note. Changing the population threshold from 200,000 to 100,000 in 2000 would raise the total number of cities from 88 to 239: 75
in the South and 164 elsewhere. This would add some central cities, but it would also add many suburbs, particularly in California.
Washington, DC adopted an ordinance in 1977 but is omitted because of its peculiar legal status. Source. van der Meide, 2000.
The South is defined as the 11 states of the Confederacy (AL, AR, FL, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, TX, and VA) and two border states
(KY, OK) included in the Census Bureau’s definition of the South.
| Hitting Below the Bible Belt | 411

In 2000, there were 88 US cities with a population of 200,000 or more, 32 in the South
and 56 in the remaining 37 states. By the end of the 1990s, 11 of the 32 Southern cities
(34%) had a nondiscrimination ordinance, as did 34 of the 56 (61%) outside the South.
Several college towns in the South were in the forefront of passing nondiscrimination
ordinances, including Austin and Chapel Hill in 1975 and Durham in 1986. Miami was
also at the forefront, where a voter initiative repealed a 1977 law following a bitter
campaign (Clendinen & Nagourney, 1999, pp. 291–311). Although not in the first wave
in the 1970s, Atlanta was an early adopter, even compared to cities outside the region such
as New York and San Diego.
The South is usually characterized as the nation’s most conservative region, both in
terms of residents’ attitudes and policies adopted by states (Erikson, Wright, & McIver,
1993). Thus, one would expect the political opportunity structure in the South to be
hostile to the gay and lesbian movement. Wyman (2002) characterizes it as even more

just as the region resisted the civil rights movement and has given a lethargic response to
feminism, the South has been a center of resistance to the changes sought by gay activists.
Indeed, the counter-revolution to the gay movement began in the South (p. 168).

Empirical studies reinforce this Bible Belt image, with region and religion as significant
predictors of opposition to several goals of the gay rights movement (Haeberle, 1999;
Lewis & Rogers, 1999).
The South is not monolithic, however. For some communities, such as Birmingham, it
took AIDS to launch movement activity (Bailey, 1999, pp. 179–213). In others, policies
favorable to the gay rights movement were enacted before 1990, although their scope and
acceptance could be limited, as in Raleigh (Button, Rienzo, & Wald, 1997). Still, Atlanta’s
unusual status as an early adopter of pro-gay policies deserves careful attention. Three
questions thus arise about the gay and lesbian movement in Atlanta: (1) how it could
achieve early policy success despite the region’s politics, (2) whether it passed through the
stages suggested in the literature, and (3) what the movement’s development might
portend for local politics in both Atlanta and other Southern cities.


The Setting
For much of its modern history, Atlanta has been the South’s preeminent urban center.
It grew to more than 330,000 residents in 1950 and to over 485,000 in 1960. With virtually
no growth during the 1960s, the city seemed to enter free fall, losing 100,000 residents
between 1970 and 1990. Atlanta’s racial make-up also shifted dramatically, from 38%
black in 1960 to 67% black in 1980. Meanwhile, the metropolitan area grew from
1.3 million people in 1960 to 3 million in 1990.
The 1990s saw somewhat of a reversal of fortune for Atlanta, including the visibility of
hosting the 1996 Olympic Games. The city actually gained residents during the decade
(more than 22,000) to reach a 2000 population of 416,267. The Census Bureau estimated
that Atlanta added another 8,000 residents by July 2002, essentially returning to its 1980
population level. Surprising to some was the accompanying racial change: blacks dropped
from 67.1 to 61.4% of the population. The metropolitan population grew 39% during the
1990s and reached 4.1 million in 2000 (eleventh-largest MSA). This represents an addition
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of 1.2 million residents; only the New York MSA added more. Several major corporations
relocated to the Atlanta area during the 1990s, mainly in the suburbs, including United
Parcel Service.
Atlanta has long had an image of political and social moderation, cultivated in large
part by the regime that formed between the city’s white business elite and black political
leaders beginning in the 1940s (Stone, 1989). This governing coalition led to relatively
tranquil desegregation in the 1960s and to working relationships following the transition
to African American political control in the 1970s. Given its history as a seedbed for the
civil rights movement (Bayor, 1996), Atlanta, particularly its elites, might be receptive to
other social movements.

The analysis below traces the evolution of the gay and lesbian movement in Atlanta
over the last half of the twentieth century. It will concentrate on stages in the movement’s
development suggested by the literature, including identity formation during the earliest
period, the dynamics of mobilization, and a mature phase in which gays and lesbians have
become regular political participants and have developed a wide-ranging set of organiza-
tions. The last stage is less commonly covered in the literature. Throughout, attention
will be paid to internal conflicts and the movement’s relations with Atlanta’s political
opportunity structure.
The findings below are based on a qualitative and historical approach. We rely on
extant scholarship, newspaper stories and editorials, published accounts by participants,
and selected periodicals and web sites. Many of these resources are available in the Atlanta
History Center’s archives on gay and lesbian history. Newspapers are of several types. The
Atlanta Journal-Constitution is a mainstream local newspaper owned by the Cox media
firm. Although there are arguments about its historical and current biases, this newspaper
is a valuable source of information, particularly regarding mainstream opinion. Until
2001, Cox published the liberal Constitution in the morning and the conservative Journal
in the afternoon as separate dailies. Another local newspaper source is Southern Voice,
which provides information on a wide range of lesbian and gay matters. Southern Voice
has been published since 1988 and followed several failed efforts at developing a local gay
press: The Barb (founded in 1974), The Gazette (1980), and The News (1984). The
Advocate, one of the oldest lesbian and gay magazines in the US, contains articles about
Atlanta dating back to the early 1970s. It also provides comparisons with other areas. In
tracing the development of organizations, several sources have produced directories of
Atlanta organizations intermittently since the 1970s, including the gay press and, more
recently, on-line sites.


Bernstein (1997) suggests that oppressed groups are forced to devote the early stages of
a movement to identity and community building. The first gay and lesbian political
organizations were founded in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, during the
1950s. These cities also had the first litigation against raids on gay bars and other police
practices (D’Emilio, 1998; Kaiser, 1997; Meeker, 2001). Conditions in Atlanta, then a
much smaller city, were quite hostile. Howard (1997) has argued that ‘‘a cultural config-
uration unique to the Bible Belt South’’ produced regular attacks from a daunting
opposition of the police, political leaders, the media, and churches (p. 108).
| Hitting Below the Bible Belt | 413

Gay men and lesbians in Atlanta lived in fear of discovery due to the legal, social, and
economic ramifications that could follow. What the press called the ‘‘Atlanta Public
Library Perversion Case’’ of 1953 represented just one of the many police crackdowns
on homosexuality. The case involved men who performed sexual acts in the bathroom of
the Atlanta Public Library. Police caught these men by using a two-way mirror to spy on
the occupants. Not only were the men arrested and taken to trial, their names and
addresses were printed in the newspaper, almost assuring them of losing their jobs and
social standing. Almost all were required by court order to leave the area (Howard, 1997).
Well known in gay circles as a nighttime gathering place and rendezvous for casual sex,
Piedmont Park in Midtown Atlanta was a target for police and their allies. According to
the Atlanta Association of Baptist Churches, an organization of 128 area congregations,
‘‘fifteen hundred sex perverts . . . pursue their devilish designs’’ there. In fact, a news article
titled ‘‘1,500 Sex Deviates Roam Streets Here,’’ told of ‘‘bulging files of secret police
information . . . including names of more than 1,500 know perverts . . . big names and little
names, from laborers to executive and professional men’’ (Howard, 1997, p. 116).
Crackdowns extended elsewhere, including a 1957 raid on a newsstand:

Acting on a complaint filed by the Georgia Literature Commission, headed by Reverend

James Wesberry of Morningside Baptist Church, solicitor general Paul Webb . . . took out
a warrant to search the News Shop. As a result, the Fulton County Grand Jury indicted
three men for selling a magazine seemingly aimed at the homosexual customer (Howard,
1997, p. 119).

Limited change occurred during the 1960s. An article in the Atlanta Constitution claimed,

Atlanta’s homosexuals are content to remain quiet [and] not militant about change. . . . They
want society’s acceptance, they want change. They want to hold jobs without fear, but they
usually don’t carry signs or wave banners about it (Herbert, 1966, p. A7).

In 1966, a small number of Atlanta vendors sold lesbian and gay books and pictorials,
nudist magazines, and organizational publications. Atlanta had at least five bars that
catered exclusively to homosexual patrons. These ‘‘free spaces’’ were the only public
venues where lesbian and gay people could meet without having to hide their sexual
identities. Even this small social network was targeted by police, who ‘‘want[ed] to close
the ‘gay’ bars that cater exclusively to homosexuals [and] to convert homosexuals to
‘straight’ lives—by force, harassment, arrests, prosecutions’’ (Herbert, 1966, p. A7). On
October 31, 1965, a large, after-hours gay Halloween celebration at a bar was raided. The
police had five paddy wagons and arrested 97 people (Herbert, 1966).
Beyond bar raids, plainclothes officers entrapped gay men in local theaters, parks, and
other public areas. During an interview in 1966, a police sergeant told the press that his
squad had ‘‘six men who know how to handle these cases’’ by dressing in casual clothes
and frequenting known gay hangouts. Often, detectives parked their car at a distance and
walked into Piedmont Park to ‘‘make themselves available to homosexuals.’’ The sergeant
also noted other forms of police intimidation: ‘‘We keep a file on [them]. We have a pretty
extensive file’’ (Herbert, 1966, p. A6). To discourage gay men from gathering, police
would drive in ‘‘troubled’’ areas and take pictures of men whom they perceived to be
Such crackdowns were consistent with the severity of the sodomy law in place during
this period and the long-serving prosecutor’s pursuit of things that might be considered
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immoral (Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, 1973). The media also joined such crusades. As
Howard (1997) reports, ‘‘the Constitution editor . . . Ralph McGill, called for tougher sex
crimes legislation as well as psychiatric treatments for offenders’’ in response to the
growing number of complaints of ‘‘unnatural sexual acts,’’ especially in the Piedmont
Park area (p. 117). This was in sharp contrast with McGill’s liberal views on race.


