An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Discursive Memorials: Queer Histories in Atlanta's Public Spaces

Artist Collective John Q (Wesley Chenault, Andy Ditzler, and Joey Orr), Atlanta, Georgia

Published: 
26 February 2010
Overview: 

Through this online exhibit, artist collective John Q maps discursive memorials at public sites in Atlanta's queer histories.

Introduction:

Since the 1980s, various individuals and publics have dedicated memorials to LGBTQ communities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European countries. Among them are George Segal's conventional life-sized bronze statues, Gay Liberation, in the United States and Karin Daan's triangular, pink granite Homomonument in Amsterdam. Later works include Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset's Berlin-based concrete cuboid/video memorial to homosexuals persecuted under the Nazi regime and Paul Harfleet's ongoing public interventions from The Pansy Project in the U.K. Taken together, these works demonstrate an intense desire, in the words of art historian Christopher Reed, to leave a "queer mark on the physical environment." They also map a move from figurative representation, through post-minimalist gestures, to shifting moments of public affect and ephermerality.1

Site specific, historically located, and, at times, fleeting interventions represent a move in public and contemporary art practices from permanent sculpture to projects that are temporary and engage the communities in which they are situated. This shift is evidenced in our present moment by such organizations as Creative Time, the Public Art Fund, and Flux Projects. Based in New York, Creative Time states that it strives "to commission, produce and present the most important, ground-breaking, challenging, and exceptional art of our times." Creative Time's projects are almost exclusively temporary.2 In his book The Texture of Memory, James Young acknowledges the dynamics of memorialization by suggesting: "it may also be true that the surest engagement with memory lies in its perpetual irresolution . . . simply the never-to-be-resolved debate over which kind of memory to preserve, how to do it, in whose name, and to what end."3 In this sense, memorials might be ongoing dialogues that could shift to different locations, taking various forms over time and reflecting divergent discourses generated by a variety of publics.

Memory Flash, the first interventions by artist collective John Q, proposes to frame the city of Atlanta as a locus of memory by constructing a series of images and performances that correspond to specific queer histories. We intend these public interventions as ephemeral, morphing, and discursive memorials. Using source material from the Atlanta History Center's collection of lesbian and gay oral histories and from local news reports, John Q will present moments of personal narratives and public events through media of performance, installation, and projection. Memory Flash begins in the Old Fourth Ward, moves to Ponce de Leon Avenue at the site of what was once the Joy Lounge, heads north to the ballparks in Piedmont Park, and ends in nearby Ansley Square. These located, consecutive interventions are meant to create new memories based on Atlanta's LGBTQ past. Watch video of Memory Flash courtesy of the G Channel.

LONESOME COWBOYS: Andy Warhol’s film is raided by Atlanta Police at Ansley prompting the formation of the Georgia Chapter of the Gay Liberation Front. OLD FOURTH WARD WALK: Freddie Styles tells the story of the Jolly Twelve social club. THE JOY LOUNGE: Phyllis Killer negotiates an Atlanta City Ordinance. TOMBOYS VS. LORELEI LADIES: Women's social networks in the Piedmont Park softball games. OLD FOURTH WARD WALK: Freddie Styles tells the story of the Jolly Twelve social club. THE JOY LOUNGE: Phyllis Killer negotiates an Atlanta City Ordinance. TOMBOYS VS. LORELEI LADIES: Women's social networks in the Piedmont Park softball games. LONESOME COWBOYS: Andy Warhol’s film is raided by Atlanta Police at Ansley prompting the formation of the Georgia Chapter of the Gay Liberation Front.

Map of John Q discursive memorial sites, Atlanta, Georgia, 2010. Printable version.
Click on each site to read a short history.
Map by Michael Page.

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Oral Histories, People, and Places:

The oral histories featured in Memory Flash come from women and men who were born before or during World War II and lived in Atlanta or the US South during most of their adulthood or at least prior to the late 1960s. The excerpts document experiences and events that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, decades of significant social and cultural change nationally. The economic, political, and social landscape of Atlanta transformed dramatically into the metropolitan center of the Deep South. The forces that had reshaped the city's built environment affected spatial and social relations in ways both intended and unintended. With an intensified awareness of segregated space, black and white Atlantans learned to navigate the city differently, mindful of real and imagined lines that could not be crossed and the consequences of doing so, although the privilege of whiteness carried with it the ability to traverse physical, sexual, and social boundaries. In addition to race, differentials of class, gender, and sexuality further circumscribed Atlantans' movements, opportunities, and potentials.4

