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Voice of Atlanta's Black Gays Is Emerging

May 08, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — On Thursday nights, Bulldogs is the hub of black gay Atlanta. Strobe lights swirl around the chrome dance floor; men in baggy tracksuits and tight tank tops groove to disco anthems and sip strong cocktails from plastic cups.

But outside the small bar on Peachtree Street, there are few signs that Atlanta is home to the largest community of black same-sex couples in the South. Most of the city's gay nightclubs are predominantly white, and the same is true of most gay networking groups and political institutions.

Yet as more African American gays settle in Atlanta -- attracted by the city's low cost of living and party-hard reputation -- they are pushing for more representation within the mainstream gay community.

"People say that Atlanta is a black gay mecca," said Gregg Flynn, 46, a Bulldogs regular who works for an Atlanta staffing company. "I'm happy that lots of black gays are here, but I want our voices to be heard."

Resentment in the black gay community was exacerbated recently when the Atlanta Pride Committee turned down an offer from Clik, a national black gay magazine, to make an in-kind trade of advertising space. The magazine hoped to help build African Americans' attendance at June's annual Atlanta Pride festival, which has been predominantly white.

Atlanta Pride said its decision didn't single out the Miami-based magazine, but reflected an earlier decision not to accept in-kind sponsorships because it could not reciprocate with free booth space.

But Dwight Powell, Clik's editor in chief, saw a deeper problem and sent out a mass e-mail complaining that Atlanta Pride was not doing enough to attract a racially diverse audience.

"This was a slap in the face for the black gay community," Powell said last week. "In a heavily African American city, we have a white gay pride event and the organizers don't seem to want to change that."

After receiving complaints from African Americans across the country, Donna Narducci, executive director of Atlanta Pride, admitted she had failed to see the "intrinsic value" of sponsorship with Clik magazine.

"My decision obviously touched a nerve in the African American community," she said. "We have tried to be inclusive, but maybe we are not being as inclusive as we think we are."

Racial division is uncomfortable for a community that prides itself on being the progressive gay mecca of the South, a place of opportunity for gays and lesbians. Atlanta is considered the fourth-largest black gay community in the country, behind New York, Washington-Baltimore and Chicago.

African Americans make up more than a fifth of Atlanta's gay community. According to the 2000 census, the Atlanta area has 3,471 black gay and lesbian couples.

Over the years, a legacy of mistrust has built up between the black and white gay communities. Black gays say that white gay venues introduced stricter entrance requirements -- asking for two forms of identification or imposing two-drink minimums -- to keep black patrons out.

At Bulldogs, which used to be a predominantly white gay bar, Flynn said whites gradually left the building as more African Americans turned up during the 1990s. "Everything we're around, they tend to stray away from," he said.

Brandon C. Bragg, 37, a black community activist who set up the Brunch Conversations Networking Group for gay and lesbian professionals last year, said he tried to attract white gays, dropping off fliers in bars and bookstores in Atlanta's tony, predominantly white gay neighborhoods. But only 5% of the people who attend his monthly social mixers are white.

"We're in the South," Bragg said. "We have learned segregated behavior."

Yet Earl Fowlkes, president of the International Federation of Black Prides in Washington, said that the racial divide in the gay community was not confined to Atlanta, or the South, and that it was a product of economic disparity.

The economic divisions between white and black gay men are stark. An analysis of the 2000 census by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force states that white male same-sex households earn $23,000 more a year than black male same-sex households. Only 52% of black same-sex couples reported homeownership, compared with 71% of white same-sex couples.

"So many of us are struggling to make it day by day," said Michael E. Slaughter, co-founder of In the Life Atlanta, established in 1996 for black gays and lesbians. The group organizes the annual Atlanta Black Gay Pride celebration, held on Labor Day weekend and promoted as the largest event of its type. More than 30,000 attended last year.

Slaughter said the black gay community was still developing its political voice. Many activists said they wanted greater emphasis on what they saw as pressing daily issues -- such as domestic partner benefits, job discrimination and homophobia in black churches -- rather than on efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, for example.

Chuck Bowen, the executive director of Georgia Equality, a political advocacy group for gays and lesbians, said his organization was committed to representing minorities. It recently introduced two African Americans and a Latino to its board of directors.

"This is one of the top cities in the country for gays and lesbians, regardless of race," he said.

Although Slaughter does not think change is happening fast enough, he said, he feels encouraged to see a new generation of young black gays, "not jaded or poisoned" by the history of race in the gay community, attempting to represent their community's concerns.

"Atlanta has not yet seen the power of the black gay community," he said.

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