Theories of social movements suggest that collective consciousness would need to be
established prior to protest and the development of organizations. As was true in some
other southern communities (Buring, 1997), Atlanta developed a small interpersonal web
of bars, friendship networks, leftist political groups, and clandestine social events. Outside
events also played a fundamental role in the take-off of the gay rights movement. The
1969 Stonewall riots in New York City were the genesis of the New York Gay Liberation
Front (GLF), a self-proclaimed revolutionary organization in the style of the new left. It
was also the beginning of similar organizations throughout the country, including Atlanta.
Before any lesbian and gay organization was formed in Atlanta, in 1970 about 125 people
marched down Peachtree Street on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots (Brown,
The first local political organization, the Atlanta Gay Liberation Front (AGLF), was
created in February 1971 on the model of New York’s GLF. The AGLF was a ‘‘gay caucus
organized by members of the nonsectarian leftist . . . staff’’ of The Great Speckled Bird, which
was published from 1968 to 1978 by the Atlanta Cooperative News Project. ‘‘[A]lthough there
were ‘big battles’ about it among the staff, the publication covered feminist and then gay
issues and had feminist writers as well as some who came out as gay after the gay liberation
movement had emerged nationally’’(Chesnut & Gable, 1997, p. 278).
Without a permit, the Atlanta Gay Liberation Front held the first official Gay Pride
march on June 27, 1971, with a turnout of around 250 people. The march included ‘‘gay
liberationists, Socialist Workers, Bird writers, Young Socialist Alliance and National
Organization for Women members, [and] a few women’s liberationists’’ (Clendinen &
Nagourney, 1999, p. 80). Activists also mobilized to struggle with political elites, including
the unexpected willingness of Mayor Sam Massell to meet with four of them in 1971.

They presented him with a list of demands—that he end police harassment of homosexuals,
that he end all job discrimination against homosexuals and that he ‘exert the
moral . . . influence of [his] office’ to end social discrimination against homosexuals in
Atlanta. And he told them he would help in any way he could (Clendinen & Nagourney,
1999, p. 81).

No protests occurred after subsequent calls to the city personnel office revealed no policy
against hiring homosexuals.
The lesbian and gay community was also attempting to increase its collective conscious-
ness and build its own organizations. AGLF ran weekly consciousness-raising groups for
men and women (Hayward & Gough, 1991). Led by AGLF, the 1972 Gay Pride march
drew a reported 250 to 300 people. At the Pride rally, speakers included representatives of
the Georgia Women’s Abortion Coalition, AGLF, Socialist Workers Party, and the
University of Georgia Committee on Gay Education. Other events included a dance,
consciousness-raising groups, and open meetings (‘‘A first for famed,’’ 1972). The newly
organized gay and lesbian community was represented on a local television and radio
| Hitting Below the Bible Belt | 415

