The Sweet Gum Head: A Place for All Kinds of Radical Queerness

In the preface to A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drags, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution, author Martin Padgett writes, “Relatively few stories of the queer revolution have been recorded … History is a bridge made of sand.”

Padgett chronicles a decade of Atlanta’s gay community evolution (and revolution), anchoring the story in Cheshire Bridge Road’s once-famous performance venue, the Sweet Gum Head. Through two main figures – John Greenwell and his drag queen persona Rachel Wells, and troubled gay activist Bill Smith – along with host of supporting characters, he weaves together a full narrative about the 1970s queer urban experience in the South. “I became a guardian of many people’s lives,” he says when discussing how he approached telling other people’s stories. “That clarified greatly what truly mattered in the story.”

In our interview, Padgett reflects on capturing the optimism of the era before the AIDS epidemic, his writing process, how queer activism has evolved, drag moments in post-Katrina New Orleans, and the future of the gay bar.

Can you tell us about the book’s origins and the moment you knew The Sweet Gum Head had a larger story to tell? How far into your research did you realize this was a book-length project?

In 2016, I enrolled as an MFA student in the journalism school at the University of Georgia. It was long overdue: I’d parked an early career in feature and magazine writing to become an internet entrepreneur and editor, and before I knew it, two decades had passed. I wanted to carve out that space in my writing life again. I wanted a reboot.

I thought I’d use the MFA program to write a history of Atlanta from the day after Dr. King’s assassination. I’d read Atlanta histories of the decades since that were thin, narrowly focused, or read more like PR than history. I still wanted to know: What made modern Atlanta? I struggled with the idea for a couple of months until I accepted some kind advice from a mentor and started fresh from a single thing I’d seen in Atlanta Magazine: the name of a 1970s drag club, the Sweet Gum Head.

Who wouldn’t be fascinated by that? It took only a few days of reading and a first interview, in this case with actor Leslie Jordan, to grasp the story lying in wait. I fell in love with the idea, the time, the place, almost immediately. But it wasn’t fully shaped until I knew more about the queer community of the era and how it lurched into a new and very public existence.

The Sweet Gum Head was a place for all kinds of radical queerness, from drag to drugs to disco. I knew I’d have to write about it all. Most of all I’d have to sketch a serious treatment of drag. It’s an art form that asks very fundamental questions of identity — who am I? But it also lives in the world of satire and drama, and that all erupts out of the lives of the performers, quite naturally.

When I realized I could also write about this struggling gay rights movement in the same time frame as that of the Sweet Gum Head’s existence — from 1971 to 1981 — and cast it as the history of the era between Stonewall and the AIDS crisis, I knew it was a book. I heard the chalk line snap.

The book’s structure is anchored through two key figures: drag queen Rachel Wells presented by John Greenwell, and political activist Bill Smith. Their stories run parallel over the 1970s but never intertwine, painting a portrait of what was happening both inside The Sweet Gum Head and outside in Atlanta’s communities. Their two narrative threads are augmented by a host of other characters with their own tiny dedicated chapters, including Hot Chocolate, Frank Powell, John Austin, Maynard Jackson, even Anita Bryant and Gloria Gaynor. With so many real-life figures to tell this story of Atlanta’s gay revolution, how did you ultimately choose Wells and Smith as your main narratives?

These paired stories dance with each other, even though they intersect only briefly — inside the world of the Sweet Gum Head and queer Atlanta. Of all the people I grew to know, John and Bill left the most complete record of their lives, through memoir and media. I could say more about them and ask more people about them. That said, I rewrote the book in fairly dramatic fashion, after the sixth or seventh draft, to tell it in a series of vignettes — as if you’re meeting people casually in a bar. A bar where you have omniscient access to their lives, while you’re also trying to peel your shoes off the sticky carpeting. That gave me the space I needed to weave lots of fascinating short stories in the body of the book. I couldn’t let this chance to share those lives pass.

After that sixth or seventh rewrite, I realized that the main stories intersect in a meaningful way: Drag was a sort of activism for John, while activism was a form of drag for Bill. The drag performers challenged heteronormativity on a nightly basis and drew straight people to the club where they could become allies. Then, of course, John has his own political awakening. The club itself evolved from a secretive place to a politically activated one where fundraisers paid for busloads of people to go to the 1979 March on Washington.

As for Bill, when I learned he had actually worn drag and roomed with drag performers, the linkage became obvious to me. But I do admit to submerging that idea deeply to emphasize the struggle to develop the political structure of the movement — or to mask over what really wasn’t there in great substance, and how he struggled with that. He wanted to be heard, and it wasn’t happening, and that proved to be devastating to him in the context of his life.         

To use David Bowie’s phrase, this book encapsulates the gay revolution’s “golden years:” a time when the queer community could begin to celebrate who they were and push the public boundaries with fewer consequences than, say, the 1950s. Even when the Sweet Gum Head was experiencing a bit of a sophomoric business slump in 1973, it was still a place and a time for living out loud: dancing, flirting, hooking up, enjoying a buffet of drugs and bodies and freedoms in their various forms inside those doors while marching for recognition and civil rights outside in the metro. Do you view the evolution of queer communities as one that may experience another “golden age?” Are we living in one now?  

During one interview, the subject tsk-tsked me: “You’ve never had a quaalude, have you?” He looked as if he felt sorry for everything I’d missed in the years before the epidemic.

Every age is a golden age. Each generation of queers defines what that means for itself. Mine came just as the smartphone era dawned, in the 1990s, when Atlanta flourished with Saturday night bars and Sunday afternoon parties and an almost physically tangible gay neighborhood, where I first asked a guy out on a date. It went pretty badly, for the record, but it’s still the moment I knew I’d be in Atlanta for good.

