Friday, May 15, 2009

Savannah: Remembering '69 on the 40th anniversary of Stonewall

Savannah Renaissance

Photo by Jack Miller

1969 was the year the straight brother of my high school girlfriend introduced me to the two gay men who would change my life forever. Savannah, like New York, had its own queer counter-culture that gathered in a Stonewall like club. The community was much smaller than New York, but in proportion to the population of Savannah, just as essential to the city's society, if not more so. The gathering spot for queens and queers was the Basement, a bar in the basement of the neglected Armory Building that later became the home of the Savannah College of Art and Design. The entrance, like a stairway descent into Caliban's den, still exists on the corner of Bull and Gordon streets.

In 1969 Savannah was arguably more tolerant of gays than New York. In any event, there were no bar raids like the famous one at Stonewall. Perhaps gays kept a lower profile, slipping into the basement bar and dancing away the night undisturbed. For young gays like myself, it was a daring adventure and an act of bravery to go down those steps. Yet once a year, around St. Patrick's Day when Savannah has its own Irish form of Mardi Gras, the Basement held what was known as the Sara Awards, the biggest gay event of the year. The bar gave out awards of all kinds to people who contributed to the community, as well as awards of infamy. The evening was a drag extravaganza and most of Savannah knew about it and loved it.

The Stonewall riots changed everything. Despite the rare street arrest for cross-dressing, drag queens in Savannah took on a brave new attitude. In 1969, personally, having sex with J. B., one of my two new gay friends, was a revolution and a revelation in itself. J.B. had a straight female roommate whose boyfriend often slept over just as I did. We all got up in the morning and had bacon and eggs together. And as my private life became one of acceptance, acceptance trickled down to Savannah from New York and the world at large. My second gay friend was a professor at what is now Armstrong Atlantic University. He was out and proud in 1969 and was a pioneer in promoting academic freedom to discuss gay writers, artists and gay studies, generally.

For Savannah the Sixties were a time of rebirth. The downtown historic district went through an astonishing revival. My professor friend restored a grand Italianate mansion on Gaston Street directly across from gorgeous Forsythe Park. The part that gays played in the restoration of Savannah was essential-- long before the arrival of the infamous Jim Williams of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Yet, the biggest change to gay life in Savannah was the anti-war, anti-Nixon, spread of the Hippie movement. My professor friend opened his basement to the one and only underground newspaper Savannah has ever had, Albion's Voice. My straight friend was arrested for selling it; and my father, a Savannah attorney, got the case dismissed. The law he was accused of violating simply didn't exist. The paper not only attacked the Viet Nam war and the pollution of Savannah's chemical and paper mills, it advocated acceptance of alternate lifestyles and of gays in particular. My gay lover wrote for the paper and introduced the ideas of Meher Baba, the Indian Guru who resided in South Carolina. Another writer for Albion's Voice on civil rights and Black activism was Otis S. Johnson, the man who is today Savannah's mayor.

By the early 1970s Savannah saw the opening of gay discos: first Woody's on River Street, which quickly became the most popular late night club in the city. It had a huge dance floor and an owner who created ever wilder scenes. When the bar was finally closed for drug arrests, Dr. Feelgood's opened on Drayton Street and quickly dominated Savannah's nights. Savannah was filled with Saturday Night Fever.

Not all was tolerance and gaiety, however. By now, everyone knows about the spectacular killing in the Mercer House. But before that there were two even more sensational murders in Savannah in the Seventies involving gay victims. The first was of one of the three owners of Dr. Feelgood's. He was found dead in his high rise apartment with a pink electric toothbrush inserted in his rectum. The accused pleaded insanity by reason of cocaine consumption and fear of a homosexual assault. His attorney called the apartment a "Den of Satan." The jury agreed and found the accused not guilty, even though he admitted killing the victim and setting his apartment on fire. He went to jail anyway because, by admitting he took cocaine, he was in violation of his parole for a prior drug arrest.

The second bizarre murder occurred after a Miss Savannah contest. One of the judges, a married man with children from Columbus Georgia, got into an altercation with an army ranger in an adult book store. The ranger and three of his fellow army buddies attacked the man outside the bookstore in a parking lot. They beat him to a pulp, his brains literally kicked out of his head by the army boots. The rangers then went to a doughnut shop where they were apprehended. The trial was completely mishandled. The first ranger was tried separately, and his defense was that the other rangers struck the fatal blows. When the other three were tried, they argued it was the first ranger who did all the beating. They were found guilty of simple battery. The key evidence that won over the jury included the rangers' boy scout badges, and a small bottle of amyl nitrite-- poppers-- that "proved" the victim was gay and had made a pass at the shocked and outraged ranger.

Savannah has had more than its share of murder and mayhem. My professor friend was brutally murdered in his home by two hustlers in 1986. They were apprehended, tried and sentenced to "life" in prison despite using the "afraid of a homosexual" defense. By 1991 my second gay friend was dead from AIDS. There is certainly a sense that gays are fine and a part of the city's cultural heritage. But the city prefers that gays know the place and time for being visible. Savannah is as eccentric a city as any in the nation. In the springtime, it is as beautiful as any city in the world. Today, Savannah has a robust gay community, several busy gay clubs, and a Pride celebration that draws thousands to see the likes of Ru Paul and other gay celebs. Gay life didn't begin in 1969, but it ascended the steps of the Basement Bar and never went underground again.

Jack Miller

Summer 2009


  1. Jack - I enjoyed the read, and your insights here..and shared it on my Facebook page. With my family being from Atlanta, one topic that I devote a lot of thought to is that black-and-white (pun not intended) stereotype of the south as this wicked, backwards place where the misinformed and ignorant live..and the perception of the north as this mecca of liberalism. I know that is not the view of my generation, but it is definitely something that my parents had to contend with and found it quite annoying, condescending, and inaccurate. It's interesting to me to read about how things were in the they were progressive in their own way, just perhaps in a different way.

    This issue has recently become even more relevant in my life -- as the company I now work for is run by a group of Italian-Americans in their 50s out of Long Island. I didnt grow up amongst hyphenated Americans -- and really disregarding a lot of the stereotypes of Italian-Americans, as just that...stereotypes. Having said that, with this particular group at least, I am shocked at the homophobia, machismo and sexism that these guys exhibit. Shocked to the extent that I really dont know how to react to it -- just because it's so alien to me...especially in the "liberal North."

  2. This essay is published in the Sept-Oct. issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide: