Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Gay Atlanta in Black and White

Separate bars, churches sign of segregation or just different cultures?

Spend any weekend in a black gay club in Atlanta, and it's easy to see why this city is considered a mecca for African-American gay men and lesbians.

Thousands of people cram into every inch of the 14,000-square foot Atlanta Live each Saturday for the party hosted by Traxx, and the wall-to-wall crowd inside the gay bar Bulldogs regularly results in a considerable number of black gay men lining up along Peachtree Street waiting to enter.

A new generation of black gay youth continue to fill Club 708, celebrating their sexual orientation by listening to hip-hop music and competing in J-set dance routines.

But outside these clubs, there are few indicators of Atlanta's status as a black gay mecca. Most of the city's major gay political groups, social organizations and community-based institutions have largely white memberships, whether because African Americans choose not to join or their involvement is not recruited effectively.

An unsuccessful attempt to bridge the disconnect that sometimes exists between black gay people and Atlanta's gay organizations recently brought to the surface long-simmering racial tensions.

Dwight Powell, publisher and editor of Clik, a monthly national magazine for black gay men, offered the Atlanta Pride Committee free advertising in Clik as a way to attract more black gay men to the annual Pride festival in June.

When Atlanta Pride Executive Director Donna Narducci turned down Clik's proposed sponsorship ”saying Pride already had in-kind media sponsors and was desperate for cash donations” Powell sent out an e-mail claiming "the refusal of AmericaĆ¢'s only national black gay publication lends to the fact that Ms. Narducci really isn't concerned about reaching out to this demographic."

Powell said this week that he never meant to imply that outright racism motivated Narducci's decision, but that he believed the incident highlights how attracting black gay men and lesbians is "not a priority for the Atlanta Pride Committee."

"The fact that we had to reach out to them is itself a bit alarming," Powell said. "They don't have many options to reach African Americans, and they could've used our magazine as a vehicle to achieve that."

After Powell went public with his complaints, Narducci reversed her decision, saying she recognized the "intrinsic value" of Pride partnering with Clik. Calling the misunderstanding a "teachable moment," Narducci extended a sponsorship to Clik.

Powell refused, and discussions between the two sides continued without resolution this week.

But Narducci said the misunderstanding between Pride and Clik sparked discussion about the role of race in gay Atlanta.

"I have had many opportunities these past 10 days to have conversations with a lot of folks," she said in an e-mail response to questions. "There is agreement that more work needs to be done in our community to improve race relations, and there are many folks willing to be engaged and do the work."

Race or sexual orientation: which comes first?

State Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates), Georgias's only openly gay state legislator, said she was oblivious to the racial divisions among gay and lesbian Georgians until the summer of 2004, when she led the coalition that unsuccessfully fought a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

"On many days, instead of us fighting the marriage amendment, we spent a lot of time figuring out racism in our own community," Drenner said. "The gay community is just a microcosm of society at-large, and one of the largest problems facing our country today is racism.

"I've finally come to terms with the fact that until we put an end to racism in our community, we won't have a movement and our rights are definitely in peril," said Drenner, who added that she always viewed herself as a gay person more than someone who is white.

Every person has a different way of incorporating their racial identity and sexual orientation into their sense of self, said Jane Ivery, an assistant professor in Georgia State University's School of Social Work.

"What's sad is people often feel as though they have to choose one over the other," Ivery said. "Often there can be tension with people in terms of which group they identify more with."

Many gay people have a "heightened understanding" of racial sensitivities, but that doesn't negate all racial bias, Ivery said.

"I think there is a sense that [white gay people] might not see some of their own racism or the way they stereotype people," Ivery said. "They'll say "We're all gay, we're all in this together,™ but you cannot ignore those other nuances that exist beyond sexual orientation."

˜We're in 1955™

It's often said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America; in gay Atlanta, the same could be said about Saturday night.

"The options are very nice when it comes to the number of clubs available, but in terms of integration, for all intents and purposes, we're in 1955," said Brandon Bragg, who coordinates mostly African-American networking and social events for gay men and lesbians.

The circuit house music at WETbar contrasts to the hip hop featured at Traxx, but Bragg thinks it's too convenient to chalk-up the rigid segregation that exists in Atlanta's gay nightlife to people's differing musical tastes.

