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Gay Atlantans Emerging as Political Force

August 20, 1989

ATLANTA (AP) _ Atlanta has long been a magnet for homosexuals in the Southeast who felt they’d never be accepted in smaller towns.

″It’s a little island of enlightenment in a sea of bigotry,″ said Gil Robinson, a lobbyist for several Atlanta gay groups.

They’ve never been forced to take to the streets to fight for equality here, but with an estimated 300,000 homosexuals in the metropolitan area, the gay community has become a well-organized, potent political force. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the race to succeed Mayor Andrew Young.

″I think gay and lesbian people here are becoming a real political power, probably getting close to New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles,″ said Richard Swanson, administrator of the Atlanta Gay Center.

Fulton County Commission Chairman Michael Lomax and former Mayor Maynard Jackson, the two leading Democratic candidates in the Oct. 3 election until Lomax dropped out this month, vigorously campaigned in the gay community.

Both had detailed platforms on gay issues, promising to seek funds for housing for people with AIDS, to appoint gay men and lesbians to city posts and to establish police task forces to combat unprovoked assaults on homosexuals.

The city’s gay population has never before been courted so openly, said Jeffrey Laymon, executive secretary of the Metropolitan Atlanta Council of Gay and Lesbian Organizations. ″We do have the numbers now. The political situation has changed. They have to pay attention.″

Even those who oppose affirmative-action programs inclusion of homosexuals agree that Atlanta’s gay population has developed some muscle.

″I think it’s anti-family and it’s anti-God,″ said Nancy Schaefer, chairwoman of Citizens for Public Awareness, which has fought to repeal a city ordinance amendment giving gay residents protection from discrimination. Atlanta has become a ″haven″ for homosexuals, she said.

Unlike San Francisco or New York, the rise of gay power here came not with a surge of militancy, but rather gradually. Gay activism surfaced in America in the early 1970s and by the time Atlanta’s homosexual population reached significant numbers much of the work had already been done.

″By 1980, attitudes about equality had already changed or moderated across the country,″ Swanson said. ″There probably wasn’t a great need to get out and march. We’re able to achieve much more with a lower-key approach.″

He cited Atlanta’s status as a center of the civil rights movement and its Southern gentility for the lack of confrontation over gay issues.″A lot of gay and lesbian people tend to be from the smaller towns in the South. They still have a lot of that traditional Southern mentality.″

Midtown Atlanta, a hodgepodge of high-rise office towers, comfortable neighborhoods, nightclubs and shopping centers, is the center of gay life. But it’s a lifestyle that has been quietly woven into the city’s society.

″We’re invisible,″ said Marie Murray of the Greater Atlanta Political Awareness Committee, GAPAC. ″We don’t just care about gay issues. We’re interested in all of the issues that everybody else is.″

Still, many gay activists say their greatest victory was the 1986 addition of sexual orientation to an anti-discrimination ordinance. It has survived one repeal effort; CPA is trying again to have the amendment thrown out.

Mrs. Schaefer said she does not believe a sexual preference group should be considered a minority, particularly in affirmative action programs. She does believe that heightened gay political power bodes ill for the city.

″It concerns me where the city is heading. When the morals of the city start falling apart, we will suffer the consequences,″ she said, adding that the suburbs will become conservative in reaction to gay clout within the city.

Many gay men and lesbians own prosperous businesses - with money to contribute to politicians - and are active in one or more of the dozens of gay and lesbian organizations that rate politics high on their agenda.

Jackson campaign spokesman Angelo Fuster said the gay population is ″very important″ in building a successful coalition with Atlanta’s black majority to win a citywide election. And many politicians no longer fear a backlash if they openly support gay issues. ″Although there is a lot of homophobia, it has lessened considerably,″ he said.

Lomax recently reached out for the gay vote with a proposal to include gay- owned businesses in a study of Fulton County’s affirmative action program.

Les Hough, a specialist in Southern politics at Georgia State University, said the proposal shows the role gay voters - especially white ones - play in predominantly black Atlanta. ″By appealing to the margins, to the single- issue groups, you can solidify your white support,″ he said.

″In a close race, it can make a big difference.″

The prominence of gay issues in Atlanta shows the differences between city and country in Georgia, where no gubernatorial candidates mention gay rights as an important platform plank, he said. ″Anyone who had ambitions of statewide office in Georgia ... would downplay gay rights issues in any race.″

Swanson said gay men and lesbians have simply become part of the fabric of Atlanta, coming of age along with the fast-growing city. ″A high percentage of the gay people in Atlanta now have 15-plus years of being involved in the community. All that is paying off now.″

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