Gay Atlanta remembered

John Q collective goes public with Memory Flash

“What would a memorial for Atlanta’s LGBTQ community really be like? What if a memorial wasn’t a locatable object? What if a memorial was a discourse or a series of discourses?”

Together as the newly founded artist collective John Q, Joey Orr, Andy Ditzler and Wesley Chenault considered these questions during conversations about a proposed memorial to Atlanta’s queer legacy. Their answer: Memory Flash, a series of four public art installations April 3 at key locations in the city’s gay history. Among the handful of sponsors funding Memory Flash is Flux Projects, Louis Corrigan’s much talked about public art organization that helped fund Le Flash and, more recently, Lauri Stallings’ and gloATL’s bloom.

Rather than erecting a permanent, concrete object, Memory Flash emphasizes the ephemeral, unsanctioned legacies of Atlanta’s queer history. “That way, it actually functions the way memory functions and the way lots of LGTBQ communities have functioned – scattered and in the cracks and where they found opportunity,” Orr says.

Memory Flash is an ambitious debut for the nascent collective, but Orr, Ditzler and Chenault bring a wealth of experience to the project. Chenault’s archival and curatorial work on Atlanta’s queer history at the Atlanta History Center culminated in 2005’s Unspoken Past oral history project. In 2008, he published, with Stacy Braukman, the collection of images Gay and Lesbian Atlanta. Much of the source material for Memory Flash was culled from Chenault’s interviews and research at the Atlanta History Center.

Ditzler’s Film Love series and his efforts to explore queer and avant-garde cinema have made him an invaluable figure in Atlanta’s art scene. Orr’s been a curatorial presence in Atlanta for more than a decade, from the small, now-defunct ShedSpace to MOCA-GA. Their pooled experience amounts not only to shared disciplines, but a sustained engagement with Atlanta’s queer arts communities matched by few other artists.

Memory Flash begins at 532 Wabash Ave. in the Old Fourth Ward, a neighborhood recognized for its rich African-American history, but rarely noted for its role in gay history. Participants will stage a re-enactment of a Sunday afternoon meeting of the Jolly Twelve, a black gay male social club from the early ’60s. During get-togethers, the Jolly Twelve dressed in matching blue pants and white shirts and strolled through the neighborhood on their way to parties and bars. In an oral history interview with the Atlanta History Center, Jolly Twelve member Freddy Styles said, “We would go over to the house on Wabash Avenue on Sunday afternoons ... and we would sit on a nice jalousied front porch. ... It was a very nice house with very nice furniture – the nicest surroundings I’d ever been in. What it said to me was that gay people don’t have to live diminished, second-class lives.”

For its second installation, Memory Flash jumps to Midtown and the former Joy Lounge site to explore Atlanta’s drag history. The Midtown gay club hosted drag nights in the late ’60s, though a city ordinance declared it illegal for anyone to “impersonate, masquerade, or disguise themselves as being of another sex.” In the Atlanta History Center oral history, Billy Jones, whose Joy Lounge stage names included Phyllis Killer and Shirley Temple Jones, said of that period, “Of course we had to hide from the police ‘cause we were harassed all the time. ... We’d all run and hide in the furnace room or in the beer cooler or stand up on the toilet in the ladies room.”

In Piedmont Park, two softball teams will face off in a re-enactment of the Atlanta Tomboys and the Lorelei Ladies. For decades, the Tomboys and the Ladies brought women together in Atlanta not only for organized athletics, but also friendships and the occasional romance. While the Decatur Women’s Sports League plays a few innings in the spirit of the teams, actors will recite oral histories recounting the personal stories of women who once played in their ranks.

The evening concludes at Ansley Square with a screening of Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboy. The film, which features five “hot and bothered” men on the open range, would have queer relevance in almost any setting, but is especially significant to Atlanta’s Ansley Square. In August 1969, the police broke up a screening of the film at the Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema. Film-goers were photographed while exiting the theater. The Atlanta Journal reported on the raid, quoting officials who plainly acknowledged they were attempting to identify homosexuals. Instead of showing the film on a proper screen (Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema no longer exists), Lonesome Cowboy will be projected onto the current landscape of Ansley Square.

The relevance of the architecturally erased cinema is critical to John Q’s members. “It’s an ephemeral image disappearing into the scene around it. It references the fact that a cinema used to be there, people used to be there,” says Ditzler. Memory Flash is, after all, about the role that memory, rather than a static object, plays in preserving Atlanta’s gay history. Says Orr, “There’s a particular way Atlanta forgets its history, because it does and it doesn’t. It does happen to erase it architecturally a lot, but once you start scratching on the surface there’s so much stuff that always falls out.”