show. The Great Speckled Bird’s center spread on Gay Pride discussed how AGLF was
striving ‘‘towards integrating and harmonizing our sexuality’’ by establishing a community
outside of the bar scene (Bryant, 1972, p. 14). This community-building represents a
change from a loosely connected social network to an established organizational system.
A major step occurred, both symbolically and politically, when Mayor Sam Massell made
the first political appointment of an openly gay person in 1972 when he tapped the
AGLF’s Charles St. John for the city’s Community Relations Commission. Ironically,
St. John was fired by the Atlanta Journal the following year for distributing fliers for the
Pride event (Brown, 2000, p. 32).
All was not well internally, however, as tension grew between men and women. The height
of this division occurred at the 1972 Pride march. Although lesbians participated, ‘‘many of
them were fed up with the male domination of the GLF, symbolized for them by the omission
of the word ‘lesbian’ from the name of the group and the celebration’’ (Chesnut & Gable,
1997, p. 254). A number of activists who also felt unwelcome in the women’s liberation
movement formed a new, lesbian-feminist organization, the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist
Alliance (ALFA). After coordinating the second Gay Pride Day in 1973, the Atlanta Gay
Liberation Front folded due to the dissension among its members. ALFA continued to
expand its social and political activities, including a newsletter entitled Atalanta and a local
radio show, ‘‘Lesbian Woman,’’ on station WRFG. ALFA also sponsored ‘‘talks by visiting
authors and speakers, poetry and fiction reading, and workshops or panel discussions on
political issues; potlucks, parties, and dances; and of course, softball teams’’ (Chesnut &
Gable, 1997, p. 255). Another organization, the Georgia State University Gay Liberation
Front (GSU-GLF), formed in early 1973 with official recognition.
Organizational development soon extended beyond the strictly political to include ‘‘in-house’’
media and religion. In 1974, two publications, The Barb and Cruise, hit the newsstands. The Barb
served the Southeast and published gay news, issues, entertainment, editorials, and classifieds.
Cruise was a gay bar guide that ran until 1983. A local congregation of the Metropolitan
Community Church (MCC) was established in 1972. MCC expanded social networks to include
religious services within the gay community, but the congregation was also a platform for
cultivating collective consciousness and instigating protest. In 1974, after a sit-in threat by
Reverend Jim Snow, assistant pastor at MCC of Atlanta, ‘‘gay leaders finally achieved a
face-to-face meeting with Mayor Maynard Jackson to discuss gay rights [and] continued
allegations of police harassment against the gay community’’ (‘‘A little militancy,’’ 1974, p. 5).
Proactive calls to action, such as Snow’s, were limited during the 1970s. Activists were
frequently forced to respond to critical comments by politicians, the media, and religious
leaders. In 1975, for instance, the Atlanta Journal published a three-day, front-page series
titled ‘‘The Gay Life.’’ Gay leaders organized to respond, and critics blasted the series for
its ‘‘general omission of the positive and constructive work being done by the gay people
and gay organizations’’ in Atlanta, ‘‘while employing the more irascible stereotypes in the
community’’ (‘‘Atlanta forms,’’ 1975, p. 1). They also created an ad hoc group, the Atlanta
Gay Coalition, which was supplanted in 1976 by the Gay Rights Alliance (GRA).
GRA reignited activism by organizing and sponsoring the 1976 Gay Pride Day (Brown,
2000), for which Mayor Maynard Jackson issued a proclamation. In response, a group
created Citizens for a Decent Atlanta (CDA) and took out full-page newspaper ads
accusing Jackson of ‘‘taking pride in perverted sex’’ (Clendinen & Nagourney, 1999,
p.175). CDA stated in its ads that gays were performing acts ‘‘against the moral laws of
the Judeo-Christian tradition’’ and also attempted to obtain a court order voiding Mayor
Jackson’s proclamation. Lesbians and gays responded by picketing the leader of CDA,
Rev. William Self, at his Wieuca Road Baptist Church (Hayward & Gough, 1991). In
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1977, Mayor Jackson backpedaled in the face of CDA pressure and designated the last
week of June ‘‘Human Rights Week’’ instead of recognizing Gay Pride Day. Nevertheless,
the event draws about 1,500 participants (Brown, 2000, p. 32).
Another major defensive action occurred in response to Anita Bryant, a former Miss
America contestant, who campaigned against gay rights efforts in many cities, starting
with Dade County, Florida’s anti-discrimination ordinance in 1977. Bryant formed Save
Our Children, which contended that ordinances protecting homosexuals were ‘‘a religious
abomination and a license for gays to molest children, asserting that ‘Homosexuals cannot
reproduce so they must recruit’’’ (Button, Rienzo, & Wald, 1997, p. 68). When the Miss
National Teenager Pageant was held in Atlanta in 1977, the event honored Bryant as
America’s Greatest American. In response, 150 Atlantans picketed the pageant. A year
later, on June 11, 1978, Atlanta saw ‘‘its most raucous and volatile gay rights demonstra-
tion when over 2,000 protestors marched on the World Congress Center when Bryant
appeared as the keynote speaker at the Southern Baptist Convention’’ (Hayward &
Gough, 1991, p. 6). The monies gathered from the Anita Bryant protest were used to
fund the embryonic Atlanta Gay Center (Hayward & Gough, 1991).
In 1977, Atlanta’s lesbian and gay community took a significant step by creating First
Tuesday, its first political action committee and lobbying group. First Tuesday held its
first candidate forum that year, although only one of the five candidates running to
succeed Maynard Jackson showed up. As First Tuesday built support from the lesbian
and gay community, however, it also gained the attention of politicians and media outlets
(Ashkinaze, 1978, 1981).


Organizational Development
The literature suggests that social movements often develop organizations that become
more mainstream and promote reform. This ignores the degree to which identity becomes
the basis for many nonpolitical organizations. Such a diverse pattern of growth occurred
in metropolitan Atlanta during the 1980s. Figure 1 traces the growth of lesbian and gay
organizations in metropolitan Atlanta. Files in the Atlanta History Center archives, along
with more recent sources, allow one to use lists in the gay media to identify organizations

Number of Groups


24 25
18 19
20 16
13 14 13 14
12 12 11 12
8 10 9
10 7 5 7 7
4 4 3
1 2 3 2 1
3 2 3 2 2
1976 1981 1986 1991 1996 2001

Political Professional/business Health Social/Support Religion Arts/sports/recreation Student


Types of Gay and Lesbian Groups in Atlanta, 1976–2001

Sources. Calander, 1976; Chestnut & Gable, 1997; Directory, 1986; ‘‘Gazette’s,’’ 1981; Hayward & Gough, 1991;
‘‘Lesbian/Gay,’’ 1991; ‘‘Organizations,’’ 1996; ‘‘Organizations Directory,’’ 2001.
| Hitting Below the Bible Belt | 417

at five-year intervals beginning in 1976. The figure excludes gay-identified businesses, as

