A Queer situation

Woolard outed as candidate for all Atlanta

When Cathy Woolard's car came to the intersection of 10th and Piedmont during June's Pride parade, she could hear the boos.

It wouldn't be the last time that day.

In the evening, Raven, a drag queen with the Charlie Brown Cabaret took the stage for a performance in Piedmont Park. Instead of lauding Georgia's first openly gay elected official, Raven exhorted fans to stay away from Woolard's name on the November ballot for City Council president.

The reason for the enmity is simple: Woolard voted to eliminate Atlanta's four 24-hour clubs.

One such club, Backstreet Atlanta, is a bona fide landmark and a cultural hot spot known to gay men across the country. It's also a place where the District 6 councilwoman campaigned for support in 1997.

When Woolard voted to wipe round-the-clock clubs off the books, to some, she voted against the gay community. Certainly, Atlanta has seen candidates who aren't "black enough." Just ask 1997 mayoral hopeful Marvin Arrington. With the Woolard-versus-the-clubs issue, Atlanta is experiencing its first brush with not "gay enough."

It's a strange predicament for a candidate who worked for a gay rights group, and since 1986, has worked or volunteered for gay- and lesbian-related causes. When you consider that her election in 1997 opened the door for five gay City Council candidates running this year, it would be equally strange if Woolard actually lost votes because of opposition from a gay sub-constituency riding a you-gotta-fight-for-your-right-to-party platform.

In the form of outdoor banners, Backstreet is endorsing one of the candidates, Sean Waites, whom Woolard partly inspired to run for a council seat.

"As a young politician, she absolutely had an impact," Waites says. "She's someone I'd like to mold my political career after. She unlocked the door."

Woolard took office in 1998, after besting a 20-year incumbent. She's gone on to become one of the city's most energetic council members. She sponsored legislation that prevents Atlanta employers from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation, and worked on improving sidewalks, streets and tax equity for Atlanta residents in DeKalb. And Woolard accomplished all that in spite of opposition from a mayor who isn't her biggest fan.

But to win election three years ago, Woolard went where the votes were. Some of those votes were at Backstreet. Raven recalls Woolard coming to the club late at night — midnight or 1 a.m. Backstreet management allowed her to take the stage, microphone in hand, to stump for votes. She was received warmly.

So when Woolard voted with a unanimous council to ban 24-hour clubs — and was part of a minority that would have closed them at 2 a.m. — folks who work for and frequent Backstreet felt betrayed. When her name appeared with a "yes" next to it, Raven says, "everyone in the room was like daggers for her."

Club backers argued Backstreet was one of the few places employees in Atlanta's bar scene could go after hours. Backstreet Atlanta also has a particularly important place in the gay community, because gay bars have traditionally been viewed as safe havens from a world that was less than accepting.

"You expect her to do things that are good for the gay community," Raven says. "A lot of people in the gay community want that lifestyle, and they should be able to have it. Backstreet is not just a bar."

Raven says she's been telling whoever asks not to vote for Woolard come November.

Waites, though, says Woolard proved she's a candidate for all of Atlanta when she voted against 24-hour clubs — not just gays and lesbians.

"It would have been easy to go along with the gay and lesbian community and make us happy," Waites says. Woolard did what she thought was best for the city. "I don't think she's turned her back on us. She's taken a beating, and it's undue."

Woolard might lose a few party-boy and bar owner votes, but it certainly hasn't affected her fundraising. She has amassed the largest war chest — $211,394 — of any of her three opponents. She'll need it. Woolard faces a formidable challenge for council president from three fellow councilmembers. "Able" Mable Thomas is a capable grassroots organizer who also has proven she can raise money. And Michael Bond has strong name recognition — if he can ever get his campaign act in gear. Meanwhile, Julia Emmons could grab some votes that might otherwise go to Woolard despite the fact that her election effort took a major hit in early July when she confessed that she might have to drop out of the race. Emmons later decided to stick it out.

Despite the oddity of some gay voters lining up against a gay candidate, Woolard's decision against the 24-hour clubs probably will work to her political advantage. After all, "homeowners in neighborhoods around the bars are more likely to be voters than younger folks who frequent those bars," says Harry Knox, executive director of Georgia Equality Inc.

Knox draws a comparison between Woolard's situation and problems Georgia Equality goes through. Each election cycle Georgia Equality evaluates candidates based on issues and viability. Sometimes it picks gay candidates. Sometimes it picks straight candidates over gay opponents.

"Every election cycle we make somebody mad," Knox says. But the message is that it's the issues that matter most and not sexual orientation.

Woolard herself is sick of the issue. When she ran in 1997, she didn't receive all the gay vote. She says she prefers to think of campaigning as winning people over one by one. "My personal and work life have been devoted 100 percent to the gay and lesbian community," she says, suggesting that a vote does not a career make.

Waites doesn't think Woolard's party pooping will be enough to diminish her core constituents.

In the end, "I think people are going to vote based on the issues," Waites says.

Partying until 6 a.m. won't be one of them.??