When WUSSY began some four years ago, Atlanta’s queer scene was a culmination of what came before it. Gay nightclubs that had been around for over ten years, like the Jungle and Burkhart’s Pub, had become landmarks in Atlanta. Whenever young queer people wanted to escape the suburbs or the rural towns of the south, they went to these hot spots to experience and understand nightlife in Atlanta. They were as much an escape as they were an introduction to what life could be like away from heteronormative culture.
Along with acting as a safe space for young queers, Atlanta’s gay nightclubs housed an array of talented legacy performers: transgender drag queens who created work and support groups for other each other, and a vibrant ballroom scene that rivaled New York City’s established ball culture.
But with the rise of gentrification and the current political climate, the long-standing Atlanta queer scene of yesterday is no more. Over a span of fifteen years, Atlanta has slowly dismantled historic gay establishments like the nightclub Backstreet and Midtown’s Outwrite Bookshop and Coffeehouse. With Atlanta’s increasing interest in expanding the city’s real estate, more and more gay nightclubs are being torn down or forced to move to make room for expensive housing. And gay bars that were once thought of as inclusive safe spaces eventually showed their true colors as toxic and racist work environments.
To understand how and why the queer landscape of Atlanta is changing, WUSSY takes a hard in-depth look at where it is after the shutdown of local gay nightclubs, and how the city will move forward in the social media age.
The Jungle and the Wave of Gentrification in Atlanta
In the last four years, entire sections of Atlanta’s infrastructure and culture have been gutted and remodeled to make way for highrise buildings and condominiums. Locals have grown accustomed to the slow but abrupt change brought on by gentrification in Atlanta. Last year, it came as no surprise to the Atlanta queer scene when news spread that Jungle - Atlanta’s premiere gay nightclub - shut down to make way for new apartments.
So why was a successful and profitable gay nightclub like Jungle deemed not viable to stay in business? On paper, Jungle checked all the boxes. It raked in money from big-name sponsors and hosted sold-out events including WUSSY Prom and Atlanta Pride celebrations. It was also one of the only gay venues in Atlanta to be 18 and up, and had a stadium-style performance space that provided quality production value. But the Jungle missed the mark in a key area and it was that it - in the words of the former owner, Richard Cherskov - “wasn’t compatible with the new apartments they (were) building next door.” Or rather, the new building owners didn’t want to associate with Atlanta’s already established queer nightlife that provides artists and producers income and spaces to perform. In a city that’s more interested in repurposing landmarks into expensive housing and retail stores, Jungle didn’t have a place in the new Atlanta.
A year later, Jungle’s demolishing has left drag performers and producers with fewer venues to create sustainable work. Cherskov did purchase the dive bar, Midtown Tavern, shortly after the shutting down of the Jungle but recently announced the business was being resold. Popular Atlanta drag shows like the Other Show and Stars of the Century, both featured acts at the Jungle, had been displaced to other venues like Midtown Tavern (the Other Show) and the Heretic (Stars of the Century). Yet, despite both of their best efforts to keep the shows running, the Other Show and Stars of the Century put on their final performances this last year.
“It pains me deeply to see places that allow artists, like myself, to perform close down.” - Phoenix
It’s troubling that two of the longest running drag shows in Atlanta closed within less than a year of each other. Especially since both shows boasted talent from legacy performers in the Atlanta drag scene including Taejah L. Thomas, Stasha Sanchez, Niesha Dupree, Edie Cheezburger, Evah Destruction, and season seven’s winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Violet Chachki.
“The closing of our venues scares me.” Season three of RuPaul's Drag Race contestant Phoenix Brooks expresses her concern, “I was the entertainment director for Jungle for almost 10 years. This art is my life. It’s what I’ve devoted myself to. It pains me deeply to see places that allow artist, like myself, to perform close down.”
Phoenix offers a potential solution to Atlanta’s gentrification problem, mentioning the importance of queer nightlife, “I wish (Atlanta) as a whole would realize the amount of energy and life drag shows bring to the community and would go out and support them. I think if more people got out and supported the shows, then possibly more venues would open specifically for the art form and could definitely help keep the legacy of Atlanta’s legendary drag alive.”
Burkhart's Pub and the Fallout of Toxic Gay Businesses
Where the Jungle was shut down due to urban development and gentrification, Burkhart’s Pub met its end because of years of mismanagement and exploitation. In a damning list of receipts, an anonymous former employee exposed a series of racist Facebook posts made by the original owner, Palmer Marsh. Drag performers, who were employed at Burkhart’s for years (including Amber Divine of the Armorettes), backed up the evidence piled against Marsh and spoke out about instances of abusive and racist behavior condoned and perpetuated in Burkhart’s workplace. What was considered by the public as a space for inclusive queer entertainment was revealing an underbelly of toxic business practices and racist sentiments.
Responding to the controversy, Atlanta’s queer community galvanized and boycotted Burkhart’s. Within weeks, the popular nightclub was shut down and sold to new owners. But despite the good intention to reinforce positive social change, many employees and entertainers were left looking for work and finding venues that would house their shows. One such show was the local-favorite, Tossed Salad.
“It's ironic that doing the right thing caused hardship on all of the queens, but at least we know we have our integrity and the ability to stand up for our values.” - Brigitte Bidet
Tossed Salad was the bat-shit crazy art kid of the Atlanta queer scene. Helmed by the hilariously raunchy Brigitte Bidet, Tossed Salad boasted an array of talent from new and experienced performers. It was also one of the few drag shows to showcase a spectrum of drag styles from traditional drag queens and drag kings to androgynous gender-benders. And when it moved to the lesbian nightclub, My Sister’s Room, the hope was the show would continue. But - like the Other Show and Stars of the Century - Tossed Salad gave its last performance this summer.
Brigitte Bidet explains her decision to temporarily close Tossed Salad, “Tossed Salad was put on hiatus because of the amount of other exciting things in my life that require my attention at the moment.” She goes on to applaud My Sister’s Room’s support during Tossed Salad’s venue change, “Working with MSR was amazing because they came to the rescue for all of us after the Burkhart's debacle, but I just didn't have the capacity to give the show the attention it needed to thrive in that different space.”
Looking back, Brigitte expresses her worries at the time she made the decision to put Tossed Salad on hiatus, “My biggest concern with shutting down Tossed Salad was losing the agency to give my fellow queer artists a platform for their work. However, I know this event will return, and we all learned a lot by dealing with what happened last year at Burkhart's.” Moving forward, she is confident the fallout of Burkhart’s shutdown will energize drag performers’ work, “It's ironic that doing the right thing caused hardship on all of the queens, but at least we know we have our integrity and the ability to stand up for our values. That was worth more than making a few extra dollars, and I'm confident things will work out for myself and the other entertainers.”
Atlanta’s Queer Scene in the Social Media Age
Social media has redefined drag by bringing queens from your local nightclub onto your smartphone. With the multi-million dollar success and syndicated reach of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, queens young and old are taking to social media to carve their own career paths. Performers are driven to create ‘brands’ and ‘aesthetics’ to distinguish themselves in an ever growing market of working drag queens. This trending social media craze of drag culture and fans have caught the attention of celebs and streaming service networks that want to use their wealth of resources to create profitable content in cities like Atlanta.
“To all the queers who only go out to clubs when a Drag Race girl comes to town, get off your asses…” - Taylor Alxndr
In a matter of months, opportunities for Atlanta drag queens to be featured in film, pop music, and international print have been showing up left and right. In the last year, Netflix produced and filmed the beauty pageant coming-of-age story Dumplin in Atlanta and pulled local talents like Tossed Salad’s Brigitte Bidet and drag comedian persona Brent Star. Then in August, winner of Mary’s 2017 Glitz Pageant Molly Rimswell and DIY queer+trans multimedia artist Taylor Alxndr performed with Charlie XCX. To top it off, Vogue Magazine published a feature on the Red Bull ATL is Burning Ball, which boasted talent from Atlanta’s queer advocacy group Southern Fried Queer Pride and social media influencer slash WUSSY Talk host Iv Fischer.
Founder of Southern Fried Queer Pride (SFQP), Taylor Alxndr, explains why artists are attracted to the Atlanta queer scene, “I think the Atlanta queer scene has always had a hustle and our own flavor, compared to other queer meccas. We're gritty, DIY, and this weird mesh of beautiful pageantry and dirty grime.” They go on to explain how social media is being used as a tool to bring more work to the Atlanta queer scene, “What's changed is that, due to social media, we've become far more savvy and able to draw attention to our shows, events, icons, etc. We no longer have to wait for a media outlet to come down and acknowledge our existence. Thanks to Instagram, live video streams, and so on - we're able to helm our own content and representation.”
Like Phoenix and Brigitte stated, Taylor reiterates why it’s important for audiences to support and attend locally produced queer shows and not to simply like or repost drag queens they may follow on social media:
“With the visibility and mainstreaming of drag and other queer content, people no longer have to get out their homes and go to the bars and clubs to see the nightlife. They can just open Instagram or Facebook and see not only their local performers but also performers from all over the world. They can watch drag shows on TV, on YouTube. We've never had so much visibility and on one hand that's great, but on the other hand, it's definitely changed the crowds that come out, how often they come out, and how much they're investing back into their queer community and nightlife. But I feel like hometown drag is like a hearty home cooked dinner that satisfies you and leaves you full for days. Consumption of queer shit, drag, etc. via social media is like a sugar rush - it's artificial in parts and doesn't fill you up. To all the queers who only go out to clubs when a Drag Race girl comes to town, get off your asses, go to any given show Wed-Sun in town, and eat up the local scene! More than likely, they're more entertaining and have double the personality of a Ru Girl.”
Investing and Participating in Atlanta’s Queer Scene
It’s evident that Atlanta’s queer scene is not lacking in talent, hard work, or appreciation. There are countless drag queens, queer entertainers, producers, and nightclub owners in the city creating work, and an even larger number of patrons who are able to go out and support them. What needs to change moving forward is how audiences give back to the queer spaces they occupy. And with some upcoming venue changes, Atlanta queers have the opportunity to give both old and new businesses their time and money.
In the next couple of months, Atlanta’s queer scene will be expanding and taking form as neighborhood favorites relocate and experienced nightclub owners tackle new ventures. My Sister’s Room, the popular lesbian bar and host for Brigitte Bidet’s Tossed Salad, will be moving to a bigger space in Midtown. Along with the relocation of My Sister’s Room, the creators of the nightclub event Xion will be opening up a gay dance club located in Underground Atlanta. This exciting news gives Atlanta queer patrons the opportunity to step up and provide their support to these establishments, and ensure they don’t fall by the wayside like recently torn down gay nightclubs.
And that’s the takeaway, the queer scene in Atlanta will continue to grow and change, but it’s important that there’s an audience to fund and fuel the nightlife they participate in. Because without going out to give money back to gay businesses, the employees who work there, and the queens we enjoy entertaining us, we might find ourselves living in a city that doesn’t have space for us.
*Correction: Stars of the Century is now currently running every other Monday at Heretic.
Stevie King is a genderqueer comedian, freelance writer, and wife of seven brother-husbands. She loves spending her days sitting at home waiting for her children to call...