well as government agencies, telephone hotlines, college and university programs or
alumni groups (e.g., the office for lesbian and gay students at Emory University), Atlanta
offices of national gay and lesbian organizations (e.g., Human Rights Campaign), general
organizations that did not originate to serve gay or lesbian clients (e.g., AIDS organiza-
tions for children), agencies that have added gays and lesbians among the target groups
for their services (e.g., an Alcoholics Anonymous group for gays), and religious congrega-
tions that have developed a large gay and lesbian membership or outreach program. The
excluded organizations may not have been founded by gay and lesbian activists, but they
reflect the movement’s impact on mainstream society. Still, the overtly gay and lesbian
organizations in Figure 1 depict the evolution of the movement in Atlanta.
A variety of political organizations, many of them short-lived, formed during the 1980s,
framing their demands primarily in terms of access to the larger society. In 1981, the
Lesbian and Gay Rights Chapter of the ACLU opened its doors. The city police commis-
sioner, Lee Brown, asked the chapter to have regular meetings with the city government.
In its first year, the ACLU chapter, together with First Tuesday and the Gay Center, also
addressed police harassment of gay men with the Atlanta City Council Public Safety
Committee. First Tuesday expanded fund-raising and lobbying. When First Tuesday held
a political forum in 1981, six out of seven Atlanta mayoral candidates attended—quite a
contrast to one out of five in 1977 (Newman, 1981). In 1985, Georgia’s first lesbian and
gay political action committee, the Greater Atlanta Political Awareness Coalition
(GAPAC), was founded. It survives today as Georgia Equality, a statewide organization
with a political action committee for candidate endorsements and contributions, as well as
a nonprofit foundation for education and advocacy programs. Although political organi-
zations engaged in many traditional strategies, AIDS was the basis for the renewed use of
unconventional politics. In 1983, the annual Pride celebration had its first ‘‘Stop AIDS’’
banner and first candlelight AIDS vigil in Piedmont Park. In 1986, 350 gays, lesbians, and
other advocates picketed the First Baptist Church of Atlanta over its pastor’s remark that
AIDS is God’s judgment against sin. During the 1988 Democratic National Convention in
Atlanta, a local chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) formed to
push for more attention to AIDS within the Democratic Party. Other ACT-UP protests,
including at the governor’s mansion, had the ultimate goal of increasing education and
funding for the treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS (Morris, 1991).
By the mid-1990s, there were caucuses within both of the major political parties and a
group aiming to keep the 1996 Olympic Games out of suburban Cobb County, whose
board of commissioners had passed a resolution against the ‘‘gay lifestyle’’ (Teergardin &
Alexander, 1994). A local chapter of Queer Nation began in 1991 to protest after a cook at
a suburban Atlanta restaurant was fired for being a lesbian. Queer Nation, like ACT-UP,
used tactics outside the mainstream. More conventional groups like the Human Rights
Campaign and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund set up southern offices in
Atlanta, held events such as fund-raisers, and took on regional projects such as lawsuits.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) opened a southern branch
in Atlanta in 1990. An Atlanta beachhead provided these groups with symbolic value and
allowed them to expand their membership and become more involved in the local scene.
Although there were occasional conflicts between national and local activists, expansion
into the South coincided with the growing clout of gays and lesbians in Atlanta politics
(Abel, 1998; Brown, 1999; Hinmon, 1991; Newcom, 1997; Parvin, 1999; Shepard, 1992).
The growth of political organizations was paralleled by the founding of business and
professional organizations. In June 1980, a group ‘‘of progressive bar owners became
418 | JOURNAL OF URBAN AFFAIRS | Vol. 26/No. 4/2004

concerned about licensing problems with a midtown neighborhood association’’ and

formed a ‘‘gay chamber of commerce,’’ officially known as the Atlanta Business and
Professional Guild (Newman, 1981, p. 20). With bars as a source of fund-raising, Guild
members aided the Atlanta Gay Center, established a credit union, and organized a legal
defense fund. By 1982, the Guild had grown from a handful of members to nearly 300 and
had over 10,000 people on its mailing list. Other gay business organizations followed,
including the Atlanta Executive Network in 1993. There were also affinity groups that are
not included in Figure 1 because of their frequently unofficial status—organizations of
lesbian and gay employees within firms such as Bell South, Turner Broadcasting, IBM,
and American Express (Bond, 1982; Goldman, 1998b; Saporta, 1997). It bears repeating
that Figure 1 does not include gay-oriented businesses, which continued to multiply. By
the mid-1990s, for instance, there were more than two dozen bars listed in Southern Voice,
which itself grew from being a publication by a lesbian and gay arts organization to a
private company publishing weekly gay papers in several cities.
Numerous social, health, religious, recreational, and student organizations also formed
during the 1980s and 1990s, ranging from support groups for black lesbians to those
dealing with ‘‘coming out’’ and AIDS. In many ways, the growth in specialized organiza-
tions threatened more general organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Center, which
faced extinction by 2004 (Yoo, 2004). In 1982, a group from the Atlanta Business and
Professional Guild formed an organization called AID Atlanta to educate the community
about AIDS, provide client services, and raise funds to support medical research. AID
Atlanta gained support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 1985, which
helped it exert influence in Atlanta and the state of Georgia, especially compared to
traditional public health departments. Vigils and memorials became regular events that
not only allowed for personal and community support, but also made statements about
the urgency of funding and education (Andriote, 1999; Brown, 1999). Over time, other
health concerns also received attention, e.g., the founding of the Atlanta Lesbian Cancer
Religion was not only a force in opposing the gay rights movement in Atlanta; it was
also a key part of the movement’s development. In the early 1980s, Atlanta had six gay
Christian groups, and in 1981, Jewish lesbians and gays organized the Atlanta Congrega-
tion Bet Haverim (Newman, 1981). The spread of nonpolitical organizations also encom-
passed volleyball, bowling, softball, running, swimming, soccer, rugby, and other
recreational activities. It also extended to performance groups like the Atlanta Gay
Men’s Chorus, which began in the early 1980s.