As social forces affected nascent sexual and relational networks of the 1950s and 1960s, Atlanta's gay life (for men and women) occurred in and transformed downtown public and private sites. As the social relevance of downtown waned, gay life followed patterns of dispersal north and east into Midtown. The oral histories—and the installations—are further contextualized in Atlanta's queer past, before the gay liberation movements of the 1970s. The experiences of gay women and men and the formation of queer identities and cultures in Atlanta both resonate with and differ from other US urban areas during the mid-twentieth century. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, bars, nightclubs, cafeterias, and restaurants with a mixed or largely gay clientele helped to foster social networks and heighten a sense of group consciousness. And like other urban spaces in Cold War America, Atlanta bore the signs of a public fixation on sexual deviancy, including police stings in parks, restrooms, and bars.

Certain aspects of Atlanta's history—namely the roles of race and transportation in shaping the built environment and the experiences of its inhabitants—mark the city's particularities. Increasing numbers of cars, trolleys, buses, and taxis enabled movement between downtown and suburbs; rural and urban areas; "colored" and "white" areas; and cultural and domestic spheres. The city's growth through annexation translated into a metropolitan expanse of people and places that were more evenly dispersed and less dense than Chicago or New York. Mobility had a tremendous impact on ways of life. For Memory Flash, a partial mapping of the social, affective, and psychological geography of a particular group of individuals living during a specific time in a particular place takes primacy over concerns about queer urban similarities and differences.

Old Fourth Ward
 
Freddie Styles tells the story of the Jolly Twelve. Courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

Inspired by the oral history of Freddie Styles, a Georgia-born African American man, John Q's first installation begins in front of a home in the Old Fourth Ward. In the early 1960s, Styles briefly belonged to a black gay male social club called the Jolly Twelve. When going to social functions, the group dressed in blue pants and white shirts, lined up according to height, and walked in step. According to Styles, the catcalling between neighborhood residents on their porches and the Jolly Twelve instilled in him a quick defensive wit. This might appear as a bold act of claiming queer public space, although it can equally suggest the temporal and spatial unevenness with which racialized sexual identities were accommodated. For the installation, Styles will share one particular memory of the Jolly Twelve, then he will walk the neighborhood block again, joined by John Q.

Photographer unknown, Freddie Styles (left) with his family in Atlanta, Georgia's Summerhill neighborhood, 1953. Courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center
Joey Orr, Old Fourth Ward residence where the Jolly Twelve would gather before going out to a club or house party, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009.
Freddie Styles was born in Madison, Georgia in 1944. He is pictured here (left) in Atlanta's Summerhill neighborhood where he moved with his family in 1952. As a young adult in the 1960s, he became a part of a social club called the Jolly Twelve.
Old Fourth Ward residence where the Jolly Twelve would gather before going out to a club or house party. Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Joey Orr.

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The Joy Lounge
 
Listen to Billy Jones describe hiding from a police officer during the early drag days at the Joy Lounge. Courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

The location of what was once the Joy Lounge is the site of the second installation, which takes as its subject Billy Jones's memories of police raids on gay bars. During the late 1950s and 1960s, middle-class white gay men frequented gathering places along Ponce de Leon Avenue and in Midtown. A few blocks from Dupree's, which catered to white gay women, and next to Mrs. P's, the Joy Lounge opened around 1967. More than a decade after College Park native Guy Dobbs performed as Terry Lynn in mostly heterosexual supper clubs downtown, drag was reintroduced in gay bars on Ponce.5 Jones, a white male from Griffin, Georgia, performed in drag at a time when a city ordinance banned opposite-sex dress. According to Jones, when police entered the bar, a person attending the door would alert the drag performers who would crowd into a walk-in beer cooler or furnace room and wait for an "all clear" signal. This installation takes place in a mobile cooler at the location of the former Joy Lounge and presents an excerpt from Billy Jones's oral history.

