Beyond Burkhart’s: Black folks pay price for LGBTQ Atlanta racism

In my 20s, when I first started coming out and was seeking to reconcile my anxiety and desire, I would often go out alone to queer clubs. I would find a seat at the bar and watch in wonderment as my gay tribe created new worlds through the gyration of hips, thrusts of pelvises, and roll of their bodies.

These nights made the world outside a bit more bearable. But do not be mistaken, these fleeting moments of freedom came at a cost. I often did not find community in these spaces, but rather racism and white supremacy; a cover charge tacked-on on nights where the clientele was blacker than usual, policing of my wardrobe by the creation of a new “no hats, no timbs” policy, or being subjected to a “pat-down” more rigorous than the Transportation Security Authority (TSA).

Black LGBTQ folks pay a psychic price to be in those spaces. It's Jim Crow: The Club Remix.

Last month, Palmer Marsh, owner of the gay nightclub and drag bar Burkhart’s Pub, came under fire after controversial Facebook posts surfaced of him making racially offensive remarks, including the use of a racial slur to describe former President Obama. The result of the fallout has been an effort to ignite community dialogue about racism in the LGBTQ community.

What’s been noticeably absent from these conversations, however, has been the voices of black queer and trans folks. How does a community address racism without centering the voices of black and other people of color?

A point of contention for some, has been the fact that Marsh is not a member of the LGBTQ community. However, his remarks are emblematic of long history racism within the LGBTQ community.

James Baldwin knew this. In a 1984 interview with the Village Voice, he stated that “the gay world …  is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society.” Marlon Riggs, also understood, declaring in his documentary Tongues Untied “Ten black men show up [to the club] and they [white people] get paranoid that the place is going to tilt … [wanting you to show] three forms of id.”

And as we look around the country, from Atlanta to New York to Philadelphia, we are reminded that these clubs and bars are often not safe in the physical or discursive space for black LGBTQ folks. With each new incident, we are, as Melvin Dixon put it, “reminded of how vulnerable we are as gay men, as black gay men, to the disposal or erasure of our lives.”

People have drawn a line in the sand, making sure that they are on the record to denounce the vile comments made by Marsh. However, a mere denouncement does not undo the structural racism that is embedded in the community.

We have been down this road before. The terrain is familiar. The opportunity is before us to do something new, to engage in ways that we have not engaged before, and to chart a path forward the creates room for all of our lived experiences.

Now that we have started the conversation, a few expectations to set for:

  • Do not expect black communities or other communities of color to educate you on the issue.
  • Support clubs owned and operated by black people and other people of color.
  • Identify, interrupt and disrupt racist behavior when you see it.
  • Challenge the city’s LGBTQ liaison to fight to dismantle racism, bias, and discrimination in Atlanta’s LGBTQ community.
  • Do not expect to be rewarded for not being a racist.

Eric Paulk is an advocate working at the intersections of race, class, and sexuality. Follow him on Twitter @EricPaulk.

This article originally appeared in Q magazine. Read the full issue below, and pick up your hard copy at LGBTQ venues around town: