Black Gays and Lesbians, at Home in Atlanta

Forget San Francisco or New York — Atlanta has the largest population of black gay couples in the United States. Reporter Joshua Levs explains some of the reasons why.

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ED GORDON, host:

Even today, gays and lesbians have difficulty finding a comfortable place to call home. But in the South, Atlanta is seen by some as a safe haven. Joshua Levs explains.

JOSHUA LEVS reporting:

It's 10:30 on a Wednesday night. The lights go down in a club called Atlanta Live. An emcee introduces one of the stars.

Unidentified Emcee: Please, put your hands together for the talents of Miss Sophia `Real Red' MacIntosh.

LEVS: Under the beam of a spotlight, Miss Sophia starts to lip sync.

Mr. JOE TAYLOR (Drag Entertainer): (As Miss Sophia `Real Red' MacIntosh) (Singing) Tonight, I tell you...

LEVS: Then the entertainer steps down from the stage to interact with the audience.

Mr. TAYLOR: (As Miss Sophia) What's your name?

SEAN(ph): Sean.

Mr. TAYLOR: (As Miss Sophia) Sean, you like ladies?

SEAN: No.

Mr. TAYLOR: (As Miss Sophia) Good, then hold me.

LEVS: Miss Sophia is the stage name of Joe Taylor. His weekly drag show attracts more than a hundred people and he's a regular on a popular radio program. Taylor, a native Texan, is one of thousands of gay people who have flocked here from other parts of the South.

Mr. TAYLOR: Because Atlanta is open to the lifestyle, whereas a lot of places that we are now, there's still, you know, gay bashing and there's still--they don't want people to just be themselves, whereas Atlanta, you don't have all that. You have a little of it, but it's mostly, you know, acceptance to the lifestyle.

LEVS: That sense of acceptance has helped Atlanta draw the highest concentration of black gay and lesbian couples in the South.

Mr. ARNIE EPPS (Media Executive): I think it has a lot to do with King, civil rights and that whole movement.

LEVS: Arnie Epps is a 34-year-old media executive. He says Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggles he led helped pave the way for greater tolerance.

Mr. EPPS: Oh, definitely so because, see, it wasn't about black or white for him. It was about people. He was about people, you know, and so, we're people, you know, and we just happen to have a different way of doing things in the bedroom, possibly.

LEVS: Epps says that to this day, some civil rights leaders are helping Atlanta's gay residents feel supported. Coretta Scott King has spoken out against homophobia and in support of gay rights. But last year, her daughter, the Reverend Bernice King, help lead a march against same-sex marriage. Leaders of two very popular local megachurches preach against homosexuality. Some black gay Atlantans say their black neighbors and co-workers are divided over whether to accept them. Still, Maurice Bennett(ph), a 34-year-old defense attorney, says even the more conservative churches have very active gay congregants.

Mr. MAURICE BENNETT (Attorney): I definitely think there is a split in the community. I think that it is a hypocritical split. They have to look around in their own churches, especially in the megachurches, and see who basically is running the service.

LEVS: And he says that while Atlanta's a comfortable home, statewide, things are very different. Last year, Georgia voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment banning gay marriage. Bennett says that reminded him Atlanta is in the middle of the Bible belt and that gay people have an exceptionally strong presence only within the city.

Mr. BENNETT: Does the rest of the state of Georgia accept it? Probably not. But as far as Atlanta goes, I think that a lot of politicians--in fact, I know that a lot of politicians make it a point to cater to the gay community and to find out what is very important.

LEVS: Bennett points to Atlanta ordinances extending benefits to same-sex partners. The city is home to counseling centers, AIDS treatment facilities and other resources not easily available elsewhere. Raquel Henry(ph) says all that helped her feel welcome when she relocated here from Atlantic City three years ago. Now she and her partner are hoping to start a family.

Ms. RAQUEL HENRY (Relocated to Atlanta): Freedom lies here. It rests in Atlanta very heavily--freedom to be who you are, whether you be gay, straight, in between, confused. Freedom is here.

LEVS: She says she and others in the gay community came here for the same reasons as basically anybody else--economic opportunity, an active social scene and the chance to live their lives as they wish. For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs in Atlanta.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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