The Stonewall of the South That History Forgot

A month after the riots in New York, a raid on an Atlanta movie theater sparked a gay liberation movement of its own

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Drag queen in Atlanta, 1972 Boyd Lewis / Touching Up Our Roots

On the night of August 5, 1969, Abby Drue arrived at the Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema in Atlanta for a screening of Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys. Just a few months earlier, the film, a satire of old Hollywood westerns, made waves in the New York Times for its portrait of gay desire. Drue, a lesbian, wanted to witness it for herself.

Tucked inside an open-air shopping mall, Ansley’s Mini-Cinema lay on the border of the wealthy neighborhood Ansley Park, across the park from Atlanta’s main gay haunt at the time, Midtown. The theater, which regularly featured edgy indie films that locals maligned as pornographic, was known for its hospitality to the gay community. Although several miles removed from the earliest gay bars, Ansley's was the only place in town to watch a movie featuring same-sex attraction, according to Drue.

Around 15 minutes into the film, Drue heard a whistle. The theater lights switched on. Police officers rushed in through the aisles, shining flashlights into the audience. One officer shouted, “It's over!” A contemporaneous report in the underground counterculture newspaper Great Speckled Bird noted that ten policemen in total had arrived on the scene, with three lingering by the theater exits to catch patrons trying to slip out.

“They had everybody get up and line up,” Drue said. “We had popcorn in our mouths. I even think I had a submarine sandwich I was in the middle of eating. That's how absurd it was.”

Much of the audience, which according to a contemporary article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution numbered around 70 people in all, was left disoriented. But other patrons understood intuitively why the police had showed up. According to Drue, they screamed, “We're being raided!”

“It was just absolutely insulting in a lot of ways,” says Drue. “I was asked where my husband was. I was lined up against the wall by myself. They would look you in the eye, and you had to show them your license. They asked what you were doing and who you were, and they took your picture.”

When Drue was finally allowed to leave, she found the theater's owner and his projectionist handcuffed behind the concession counter. Other theater patrons—gay men, lesbians and drag queens among them‚ confirmed what she already suspected: The police had arrested a number of LGBTQ people for charges ranging from public indecency to illegal drug possession. In a small news story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the police chief later confirmed that the raid was designed to weed out “known homosexuals.”

Abby Drue, 1969
Abby Drue the night of the raid on Ansley's Mall Mini-Cinema, August 5, 1969 Abby Drue

In the historical memory of the LGBTQ rights movement, the raid at Ansley’s Mall Mini-Cinema has largely been obscured by the cataclysmic event that preceded it by a month and a half: the June 28, 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. While Stonewall is credited with ushering in a more radical era of LGBTQ politics, many early activists saw the raid at the Ansley theater as their galvanizing moment.

“There was a huge outcry. Right after the raid, the community was really up in arms about it,” says Hayward, who has attempted to preserve Atlanta’s LGBTQ history through his organization Touching Up Our Roots. Soon after the raid, “They had a huge meeting, standing room only, at the New Morning Café right next to Emory University. And that that was where they decided to start the Georgia Gay Liberation Front.”

Adds Drue, “I truly believe the Lonesome Cowboys raid was the spark that ignited the Atlanta homosexual population.”

Although queer history in the United States is often linked with New York and San Francisco, other communities had their own gay liberation events—moments of resistance to oppression that precipitated a new phase of gay and trans activism. In Philadelphia, activists staged a 1965 sit-in at Dewey's Lunch Counter after the longtime haunt began to refuse service to the mostly trans people who gathered there; in New Orleans, a 1973 fire at the gay-friendly UpStairs Lounge led to gay leaders in the city calling for a liberation movement; Chicago found itself with a fiery new voice after a series of raids on gay bars in anticipation of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Georgia, meanwhile, had Ansley’s.

The raid on Ansley's was far from the first instance of Georgia police targeting the gay community. As Great Speckled Bird described at the time, it was part of a larger program to “wipe out the homosexuals with a vicious campaign of harassment” that was “made finally possible by the inability of our gay subculture to fight for the rights of its own sexual taste and the indifference of people to the destruction of others' rights.” But staging a raid in a movie theater was so unexpected—and the invasion of privacy so flagrant—that it shook the community.

Six days after the raid, several dozen protesters responded. They gathered outside the offices of Great Speckled Bird shouting, “GET THE PIGS OUT OF OUR COMMUNITY!” A riot broke out, and several people were arrested. Great Speckled Bird reported that a staffer at the newspaper was knocked down by three cops. Other officers whipped out mace and began to spray the protesters.

Atlanta’s gay community had thrived in secret for decades prior to the raid. Drue described drag shows featuring predominantly black gay and trans queens that attracted visitors from all across town, including many straight people. But the community was splintered along bars and hidden apartment parties in Midtown, and only people who already knew what to look for could gain access to the queer underworld.

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Atlanta drag show, 1972 Boyd Lewis / Touching Up Our Roots

The raid on Ansley’s changed that. In the following months, Atlanta’s gay community mobilized. In 1970, the fallout from the raid galvanized a pair of activists—Bill Smith and Berl Boykin—to organize the Georgia chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, a nationwide gay activist network that grew out of the Stonewall Riots. They set to work registering LGBTQ voters across the state and protesting Georgia’s anti-sodomy law, which criminalized homosexual behavior (and wasn’t struck down until 1998).

According to Hayward, who interviewed Boykin several times before his death this past April, the group marked the first Pride month by tabling at the local Piedmont Park Arts Festival a year later.

The following year, 125 people showed up for Atlanta’s first Pride march, making it one of the earliest mass movements of LGBTQ people in the U.S. South. Out of the raid, the community was becoming more visible and vocal than ever before, and the ripple effects of Ansley’s and Stonewall soon spread.

“It became a positive model that would evolve into other gay pride events in other large Georgia cities,” says Drue. “Savannah, Augusta, Macon, Columbus."

By 1972, as the GGLF was organizing its second Pride march, the city of Atlanta finally started to acknowledge its efforts. Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell appointed historian Charlie St. John as the city’s first liaison to the gay community, a step toward public recognition. And that same year, a group of lesbian activists formed their own organization, the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance, that focused on their intersectional oppression.

Although the Ansley raid has slipped beneath the radar of most mainstream histories, artists and organizers in Atlanta still attempt to commemorate the event. In 2010, a public art installation dedicated to the city’s LGBTQ past ended with a screening of Lonesome Cowboys at Ansley Square, near where the Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema once stood. Now, according to Hayward, the Ansley Mall has become one of “the premiere LGBTQ shopping malls in Atlanta.”

Shortly after that event, Drue watched Lonesome Cowboys for the first time in 40 years. She finally got to see, as she put it, “the damn end of the film.”

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