People seldom think of their old photo albums as historical documents. Those scrapbooks in the attic, full of grainy, sepia-toned images of awkwardly posed family or friends, can nevertheless express more about how people dressed and lived than dozens of pages of historical text.
Gay and Lesbian Atlanta, a book of photography encompassing a century of gay life in Atlanta, could be the equivalent of a family album for the gay community. Atlanta History Center archivist Wesley Chenault, who co-authored the book with writer/editor Stacy Braukman, likes to think of it that way.
"I'm interested in the idea of generational memory, and how community memory is handed down. In minority groups based on race or ethnicity, stories get passed down through families. But what do you do with the LGBT community? What steps can we take to make sure that we're passing down things to have a greater continuity, a shared past?"
The photos in Gay and Lesbian Atlanta convey that shared past and offer a microcosm of the 20th-century gay experience, which begins with virtual invisibility at the end of the 19th century and culminates with out-and-proud public gay weddings 100 years later. One of the first images finds the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of 1913 all atwitter about female impersonator Anthony Auriemma: "Is It Lady-Like to Look Like A Lady on Atlanta's Streets?" It's hard to imagine what those pundits would make of the Atlanta Pride floats or "Digging Dykes of Decatur" on parade.
Chenault explains that the book originated with the Atlanta History Center's 2005 exhibition The Unspoken Past: Atlanta Lesbian and Gay History, 1940-1970. "We have a strong collection that documents LGBT history from the 1970s forward," he says. The exhibit filled in the middle of the century, and when Braukman and Chenault had the idea for the book, they gathered new material from 1900-1940 to span the century.
Research for The Unspoken Past relied heavily on interviews for oral histories and old photos and letters material. "We had to identify men and women who'd spent most of their lives in Atlanta and were willing to be recorded talking about their past," Chenault says. Their detective work became easier when Southern Voice wrote an article about the exhibit. "We started getting calls and contacts immediately from people who wanted to see if they fit the criteria. We'd speak to one person, and then have access to their circle," he explains.
Not everyone they reached was eager to participate. "It was more difficult to identify [gay] white women, and even more difficult to identity men and women of color," Chenault says.
Braukman and Chenault needed to reach further back to chronicle the first third of the century, and frequently turned to newspapers, city directories and defunct magazines such as Gaybriel and PULSE. One of their valuable resources was a 1930s nightlife guide publication called, with retrospective irony, Gay Atlanta.
The devastation of AIDS in the gay community not only took a toll on human life, but on the historical record as well. "There's so much that's been lost," Chenault says. "So many men involved with old publications are gone, and they most likely had material in their personal collections that documented the city."
Gay and Lesbian Atlanta's images, and even the captions, offer a glimpse at relatively recent decades that can sometimes seem impossibly remote. The book offers details such as, "During a two-year stint in the Army, Buddy Clark, a champion baton twirler, won the Army's Best Entertainer award," or "Billy Jones worked for 30 years at the Franklin Simon department store, where he would become known for traffic-stopping window designs."
Chenault says that "openly gay" images from the 1970s and later could have consumed the book. Photos from the first half of the century show gay people with their families and even their straight spouses, underscoring how their public faces didn't always match their private lives. Chenault hopes that the book can convey the different climate of the times, especially for young people who've grown up out. "If someone had come out in the 1950s, they would probably lose their job, be shunned by their family, kicked out of their church – there was nothing to come out to," Chenault says.
The book recounts stories that contradict Atlanta's motto as "The city too busy to hate," such as the 1954 arrest of 20 men on felony charges of sodomy in 1953; white supremacist J.B. Stoner holding leaflets that read "God bless AIDS" in 1987; and the 1993 anti-gay resolution in Cobb County, which led to the "Olympics out of Cobb" movement in 1996. The book captures a breadth of gay experience, from politics to religion, as well as glossies from entertainers such as Diamond Lil, Ru Paul and earlier female impersonators who didn't have the same homosexual connotations as more recent drag queens.
Despite flare-ups of bigotry, Atlanta's vibrant social scene of supper clubs and other nightspots served as a regional beacon. The city became a gay mecca in the 1970s, but Chenault feels that gay people relocated to the city for primarily for the same reason that straight ones did. "Atlanta became a place where people came because there were so many opportunities for education and white collar jobs. And it was a very livable city."
At the very least, Gay and Lesbian Atlanta offers a kind of template for the photo albums and scrap books of the future. They'll probably involve digital photos on discs and hard drives, and not faded photos in plastic, but such images will retain the community memory for the generations yet to come.
Gay and Lesbian Atlanta. By Stacey Braukman and Wesley Chenault. Arcadia Publishing. 128 pp. $17.99.