Billy Jones moved to Atlanta in the late 1920s. Following his military service during World War II, Jones worked for thirty years at the Franklin Simon department store, where he would become known for his traffic-stopping window designs. Photographer unknown, Billy Jones, circa 1947. Courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.
In the mid 1960s, using the stage names Phyllis Killer and Shirley Temple Jones, he became a popular female impersonator. He is pictured here (center) during one of the Miss Joy Lounge pageants. At this time, an Atlanta city ordinance had banned cross-dressing.Photographer unknown, Billy Jones (top center) as Phyllis Killer during a Miss Joy Lounge pageant, Atlanta, Georgia, 1968. Courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.
Billy Jones moved to Atlanta in the late 1920s. Following his military service during World War II, Jones worked for thirty years at the Franklin Simon department store, where he would become known for his traffic-stopping window designs. In the mid 1960s, using the stage names Phyllis Killer and Shirley Temple Jones, Billy Jones became a popular female impersonator. He is pictured here (top center) during one of the Miss Joy Lounge pageants. At this time, an Atlanta city ordinance had banned cross-dressing.

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Tomboys vs. The Lorelei Ladies
 
Listen to Nell Stansell talk about softball as a social network. Courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

The third John Q installation occurs in Piedmont Park and shifts narrative attention from the policing of same-sex acts in public during this period, predominately among men, to lesser-noticed same-sex desires for romance and friendship, specifically between women. As in other cities of comparable size, recreational sports provided an important space for women to socialize with one another in Atlanta during the 1950s and 1960s. Whether in city leagues or college physical education departments, organized athletics proved especially appealing to lesbians with an interest in sports and in search of women-only spaces. In Atlanta, many women formed friendships and romantic relationships through softball teams like the Tomboys and the Lorelei Ladies. This sphere, however, was not exclusively occupied by lesbians and required careful judgment and caution in one's public comportment.6

Many women formed same-sex friendships and romantic relationships through softball teams like the Tomboys and the Lorelei Ladies. Programs, such as the one pictured here, were distributed to spectators at the games. Tomboys program, 1960. Courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.
Many women formed same-sex friendships and romantic relationships through softball teams like the Tomboys and the Lorelei Ladies. Programs, such as this one pictured here, were distributed to spectators at the games. Lorelei Ladies program, 1969. Courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.
Many women formed same-sex friendships and romantic relationships through softball teams like the Tomboys and the Lorelei Ladies. Programs, such as those pictured here, were distributed to spectators at the games.
 
Charlene McLemore (left) and Barbara Vogel (right) discuss the Tomboys and the Lorelei Ladies. Courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

The Lorelei Ladies softball team was founded in 1939 in Atlanta and supported by businessman H. L. Lough. During World War II the team continued to play, almost exclusively against military teams, as part of the home front effort to entertain Atlantans. In 1944, Johnny Moon organized a girls' basketball team, the Tomboys. Four years later, Tomboy members pressured Moon to form a softball team to compete with the Lorelei Ladies. Beginning in the 1950s, the Lorelei Ladies and the Tomboys traveled around the country and to Canada for tournaments and games. By the 1960s, they were nationally recognized with followings of fans, including many lesbians. During the installation, anonymous women will recite excerpts from multiple oral histories, while a scrimmage game plays in the background (courtesy of the Decatur Women's Sports League).7

Lonesome Cowboys

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, defenders of the existing social order sought to define the moral character of the city and state against the influences of an increasingly sexualized national culture through official and unofficial censorship boards, namely Atlanta film censor, Christine Smith (later Gilliam) and the Georgia Literature Commission, led by James Wesberry, a Baptist minister. When Atlantans discussed homosexuality publicly during the mid-twentieth century, they cast same-sex acts and identities in terms of sickness and criminality. By the mid-1960s, multi-part series appearing in papers across the country, including the Denver Post, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Constitution, marked departures from this narrative, stressing the alienation and loneliness of gay life. The appearance of these articles cannot be divorced from the larger context of continuing public anxiety over and regulation of sex and sexuality, including censorship in print and visual media.8

Still from Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys, 1968. Image depicts Taylor Mead, Joe Dallesandro, and Eric Emerson. Andy Warhol Lonesome Cowboys, 1967-68 16mm film, color, sound, 109 minutes ©2010 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.
Still from Andy Warhol's Lonesome Cowboys, 1968. Image depicts Taylor Mead, Joe Dallesandro, and Eric Emerson. Andy Warhol Lonesome Cowboys, 1967–68 16mm film, color, sound, 109 minutes ©2010 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

