Skip to Main Content
Midtown News Center

Queer Midtown: Where Drag's Roots Run Deep

A series highlighting LGBTQ+ history and how it has shaped the spirit of Midtown Atlanta.


Pictured R: Lily White (Credit: Eldredge Atlanta)


“We are born naked, and the rest is drag” is one of the most famous quotes attributed to RuPaul Charles, AKA RuPaul, who once lived in Midtown.

Bill Smith (Credit: Georgia State University Archives)

RuPaul moved to Atlanta as a teen in 1975 at arguably one of the most prolific and transformative times in Atlanta queer history/herstory. The year prior, Bill Smith - Atlanta’s version of Harvey Milk - founded The Barb, the state’s first gay newspaper. The year 1975 was when Backstreet – Midtown’s version of the legendary Studio 54 night club – opened its doors on Peachtree Street. And just a year after that, the Atlanta Gay Center opened its doors in Midtown.

Atlanta in the 1970’s was the heart of the LGBTQ+ movement in the Southeast. And it was home to some of the most iconic drag performers such as Rachel Wells, Lily White, Diamond Lil, Miss Tina Devore, and the legends themselves, Lena Lust and Charlie Brown.

Preserving an Important Facet of LGBTQ+ History as the Ground Continues to Change

The queer history of Atlanta is finally getting the respect that it deserves, as more organizations and educational institutions, including the City of Atlanta and Georgia State University, work to carry forward the stories of how queer people of color, females, trans individuals, and performance artists have positively impacted the city.

The recently released Atlanta LGBTQ Historic Context Statement - a joint effort by the City of Atlanta in partnership with Historic Atlanta, and Georgia Department of Community Affairs Historic Preservation Division - documents many of the city’s historic locations, where the gay community congregated and was entertained by drag shows. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to know about the story of Atlanta's rise as a place for counterculture. Sadly, many of these venerable places have been lost to commercial and residential development in rapidly densifying Midtown.

Pride has always been a drag.

In addition to many of these historic sites, we have also lost many of the drag performers who played such a huge role in our history. Richard Eldridge wrote a piece in 2021 to honor the passing of legendary drag performer Lily White. White, along with fellow drag performers Kitty Litter and Alvina LaVerne, formed a trio known as the Grease Sisters, a comedic drag act that specialized in spotlighting and spoofing female singing trios. Among their earliest high profile early gigs was the 1972 Atlanta Gay Pride Celebration that was covered in the legendary publication that spotlighted Atlanta's alternative scene, The Great Speckled Bird.

Atlanta drag performers have been and remain as varied as the city itself, and given our rich African-American history, it is not surprising that African-American performers have also been on the forefront of this art form.

If you have been fortunate to visit Blake’s on the Park, or seen her perform live at the Eagle in Charlie Brown’s XXX Rated Cougars, the incomparable Lena Lust is Atlanta drag royalty.

According to a 2010 interview conducted by Jackson Reeves in Atlanta Magazine, Lust described the Atlanta drag scene and what's changed:

“When I moved here in ’77, the drag scene in Atlanta was totally different," Lust said in the article. "We had a lot more clubs for the entertainers to perform at. We had probably four major clubs that had full-scale productions. From Downtown, probably near the Hyatt Regency and [Ritz] Carlton, all the way to Fourteenth Street, there was nothing but clubs, and we had a lot of gay clubs up and down that strip up to Fourteenth Street ... The city was quite colorful back then. The gay community for the most part was taking over Midtown and spruced it up and beautified the place a little bit. The hippies, more or less, were moving out ... And the gay community took it over. And I have seen so much change in Midtown alone. I’ve lived in the same apartment personally for twenty-two years, and I’ve seen a lot change around it in ... Midtown, which is really the central point of the gay community...”

Walking Proudly into Illusions

During this same Atlanta Magazine interview, Lust was asked about the best bar where she performed. For her, it was the legendary Illusions which once stood on the corner of Peachtree and 10th Street, next to what is now the 10th Street Park. And according to the Rev. Duncan Teague, if you were black and queer in the 1980s, then Illusions was the place to be.

The Rev. Duncan Teague

Teague ventured into Illusions upon his first visit to Atlanta in 1984, and it left an impression.

“We did not enter through the side or back, but on Peachtree Street," he said. "I was no longer in a place where being in such an establishment was not supported in some huge way by this city." Teague was encouraged by his cousin, an Atlanta resident, that this was the place for Black gay men to call home. And he has called Atlanta his home ever since.

The Show Must Go On

Drag shows, venues and artists remain a crucial part of our queer existence and history. While the number of places to see drag performances has dwindled during this phase of Atlanta's growth, Midtown is still the heartbeat of LGBTQ+ Atlanta, and the home of Atlanta Pride.

About the Author

Jason Arnold marched in his first Atlanta Pride Parade in 1992 and has attended, almost without fail, every Pride Parade since. He calls Midtown home during his 9-5 life and proudly crosses the rainbow crosswalk each morning to get his iced coffee.

Share This