This past weekend witnessed the 40th annual Atlanta Pride Festival. Born out of the rubble of the 1969 Stonewall riots and lit by sparks thrown off by a soon to be dead global youth protest movement small handfuls of brave gay men organized marches, protests and festivals in major American cities coast to coast, and in other relatively enlightened places girdling the globe. It was small stuff at the start, here in Atlanta for certain, guerrilla social warfare really. Two parts civil rights movement, one part journey of personal discovery, a jigger of shocking street theatre, and a dash of delight mixed well and served over ice.
The language of the early days is rich with radical, revolutionary 70's zeitgeist. The GGLF (Georgia Gay Liberation Front) was joined in 1972 by the fervent souls of ALFA (Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance) for march # 2. Well organized, the movement attracted enough attention to have one if it’s charter members, Charlie St. John appointed by Mayor Massell to the Community Relations Commission.
Mr. St. John was promptly fired by the Atlanta Journal for his visible activism (click here to cancel your subscription, it's never to late to make people pay for stupidity). Mayor Massell in happy contrast to the lead-brained, clay-footed retrograde clownhats who canned Mr. St. John pronounced that Atlanta would not discriminate in the delivery of city services on the basis of sexual orientation. To my thinking, that moment, that statement made Atlanta an official magnet for people who lived elsewhere uncomfortably. Atlanta has since grown beautifully as a result. Thank you Mayor Massell.
There were times in the early years when parades were cancelled and momentum fizzled, but if you are on the side of the Angels in these United States there is something you can count on as surely as sunrise in the east: Hang in there long enough and some odious, sanctimonious jack-ass will grab the banner for the other side and herd sympathy and sympathizers your way.
Take a pretty bow Anita Bryant! I am sure you did not mean it all to turn out this way, but you were just the gasoline the fire required. And while I have your attention, dear Anita, those Dacron pant suits never worked for you.
Fast forward a few decades, and Pride Week here in Atlanta is a pretty big enterprise. It comes complete with a film festival which provided me with a terrific opportunity to put two of my big passions together for the very first time:
- becoming Petra, and
- going to the Cinema.
With the event being a kind of art-film review I felt as though a little old fashioned Hollywood glamour was required, but really, sadly, I don’t have any vintage Givenchy in the closet. Two of my heroines, women I would look like, perfect role models are pictured here, needing no introductions. Try as I might, delude myself as I can, I am left with the very certain knowledge that the very best I can make of myself is Tawdry Hepburn, or Disgrace Kelly*, but try we must, yes?
Now. on to practical matters.
If you have ever wondered for yourself why you do not see many women wearing skirts and such at your neighborhood Cineplex, I believe I have your answer. Theatre seats are designed expressly to slowly drive ones hemline into close proximity to ones waistline. There is a shoe story too. Look around the next time you are out at the movies and I bet that you will notice more women wearing flats than pronounced heels. I submit that this is a result of just how difficult it is to un-jack-knife ones self out of a too cushy, too low chair when you have a pair of 4” heels on. Experience is a beautiful mistress.
But how very rude of me to rush you into the dark room without a little lobby chit-chat. It is a film festival after all, and so a round of drinks (ghastly Gallo in a plastic cup, but more nutritious than Coca Cola, yes), with local Patron Saint of the Cross Dressing Arts, Ramona and her dear friend Gabrielle first. We were introduced though a friend of Ramona’s to Robert Phillipson, the director of one of the short films on the menu, a documentary featuring proto-blues legend Ma Rainey called I Dreamed Last Night I Was Far From Harm. Ms. Rainey’s 1926 recording of Sissy Man Blues accompanied black and white archival film scraps that matched the song content quite imaginatively. As to the song, go ahead and google it up if you want lyrics that make Gwen Stefani (or … I don’t know, whoever) lyrics sound tame.
Between this fine effort, last years Oscar winning Live Action Short The New Tenants, and a few other largely gay-themed short dramas I felt as though we got our moneys worth.
Movie types always somehow attract an entourage and so a quick round of apres-film cocktails was called for at nearby Café Diem, the patio packed with movie-goers and run of the mill midtown habitués. Mr. Phillipson and 8 or 9 others of us gathered in the late afternoon sunshine, toasted the success of the film and gabbled on about a lovely and weird variety of themes.
The director had come to this film project through his academic career as an authority on the literature of the Harlem Renaissance at UC Berkeley. What preceded that career was really interesting. He had worked in the Central African Republic in the Peace Corps way back in the day, around the same happy and idealistic times that the Pride Festival was taking toddler steps. A love of Africa, of Africans, of African stories took root then and there, was transplanted home to America and found repeated harvests in the fields of African American cultural studies. Neat how these things can go.
A couple who had served with Robert in Africa were at table with us, and with their teenage son, nursing a soda and pretty much looking entirely at home in a setting that could not be everyday fare for him. The father crowed about how this past summer the son had navigated a canoe all the way from Atlanta to the Atlantic. Being an avid paddler myself, we chatted happily about this Homeric, heroic and often hilarious trip.
Conversation meandered on rivers, turned back to Africa, portaged around the table into the French language, my ineptitude with it, frustration at not finding enough outlets for practice, then on to the impossibility of riding bicycles in this car worshipping city and ultimately lit briefly on too many conversational branches for me to count. Here we all were, young and old, straight and gay, vagabonds and homebodies, presenting in different genders or not, and not finding anything about those things that might drive a wedge between us. I wonder what people who marched 40 years ago would make of this scene.
Surely, some of those pioneers who marched then are with us still. I wish there was an easy way to know who they were then, where they are now. I think they would have to smile when they see a table like the one I was privileged to sit at on this evening. I hope that if they do see that table, they pull up a chair beside me.
I have much to thank them for.
* If you have already adopted either of these names for your nom de femme, please drop me a line. You are exactly the sort of wit I like to hang around with. If you choose to adopt them, be sure to tell your friends and admirers where the bright idea came from.