Pride in the South is a Story of Resistance and ResilienceRoundup
tags: Southern history, Atlanta, urban history, LGBTQ history, Gay Liberation, Gay Pride
La Shonda Mims is an assistant professor of history at Middle Tennessee University and author of the new Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists: Queer Women in the Urban South (UNC Press, 2022).
The past year has seen an increase in legislation that seeks to attack or control transgender and gender nonconforming behavior and representation, including drag shows. There also have been increased physical attacks and acts of violence against LGBTQ communities at large, as with last November’s attack in an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs that took the lives of five people.
Last month, two survivors of that attack testified before the U.S. Congress and noted that the increase in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric was to blame for the violence. “Hate speech turns into hate action, and actions based on hate almost took my life from me at 25 years old,” Michael Anderson, who was tending bar at the club that night, said.
As in many other states, there have been several efforts in Tennessee to curb or attack drag performances. In Murfreesboro, about 40 miles southeast of Nashville, city leaders recently denied a permit to the area’s LGBTQ Boro Pride festival because they deemed its drag performances inappropriate for children.
While such attacks are by no means unique to the South, the history of Gay Pride celebrations there reveals a long story of resistance and resilience that often mirrors some of the plights of today. In the urban South, Pride events have survived attempts to shut them down, like the one in Tennessee. The history of Southern LGBTQ Pride events demonstrates that politically motivated, often Christian-backed, attempts to end the celebrations have only strengthened Pride festivals, which eventually flourished in the South with the help of allies, including some in the business community.
Certainly, Gay Pride changed dramatically during the 20th century — from small, primarily political gatherings beginning in 1970 to the brazen spectacles of the 21st century. These celebrations, however, have often been met with challenges.
Atlanta was the first city in the South to commemorate the New York City’s Stonewall Riots, considered the beginning of the gay rights movement, in 1970. A few years later, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, declared June 26, 1976, as Gay Pride Day in Atlanta. In doing so, he connected the Bicentennial celebration of the United States that year to an equal rights initiative for LGBTQ people in Atlanta, noting how Gay Pride aligned with the nation’s founding promise — if not always reality — of equal rights. That year, 300 people marched on Atlanta’s Peachtree Street, headed for Piedmont Park. In response to Jackson’s declaration, a group known as Citizens for Decent Atlanta (CDA) ran newspaper ads that claimed the event endorsed immoral behavior.
Funded by politicians and business executives, the group planned to remain anonymous. But a local leftist paper, the Great Speckled Bird, published their identities. Only one person named “Cathy Truitt,” could not be identified. Historical evidence indicates it could have been the evangelical businessman Truett Cathy of Chick-fil-A fame — a company with a long history of anti-LGBTQ action.
As a result of the pressure the CDA applied, Jackson backed away from his Gay Pride Day declaration but continued to show support for LGBTQ people and Pride in Atlanta during his three terms as mayor. Atlanta Pride was still held annually and has continued to receive the support of its mayors — all of whom were Black Democrats. In a short time, the city’s Pride event became the largest in the Southeast.