Queering the South: Martin Padgett’s A Night at the Sweet Gum Head
A vibrant and vital social history of a conservative city’s role in the national fight for LGBTQ+ equality, Martin Padgett’s A Night at the Sweet Gum Head will surely stand the test of time. It is a bold work, one which intimately documents the lives that brought the queer South into being in the 1970s. In its detail, depth, and humanity, the book fits comfortably alongside Randy Shilts’s The Mayor of Castro Street, George Chauncey’s Gay New York, and Eric Cervini’s The Deviant’s War.
While histories of gay meccas like San Francisco and New York have shaped much of America’s understanding of LGBTQ+ life and its struggles, Padgett reminds readers that the story of equal rights also was written in more challenging, less progressive places like Atlanta, just as the city started to define itself as the capital of the New South.
It was there that LGBTQ+ people met a greater resistance to change, and where the work for change had to be less open, more subversive. That work happened, in many ways, through the quiet back channels of Atlanta’s City Hall and through the political act of drag as it was presented at “the Showplace of the South,” the Sweet Gum Head club. Padgett’s telling weaves these two worlds, their characters never quite in sync, to share a fuller view of how one of America’s largest gay centers sprouted from a sleepy agricultural town on the rise.
With meticulous detail, Padgett merges the election of Atlanta’s first Black mayor, the extraordinary Maynard Jackson, with the earliest days of the newly formed Georgia Gay Liberation Front. He intersects race and queer life to show an important truth: As with the riots at New York’s Stonewall Inn, the push for equality in the Deep South started with people of color, transgender people, and drag queens. They were the ones who most deeply understood the degradation of inequality and the impact of injustice, who most urgently needed change.
As with the riots at New York’s Stonewall Inn, the push for equality in the Deep South started with people of color, transgender people, and drag queens. They were the ones who most deeply understood the degradation of inequality and the impact of injustice, who most urgently needed change.
Utilizing a cast of questionable characters—con artists, gangsters, arsonists, and murderers—Padgett makes clear that only by navigating the underworld, the shadows of night, would LGBTQ+ people ever be able to see the light of day as full citizens in Atlanta’s beloved Piedmont Park, the present-day centerpiece of the city’s annual Pride celebrations. He details how 2 AM drag shows held influence in shaping Atlanta’s gay community as much as 2 PM meetings with politicians did. Rather than proselytize, the author simply proves the point: A mere handful of brave people with little to lose turned Atlanta into a more welcoming place for all queers. There was no surge of support, as in New York after Stonewall; as few as 10 people gathered to make a plan and hand out flyers to educate the public about LGBTQ+ people. In so doing, they added to the work of elected officials and economic councils in making sure the capital of the New South also would be a queer capital.
All this played out while Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter vehemently denounced gay people as “sinners,” in accordance with his Southern Baptist beliefs, and outlawed lesbianism with a 20-year prison sentence attached. While Carter’s beliefs and support would change during and after his service as the nation’s 39th president, he was among the major barriers to equality in his home state. Padgett tells these truths—the in-depth details—of the fight for equality with the precision of an investigative journalist. While the book may not have the storytelling panache of Cervini’s magnificent study, it stands equal in its rigorous reporting.
Throughout the political maneuvers, readers follow each moment of the rise of Atlanta’s famous drag scene, including the creation and public adoration of the legendary queen Rachel Wells and, naturally, the iconic RuPaul. The acceptance and celebration of drag, of various gender expressions, that today influence large swaths of American pop culture, grew directly out of Atlanta. In this way, the story Padgett tells of Atlanta is also the start of the story of the queering of the nation. It should be no surprise that Lil Nas X, the out, gay superstar, also hails from the city “too busy to hate.” His subversively authentic sexuality is, at least in part, a legacy born in his hometown.
The stories driving A Night at the Sweet Gum Head have a subtext because we know every moment is hurtling toward backlash: Anita Bryant, Ronald Reagan, and the AIDS plague. Padgett allows us to enter a world—to remember one, fondly—before the pall of religious extremism and omnipresent death came to define much of the gay experience. Padgett has captured a difficult decade, but one that also was defined by hope and possibility. Fifty years on, with same-sex marriage legal, HIV treatable, and PrEP available, A Night at the Sweet Gum Head can serve as both history book and history lesson, and perhaps help unlock ways to reignite queer possibilities. It is a look back that can now help LGBTQ+ communities look forward.
Still, for all its impressive substance and strength, the book could be stronger, and in simple ways. Its heavy linearity—an uninterrupted chronology of a decade of scenes by date—can feel plodding and sluggish at times. Opening the book with a chapter closer to its middle—one set in 1975, titled “Burt Reynolds,” for example—would give readers greater grounding on just how important and popular the Sweet Gum Head was. And it would have allowed Padgett both to flashback and move forward in more elegant and easier ways when needed. This important context would also provide a deeper understanding of why this long-lost club mattered and deserves such an otherwise well-structured book:
On weekends, people crushed to get into the club, built to seat only about three hundred people. The Gum Head had become an A-list event in a B-list town, a magnet for visiting celebrities, who themselves became transmitters of gay culture. It attracted pop star Melissa Manchester. ... Karen Valentine, fresh from a national TV series, stumbled in and begged to perform as Tammy Wynette. ... The flamboyant pianist Liberace waltzed in grandly and had only moments before a performer fired at him point-blank: “So cut the crap. Are you gay?” He vanished in a flourish of his trademark cape.
Among the regulars, comedian Paul Lynde took a seat at the front of the stage.
And, (not) surprisingly, Burt Reynolds visited to fawning crowds.
With so many specific locations across Atlanta used as settings for this engaging history, a simple map pinpointing City Hall, The Strip, Midtown, Piedmont Park, Cheshire Bridge Road, and, of course, the titular club, would have been a nice touch, too. After all, A Night at the Sweet Gum Head is not just the social history of a group of people. It is the social history of a place—of places—now lost to the hoped-for progress it so carefully documents.
Patrick Davis writes poetry, essays, and literary criticism, and is the publisher of Unbound Edition Press. His most recent work is featured or forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Great River Review, Loveland Quarterly, Provincetown Arts, and The Tunnel at 25. He can be followed or reached @PressUnbound or @PatrickDavisATL on Twitter.