Utilizing projection and performance, the final John Q installation takes place north of Piedmont Park at Mixx in Ansley Square. In early August 1969, Andy Warhol's latest film, Lonesome Cowboys, was screening nightly at the Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema. One Tuesday night Atlanta police stopped the screening, confiscated the print, and arrested the theater manager. In addition, they photographed most, if not all, of the seventy moviegoers as they exited the cinema. Statements made by officials to the Atlanta Journal reveal dual motives for the bust: the prosecution of an alleged violation of obscenity law and an explicit desire to identify homosexuals in the film's audience.9 Occurring just weeks after the New York City Stonewall riots began the modern gay rights movement, the Lonesome Cowboys bust led directly to the formation of the Georgia Gay Liberation Front at a heated meeting in an Emory Village coffeeshop.10

John Q will project the Warhol film outside, adjacent to the Ansley property. In this projection the image will mostly be lost, referencing its 1969 censorship, the now-disappeared Ansley Mall theater, and the mall's contemporary status as a social space for gay men. Supplementing the Lonesome Cowboys installation is a theatrical screening of the film, along with two related Warhol films: Horse, Warhol's previous Western, and Nude Restaurant, which features stars from Lonesome Cowboys and which originally played at a countercultural movie theater in Atlanta in 1968.11

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The Work of Memory Flash:

Focusing on selected personal stories and local events, the John Q collective rigorously and playfully engages in the documentation, collection, and presentation of queer southern experiences and stories by extending critical and interactive practices into archival territory. Whether framed as public history or public scholarship, Memory Flash is meant to generate new and collective memories. While this series takes part in a memorial tradition, it engages visual methodologies in a manner that leaves meanings to be negotiated by those sharing the spaces of intervention. These discursive memorials require public upkeep in the sense that they can be taken up or forgotten again. Memory Flash is just that—a remembering and a forgetting.

Memory Flash begins at 532 Wabash Avenue in the Old Fourth Ward at 5pm, Saturday, April 3, 2010. For more information, please visit us at http://johnqcollective.wordpress.com.

This project is made possible by Flux Projects and supported by grants from the Emory College Center for Creative Arts and Sciences and the Lloyd E. Russell Foundation.

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Recommended Resources:

Links:
Flux Projects website
http://www.fluxprojects.org/

The G Channel: Footage of Memory Flash by John Q
http://thegchannel.com/

John Q website
http://johnqcollective.wordpress.com

Print Materials:
Chenault, Wesley and Stacy Braukman. Gay and Lesbian Atlanta. Mt. Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008.

D'Emilio, John and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Fleischmann, Jason and Jason Hardman. "Hitting Below the Bible Belt: The Development of the Gay Rights Movement in Atlanta." Journal of Urban Affairs 26, no. 4 (October 2004): 407–426.

Howard, John, ed. Carryin' On in the Lesbian and Gay South. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

———. Men Like That: A Southern Queer History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Johnson, E. Patrick. Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South—An Oral History. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Kramer, Margia. Andy Warhol et al. The FBI File on Andy Warhol. New York: UnStub Press, 1988.

Kruse, Kevin. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Lands, LeeAnn. The Culture of Property: Race, Class, and Housing Landscapes in Atlanta, 1880–1950. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

Lisby, Gregory C. "'Trying to Define What May Be Indefinable': The Georgia Literature Commission, 1953-1973." Georgia Historical Quarterly 84, no. 1 (spring 2000): 72–97.

McGehee, Margaret T. "Disturbing the Peace: Lost Boundaries, Pinky, and Censorship in Atlanta, Georgia, 1949-1952." Cinema Journal 46, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 23–51.

Rupp, Leila J. A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Terry, Jennifer. An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

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  • 1. Christopher Reed, "Imminent Domain: Queer Space in the Built Environment," Art Journal 55, no. 4 (1996): 64-70. Quote from page 65.
  • 2. Creative Time, "About Creative Time," Creative Time, Inc., http://www.creativetime.org/about/index.html (accessed December 7, 2009).
  • 3. James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), 21.
  • 4. This section is excerpted from Wesley Chenault's "An Unspoken Past: Atlanta Lesbian and Gay History, 1940-1970" (PhD diss., University of New Mexico, 2008), 1–37. Chenault is revising it for publication with the University of Georgia Press.
  • 5. Chenault, "An Unspoken Past," 106–108, 144–146.
  • 6. Ibid. 147–149.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Ibid. 28, 78–82, 121–133.
  • 9. John York, "Warhol's Cowboys Lassoed; Photos Taken of Audience," Atlanta Journal, 6 August 1969, p.14-A.
  • 10. Berl Boykin, conversation with Andy Ditzler and Joey Orr, Atlanta, Georgia, 16 November 2009.
  • 11. "What's Happening!!!," Great Speckled Bird 1, no. 11 (August 1968), 15.