"It's much deeper than the music” it speaks to the divide that exists in gay Atlanta that no one wants to talk about," Bragg said. "And because everyone tries to avoid it, whenever there's a disagreement or a misunderstanding, [the racial divide] always comes back up."

Luke Snyder used to hang out at Bulldogs, but said few patrons of the predominantly black bar make eye contact with him or strike up conversations.

"I don't know if it's because I'm white, or older, or what, but I definitely don't feel that cut off from people when I'm at a place and there are other white people," Snyder said. "Oh, god, I know that sounds terrible, but it seems like the truth. People feel better around people like them."

Cedd Davis has similar stories about his experience as a black gay man venturing into predominantly white nightclubs.

"The few times I've been to a white club, I don't get the same vibe that I do in a black club. No one makes eye contact, no one talks to you," Davis said. "It's like I'm basically just there to stand in the club."

The downside of having a segregated nightlife is that it makes interracial dating more difficult, and keeps different segments of gay Atlanta ignorant about one another, Davis and Snyder said.

But Powell, from Clik, said he considers the segregated nightlife a benign part of business.

Ivery agreed that there is little harm in having segregated nightclubs, but said it might be easy for such divisions to spill over to other areas of gay culture.

"There's a natural inclination, as humans, to want to be with individuals who are similar to us, and who have interests similar to ours, but that's different from institutional segregation," Ivery said.

Different cultural styles

Racial divisions in gay Atlanta aren't confined to Saturday night. But the segregation on Sunday morning in Atlanta's gay churches often has more to do with culture than racism, said Rev. Kathi Martin, an African-American pastor who has worked for five months at First Metropolitan Community Church.

"The basic segregation comes from different cultural styles. People gravitate to what's more comfortable," she said.

Founded for gay men and lesbians, First MCC is predominantly white, but the church is making conscientious efforts to bring together the black and white gay faithful, Martin said.

For more than a month at First MCC, Martin has led a Sunday evening service that incorporates worship traditions of the black church, including gospel music and a style that is unique to African-American culture.

Named "Spirit," the service typically attracts 45 people each week, she said. Sometimes congregants attending are equally divided between black and white, but sometimes whites outnumber blacks 60 to 40 percent or even 70 to 30 percent.

"It's an interesting phenomenon. A diverse group of people like diverse worship styles," Martin said.

For Rev. Antonio Jones, pastor of Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, a church for gay African Americans, the black church is a haven where African Americans can express themselves collectively and individually in a cultural way that is different than services at predominantly white churches.

"African-American GLBT people had no place to go that looked like the churches they came from and enjoyed. They could either come out and leave the church as a whole or stay in the closet," Jones said.

Unity Fellowship averages between 70 to 90 congregants each Sunday service and membership is mostly African-American, Jones said.

Jones also noted that work being done among Atlanta's gay clergy is significant in addressing the tough topic of racism.

"The religious community has been working diligently to build relations across race lines. This has been very intentional," he said. "Yes, racism exists, but there are small strides being made."

"Move beyond tolerance"

Churches are not perfect and elements of racism exist within gay congregations, according to Rev. Paul Graetz, First MCC senior pastor.

Of the 250-300 people who attend Sunday services at First MCC, most are white, Graetz said. But with the recent hiring of Martin as well as African-American evangelist Franc Perry, the church is striving to diversify and build bridges with the black community, both gay and straight, Graetz said.

"Racism is still evident but I'm excited about the movements being made. I've never seen it quite like this," he said. "It's crazy that as gay people we seek acceptance but then don't want to accept others."

Rev. Chris Glaser, interim pastor of Christ Covenant MCC, said racism in among gay people must be directly attacked from the pulpit.

"I mention African-American issues often from the pulpit because I think that, just as LGBT people often don't attend churches that voice our concerns, African Americans may feel unwelcome when not mentioned," he said.

Christ Covenant MCC averages about 50 congregants every Sunday. In the past two weeks, 10 African Americans have attended services, he said.

In a recent sermon, Glaser stressed that people must move beyond tolerance to actual engagement if racism is to be truly eliminated.

"Being a welcoming church means more than being friendly to new people, it means also integrating them into our lives, integrating them through engagement, finding out about them and their needs, hopes and dreams," he said

1 comment:

Sepiadigits said...

Hello Monica,
Thanks for the concise update about what's going on in my own backyard. Though I live in the metro Atlanta area, I don't venture out beyond work and school these days. Discovering your blog allowed me to tune in - just for a moment.