The Young Activist and the Atlanta Bar That Shaped Queer History

The story of Greenwell and the Sweet Gum Head, one of 10,000 American discos opened by the decade’s midpoint, pulses with energy — more so than the sections on Smith, whose struggles with The Barb can occasionally be repetitive. Padgett carefully recreates the club’s interior (“First-timers stepped in through a pair of doors with feet stomping in the chairs overhead, surrounded by crowds, challenged by the bar that split the club across the middle, daunted by the golden-oak stage and its bare, unforgiving light”) and summons up visions of celebrity patrons — Burt Reynolds sits in the dressing room, “dark hair tousled in the excitement, mustache brushed askew” — and Greenwell’s fellow performers at “the drag tabernacle of the South.” Satyn DeVille, Hot Chocolate and Lavita Allen in particular are imbued with life. The imagery verges, at times, on the comic, as when Padgett describes how Miami baggage handlers once misplaced the two-by-sixes that Rachel used during her performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Throughout, the book is shot through with elegant digressions about songs integral to the drag scene, and the story of how disco, with the aid of “Saturday Night Fever,” helped mainstream queer life.

It’s a fizzy tale of civil rights, quaaludes and music. Alas, a walk through queer history will, often enough, end in tears. In “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head,” Bill Smith dies first, in 1980, overdosing on sleeping pills. At the request of his family, the local papers overlooked his death. And then the larger, global horror, the inevitability of which casts a pall over the entire book. Of the newly discovered syndrome, Padgett writes in the final pages that the Centers for Disease Control told gay men not to panic. Soon enough, however, Atlanta’s queer citizens, many of whom had proudly marched in verdant Piedmont Park, would deteriorate. They would end their days inside, at home or in a hospital.

The historical record suffers mightily because of the AIDS epidemic. People who would have lived to tell glorious tales rapidly died, and the number of survivors continues to shrink. That vast absence means that chronicles of queer life vanish before there’s a chance to document them at all. When stories such as these get told, it is a cause for celebration.

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