Atlanta’s Shifting Political Opportunity Structure

The literature suggests (e.g., Bernstein, 1997; Button, Rienzo, & Wald, 1997) that policy
changes will be associated with changes in a movement’s political opportunity structure.
That appears to be the case, with the three most relevant factors being the geographical
concentration of the movement’s base, the diminished presence of opponents, and elite

Gay and Lesbian Presence

For gay Atlantans, the growth in organizations was accompanied by development of
their own spaces (originally Midtown, with others added during the 1980s and 1990s) that
could be considered gay ghettos or safe havens. These areas were more than cultural or
| Hitting Below the Bible Belt | 419

social settings; they also represented important voting blocs. However, there were not
always easy neighborhood transitions when white gays moved into black neighborhoods
or when young heterosexuals moved into areas after gay pioneers (Goldman, 1998a;
O’Briant, 2001).
There is no direct count of gay and lesbian residents in Atlanta. A close proxy is same-sex
households, which were sampled in the 2000 Census (Summary File 4) and are available at
the tract level. Obviously, these results understate the homosexual population by not
including those who are single or chose not to identify as same-sex couples in the Census.
Nationally, 0.6% of the nation’s 105.5 million households in 2000 self-identified as same-sex
couples (roughly equal numbers of gay men and lesbians). The figure for the Atlanta MSA
was slightly higher at 0.85%. The concentration was higher still in the Atlanta city limits at
1.65%. Figure 2 displays the concentration of same-sex households by census tracts, with
city council districts overlaid. There are 25 tracts where at least 2.5% of the households are
same-sex couples, all but two of them in council districts 1, 2, 5, 6, or 7. This area
approximated 30 of the city’s 168 precincts and is extremely close to a list of neighborhoods

8 7

9 6

3 2


Voting Districts
< 0.5
0.5 – 1.0
1.1 – 2.5
2.5 – 4.0
> 4.0


Percentage of Households with Same-Sex Couples by Census Tract, City of Atlanta, 2000
Source. US Bureau of the Census, 2003.
420 | JOURNAL OF URBAN AFFAIRS | Vol. 26/No. 4/2004

identified by a prominent consultant as having a significant gay presence (B. Schapiro,

personal communication, May 22, 2003). The highest incidence of same-sex households,
8.2%, was in a section of Morningside, which is an older area of expensive, single-family
homes. One would expect the gay population to be higher in areas where singles occupied
condominiums or apartments.
Having areas with a concentrated gay and lesbian presence translated into political
clout. By the mid-1990s, candidate forums were sponsored by several gay organizations,
including Georgia Equality, which also made endorsements, as did gay groups associated
with the two major political parties. Candidates campaigned for gay and lesbian dona-
tions, volunteers, and votes, including at the annual Pride Festival, which is held in
Midtown. Several officials, particularly long-time council member Mary Davis, whose
district included large numbers of gay voters, became major advocates for gay and lesbian
issues. Gay and lesbian candidates also became more common. In 1997, Cathy Woolard
defeated Davis in a runoff and became the first openly homosexual candidate elected to
office in Georgia (Helton, 1997).
When Woolard ran for city council president in 2001, she was finishing her first four-
year term in a relatively affluent district with a large gay population. Woolard may have
benefited from being identified as lesbian in a general election with four other candidates.
Of the 30 gay precincts, Woolard won 22, including 13 in her district; she had a plurality in
another three. Overall, she racked up 46% of her citywide vote in those 30 precincts.
Woolard made the runoff by finishing second with 25.8% of the vote in the November 6
general election, compared to Michael Bond’s 29.3%. No other candidate reached 20%.
The runoff was held three weeks later on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and turnout
dropped to 20.5% from 41.4% in the general election. Bond’s vote total was almost 6,000
less than in the general election. Woolard, however, attracted about 800 more supporters
and won with 54% of the vote. The 30 gay precincts accounted for only 41% of her total
votes. Another lesbian won the runoff in Woolard’s district, leaving two gays on the city
council, although the city council president only votes to break ties on the 15-member
council. In addition, gay men lost runoffs for a district seat and an at-large position in
2001 (Douglas-Brown, 2001a, 2001b, 2001c; Miller & Suggs, 2001).

The Opposition
The movement also benefited from the diminishing influence of its opponents in Atlanta
politics. As with the 1976 attack on Mayor Maynard Jackson for his Gay Pride proclam-
ation, much of the opposition to the gay rights movement came from conservative
congregations and clergy. This dynamic existed through the early 1980s, when Mayor
Andrew Young vacillated on whether to sign the annual Pride proclamation (Brown,
2000). Things changed during the subsequent two decades, however. Many in-town
Protestant congregations welcomed gay and lesbian members. Thus, in addition to self-
identified gay and lesbian congregations, the weekly gay newspaper eventually listed more
than three dozen spiritual resources, including several major, in-town congregations
(‘‘Calendars,’’ 2003). Disputes between moderate and conservative factions within the
Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) eventually led to the expulsion of some gay-welcoming
Atlanta congregations by the Georgia and Southern Baptist Conventions. In addition, the
relocation of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta from Midtown to the suburbs
and the defection of other Atlanta congregations from the SBC resulted in a seeming
polarization between city and suburban congregations over social issues, including homo-
sexuality (Osinski, 2001; White, 2001a, 2001b).
| Hitting Below the Bible Belt | 421

In many ways, city-suburban religious differences paralleled the partisan split between
Atlanta and its suburbs as the city became more reliably Democratic and the outer
suburbs were considered Republican stalwarts. Although gays and lesbians held office in
a handful of older suburbs, social conservatism is strong in suburban Atlanta and
throughout much of the rest of Georgia. Indeed, the state’s attorney general staunchly
defended the state’s sodomy law until it was ruled unconstitutional by the Georgia
Supreme Court in 1998, one suburban government passed a resolution in the mid-1990s
against the gay lifestyle, suburban Republican candidates became notorious for attacking
gay-friendly policies, and a state constitutional amendment proposed in 2004 to ban same-
sex marriage was opposed in a House vote by only one of the 72 Republicans and a
Democratic bloc of blacks and urban whites (Brown, 1998a; Powell v. State, 1998;
Teegardin & Alexander, 1994; Tharpe & Suggs, 2004).

Gays and Atlanta’s Regime

What about the role of elites? As discussed above, the movement used protest during
the Jackson and Massell administrations. During his 1981 mayoral campaign, Andrew
Young ‘‘preached before the predominantly gay audience of the Atlanta Metropolitan
Community Church and met privately with scores of gay activists’’ (Ashkinaze, 1981,
p. 12A). After his election, the city council adopted the annual Pride Day proclamation in
1982 without the signature of Mayor Young, who claimed that approving of private
sexual practice was inappropriate. During his 1985 reelection, however, Young changed
his position and proclaimed the last week of June ‘‘Gay Pride Week’’ in Atlanta (Brown,
By the late 1990s, the movement seemed to have had a major impact. Most citywide
candidates sought gay and lesbian votes, Cathy Woolard was elected city council president
in 2001, and Mayor Shirley Franklin included gays in her inner circle. Major Atlanta
employers adopted a number of gay-friendly policies and became financial sponsors of the
annual Pride Week. The media became more supportive of gay rights, including the daily
newspaper’s call to remove suburban Cobb County, famous for its resolution against the
gay lifestyle, as a venue for the 1996 Olympics (‘‘Move Olympics,’’ 1994; Brown, 1998a,
1998b; Douglas-Brown, 2003; Stafford, 2003). All of this was on top of Atlanta’s history
in the civil rights movement and Coretta Scott King’s support on gay issues, such as lifting
the military ban. For their part, gays also sought to tap into the legacy of the civil rights
movement symbolically and rhetorically, as well as with actions like participation in the
annual King Week celebrations (Morris, 1992, 1993a).
Do all these seeming advances mean that Atlanta’s regime has changed? Stone (1993)
asks scholars using regime theory to analyze how a governing coalition’s composition,
relationships, and resources shape policy making. His political economy approach also
concentrates on development decisions. Within such a framework, the gay rights move-
ment in Atlanta has had limited impact. The coalition between black politicians and white
business leaders is still key to development, which is little threatened by a local gay agenda
that has been largely symbolic. Gays could threaten the regime with material demands,
e.g., a requirement that firms doing business with the city provide domestic partner
benefits. If one of the city’s long-time columnists Baxter (2001) is right that Atlanta is
‘‘a city where dynastic politics obviously works’’ (p. F4), then gay and lesbian influence
could change as a new generation of African Americans enters politics. It is worth noting
in this regard that Cathy Woolard encountered opposition from leaders of the civil rights
generation in her runoff against Michael Bond, Julian Bond’s son (Tofit & Shelton, 2001).
422 | JOURNAL OF URBAN AFFAIRS | Vol. 26/No. 4/2004

These are the same leaders who backed Shirley Franklin’s mayoral campaign. As one
columnist observed, it was Maynard Jackson’s ‘‘blessing that represented real muscle and
influence’’ in backing Franklin (Baxter 2001, p. F4). Reinforcing the view that Woolard
was outside the regime, a bivariate analysis using Atlanta’s 168 precincts revealed a
Pearson correlation of !.754 (significant at the .01 level) between Woolard’s percentage
of the vote in the city council presidency runoff and Franklin’s percentage of the vote in
the mayor’s race. Still, gay voters have become a significant bloc in citywide offices and
several districts. This influence could be magnified if Atlanta continues to attract white
residents and whites once again become viable mayoral candidates.