We have given so much up to the irreality of the place we tap and swipe to life on our phones, it gives me pause — but we still have the shared queer passage of becoming, being, and surviving. We still share that moment when we decided to throw off the yoke and free ourselves from someone else’s idea of what and who we should be.

The Sweet Gum Head opened its doors in November 1971. It closed a decade later, in 1981, the same year in which a “rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals” was reported by the New York Times. That year signals the beginning of our country’s next two decades struggling to understand and survive the AIDS epidemic. As you succinctly write, “A generation stumbled into the hard work of dying.” What was your thought process in deciding how much to foreshadow the AIDS epidemic in this particular story? Was it difficult to not allude to such a defining period in our history more often (or on the other hand, less) in these pages?

When I submitted the book to my editor, I had written 25,000 words too many. One of the first pieces to go was a preface that told a brief story of Robert Rayford, who may have been the first person in the U.S. to die of AIDS — or at least, to have been clinically identified as such. Robert was a teenager when he died in 1969, and not much of his life story has been recorded. Not enough, and I couldn’t uncover more. Robert’s story, coupled with some passages on another AIDS fatality in Norway in the mid-1970s, resonated with me deeply, but they seemed to negate the story I wanted to tell — the story of the optimism of the decade before AIDS. The epidemic would come soon enough.

Early on in the book, when chronicling the rise of Rachel Wells, you write: “Drag teaches an important lesson: Sometimes, to find out who we really are, we have to become someone else.” How do you feel you changed or were changed during the years writing this book?

I became a guardian of many people’s lives, and that clarified greatly what truly mattered in the story and what amounted to gossip and shade. Will anyone ever write about these extraordinary people to this length again? I asked that many times and made sure when it came time to write the most difficult passages, that I approached them with empathy and compassion. I knew I could stitch all these complicated scraps into a quilted history of queer Atlanta, but I had to become more at ease with ambiguity, particularly in the life and death of Bill Smith. The lack of concrete answers and facts and ephemera has left me with sketches I couldn’t quite fill in. When I was done writing, I realized I didn’t have to have every detail in sharp focus. I didn’t have to be right, but I did have to be fair.

Alan Allison’s scene, when performing in The Sweet Gum Head as ‘just Allison,’ is a pivot for understanding how drag evolved. She sings “This Is My Life” and deconstructs drag for the first time among the audience, stripping down to show her masculine body while crying, bringing some of the fellow club goers to tears. It’s a powerful scene. You write, “Their tears were the condensation of pain. Just about anyone in the room could tell a story of how they had been punished, rejected, or discarded, how they escaped another life that refused to have them.” What are some memorable moments for you personally in your history and experience with drag culture?

My husband and I had an apartment in the French Quarter, and Katrina poured rain into it. I spent 18 months there, off and on, rebuilding — and went to Bianca del Rio’s drag bingo often, in the period before she left New Orleans and went on to win Drag Race. I’d go back from the bar to a home without an intact ceiling. I could see stars through it, and the rats from the Nelly Deli nearby would commute across the beams. The connection between trauma and comedy was painfully explicit — and in the moment, pretty hysterically funny when Roy (Bianca) savaged contestants. In between the dancing of bar-top go-go boys, of course.

Later in the book, you write, “Who we are is never permanent,” and in the case of Bill Smith, his level and focus of activism for gay rights and his role as activist shifts several times over the course of the decade. It ultimately takes an emotional and physical toll on him (with other influences involved). What are your views on activism (in or outside the queer community) and did Bill’s narrative influence how you think about activism today?

Many of the people who spoke with me, spoke about the exhaustion of activism. It took Atlanta’s community a decade to pull together in an effective political form. People got tired, ran out of time and patience — and some couldn’t do it at all. Drag performers would leave work at four in the morning, and that didn’t leave much time to participate.

I think Bill’s story isn’t singular, but his Baptist upbringing and his emotional difficulties and addictions still seem to be at an extreme. He was ambitious and charismatic to some, off-putting to others, deeply troubled and unwilling to be open with even some of his close friends.

He dominates the story because of his position in the community, but that shouldn’t diminish the work of the other activists who were vital to Atlanta’s queer community gaining critical mass — Linda Regnier, Gil Robison, Victor Host and Ray Kluka, among them.

Bill included, there’s a conventional idea of an ascetic activism that demands so much from its high priests. It’s different now; Twitter and Instagram and smartphones have enabled an activism that doesn’t draw itself like that. It creates an activism that can take infinite form. It can be someone like Bill Smith — and it can be someone like Darnella Frazier.

I’m curious about your thoughts on the future of the ‘gay bar’ in its various forms, from one as quiet as a blue collar den or as grand as the “showplace of the south,” the Sweet Gum Head. As gay bars begin to disappear across America in the face of rising property costs, gentrification, dating apps, and other environmental factors, what do you see happening to these spaces in the next 5-10 years?

So many of us have tried to predict the future of gay bars and failed. I still live near Cheshire Bridge Road, where the local leather bar’s been under threat by the promise of improved mass transportation. Which one gets privileged? Who gets to decide? Even some long-lived bars in places like San Francisco have closed. I used to think the best-known places in the biggest queer cities would always survive; now I’m not so sure.

I worry less about the specific spaces, though. We’ve become adept at moving some of that into the digital world; we’ve figured out how to build awareness and safety even in the thicket of awfulness that can surround it. But my memories come from the idea of a physically connected community, the sense of discovery that came from throwing open a bar door for the first time. I still believe in the magic of making something new from a simple glance, or a nod, or maybe even a wink.

A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drags, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution
By Martin Padgett
W.W. Norton & Company
June 1, 2021