Policy Change
On March 3, 1986, the Atlanta City Council overwhelmingly passed an amendment to
the city charter to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation,
religion, national origin, age, or handicap. This made Atlanta an early adopter of gay
rights legislation (see Table 1). Among its supporters was Councilman (soon to be
Congressman) John Lewis, an important figure in the civil rights movement. It is worth
noting, however, that protections were essentially limited to public employment. More-
over, sexual orientation was included with several other characteristics rather than as a
freestanding proposal (McCall, 1986; Teepen, 1986). In 2000, the city council adopted
Cathy Woolard’s proposal to broaden coverage to prohibit discrimination in private
employment and public accommodations (Shelton, 2001).
An effort, mostly from outside the city limits, encouraged city council members to repeal the
gay rights portion of the ordinance. Citizens for Public Awareness (CPA) was founded to obtain
grassroots support to overturn the gay rights provision of the ordinance. Letters were sent
to council members who voted for the gay rights ordinance, and letters of urgency were sent to
those who voted against or abstained. CPA used advertisements in the Journal and Constitution
to gain support and urged citizens to call on council members to repeal the measure. Although
the CPA was able to bring enough pressure to have the council reexamine the ordinance, the
repeal effort was defeated by a 12 to 4 vote (Van Keuren, 1986; Walter, 1986).
In June 1993, the city of Atlanta established a domestic partnership registry for its
residents and employees. That same year, the city council also established domestic
partner benefits for city employees. The initial version of the plan was actually vetoed
by Mayor Maynard Jackson, who cited financial concerns. Following protests, a new
version of the legislation was adopted and signed by the mayor (Blackmon & Morris,
1993; Morris, 1993b). The benefit plan was invalidated by the Georgia Supreme Court in
March 1995, however, in part because the city defined domestic partners as family rather
than dependents (City of Atlanta v. McKinney, 1995). The city council passed a more
narrowly constructed benefits ordinance in August 1996. Although the Georgia Supreme
Court accepted the revised law, Georgia Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine refused
to allow the city to implement it, arguing that it would encourage illegal sexual relation-
ships. Gay rights groups joined the successful litigation to force Oxendine to stop hin-
dering Atlanta’s domestic partner benefits plan (City of Atlanta v. Morgan, 1997;
Goldman, 1999; Hairston, 1999).

The lesbian and gay movement in Atlanta comports with theories that see social
movements going through stages, becoming more formally organized, and increasingly
| Hitting Below the Bible Belt | 423

bargaining with political elites (e.g., Friedman & McAdam, 1992; Tarrow, 1994). This was
not a lockstep process, however.
Largely because of the strength of the opposition during the 1950s and 1960s, gays and
lesbians in Atlanta relied upon bars, friendship circles, and informal discussion groups in
forming collective identity. Stonewall may have been the spark that ignited the movement in
Atlanta during the 1970s, an era further fueled by reaction to Anita Bryant. Atlanta’s
movement adopted the ideology and strategies found in gay liberation efforts in other US
cities. The path of protest and the creation of organizations was comparable to the pattern
described by Rosenthal (1996), although Atlanta activists did not attempt to influence
political parties, which is understandable given the city’s nonpartisan elections and
Georgia’s one-party rule by Democrats until recently. Atlanta also experienced the boundary
disputes thought to be common in emerging social movements. These took the form of
discord between gay men and lesbians, as well as between lesbians and heterosexuals within
the women’s movement. Such rifts were common elsewhere (see Gamson, 1995, 1997). By the
1990s, the movement in Atlanta resembled more traditional politics. Several favorable
policies were in place. Gays and lesbians ran for, and won, local offices.
In the end, Atlanta’s gay and lesbian movement looks, in many ways, like cities in other
regions. Nevertheless, this movement developed in the nation’s most conservative region
and grew into a large community with visible political clout. This occurred for several
reasons. First, Atlanta’s economy and progressive image made it an early magnet for gays
and lesbians throughout the South. The gay population developed its own spaces and a
wide range of organizations to serve its needs. Second, the gay and lesbian population
became an important voting bloc in Atlanta. Third, the movement built upon the city’s
civil rights legacy. Fourth, much of the religious opposition to the movement dissipated,
although their strength in suburban and rural areas still makes them formidable foes in
statewide politics. All of this reinforces the argument by Browning, Marshall, and Tabb
(1984) that outsider groups achieve greater gains when they move beyond protest and are
incorporated into local electoral coalitions.
Three caveats are important in closing. First, the pattern in Atlanta might not be
replicated in other southern cities, especially if the gay and lesbian population is not as
large and where activism might not have developed until AIDS during the 1980s. Second,
Atlanta’s regime seems little threatened at this point by the gay rights movement, mainly
because the development decisions associated with the governing coalition have not
overlapped the movement’s agenda. Finally, as Sharp (2002) and others have suggested,
regime theory might be of limited value in understanding social issues in local politics.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Our thanks to Tom Beamish, Deb Martin, and the JUA reviewers for their
comments; and Mark Patterson and Carol Pierannunzi of Kennesaw State University for the preparation
of Figure 2.

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