It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
To see drag live is to be both borne away and anchored in place. The more inhospitable the world is outside, the more utter the abandon one experiences indoors, transfixed before glittering queens doing splits on the beer-soaked floor, blowing kisses as the balcony rains dollar bills. Every Sunday night in Atlanta, Georgia, Burkhart's Pub offers this escape while also capturing the reality of the city outside: different groups with divergent values coiled together on one rickety floor, pressed to cooperate.
"The two rules of hosting a drag show are, don't tell the crowd to make noise and don't talk politics—but I do both," Brigitte Bidet says. The reigning "Best Drag Queen of ATL" hosts Burkhart's weekly drag show, Tossed Salad. "At these shows, there is so much love in the room that it's hard not to wonder what we could all do together, besides get drunk!"
That Bidet sees untapped political energy in her audiences indicates the communal spirit behind drag. Audiences have to participate: tip the queens, cheer raucously. As much as drag queens are obliged to leave it all on the dance floor, so too must audience members refrain from being withholding or passive observers.
Come Tuesday, November 7, Atlanta, the city Bidet calls a "refuge" for queer people from all over Georgia, will undergo mayoral and city council elections. For a city that often feels like the only friendly bar around for miles, new political management is not something Atlanta's queer community can afford to take lightly.
What seems to move Bakhtiari, in both drag and politics, is the testing of norms, the retooling of old scripts that have until now dictated what people can and cannot do together in a shared living space.
Since the 2016 presidential election, Bidet has rarely let a show go by without delivering a pithy reminder to vote. Two of Bidet's recent shows have been benefits for city council candidate Liliana Bakhtiari. Bidet and the 29-year-old, queer, Iranian-American candidate met through their work helping Atlanta's LGBTQ homeless youth. Doing outreach in a drag bar isn't just an afterthought for Bakhtiari: It's at the center of how she thinks about her political work.
Liliana Bakhtiari exudes warmth. When we meet for the first time in a crowded coffee shop, Bakhtiari embraces me. "I'm a hugger," she says, only slightly apologetic. A native of Edgewood, an East Atlanta neighborhood that currently emits an oily gleam of "trendiness," Bakhtiari grew up helping her immigrant father run his pharmacy. As a student at Georgia State University, Bakhtiari was drawn to international affairs and humanitarian work abroad. After graduating college and working throughout Southeast Asia, Bakhtiari decided to try out local public service.
When Bakhtiari talks about drag, her pale blue eyes widen, and her voice sinks in awe. Nearly a decade ago, "the queens of East Atlanta set the pace for what drag would look like—more of a performance art," she says. As we talk, she reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of the evolution of Atlanta drag. She says the scene in Atlanta started to shift away the pageantry tradition when Lavonia Elberton, child of a Baptist minister, spit up blood and vomited the contents of a trash bag on stage a few years back. When Atlanta native Violet Chachki appeared on (and eventually won) RuPaul's Drag Race in 2015, she was initially critiqued (called "a boy with a tape tuck") for exposing her nipples sans breast implants.
Hydrangea Heath, a queen from Savannah, has garnered attention for her character-driven performances as a bearded lady. Bakhtiari says thanks to the growing national profile of Atlanta's drag scene, drag is radicalizing across the board.
It's a pretty sophisticated take on drag, for a city council candidate—Bakhtiari is also the only candidate with an endorsement from Georgia Equality. What seems to move Bakhtiari, in both drag and politics, is the testing of norms, the retooling of old scripts that have until now dictated what people can and cannot do together in a shared living space. Pushing boundaries and building community at once is what she aims to do, along with one of her allies in "queering" Atlanta politics, Georgia State House Representative Park Cannon.
"I am very much in the business of queering politics, as a verb," Park Cannon says. "How can we abstract it and pull it apart?"
At a neighborhood association meeting in Sylvan Hills, a residential area in southwest Atlanta, Park Cannon stands up in a room filled with elderly African American women—board members of the association and one city councilwoman—white gay residents, suited business owners, affable cops, and a dreadlocked marijuana rights activist. She clicks her floral heels and says, "For those of you who may not know me, I am your representative in the state house."
Cannon, originally from Albany, Georgia, represents Atlanta's District 58 on Capitol Hill, which includes the historic Old Fourth Ward as well as neighborhoods like Sylvan Hills in southwest Atlanta. In the spring of 2016, Cannon won a runoff election for the seat, assuming office in February. She made headlines for being 24 years old, Black, and openly queer.
"Being a young queer Black woman, there is always a politic to navigate," she says. "Whether someone wants to disenfranchise you because of your identity, or disregard you because your identity is complex, you still have to walk tall."
Cannon walks with ramrod straight posture that allows her to command more space than one would expect from someone so petite. She's clearly used to rattling off her personal story: as a college student at Chapman University in California, students wrote "nigger" all over her dorm room door. "It wasn't the social climate I was hoping for," said Cannon in an interview with CNN. After the incident, Cannon transferred to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where she studied linguistics and gender studies.
As a representative, matters of language and identity are important to her.
"I care very much about going to a rally for DACA and speaking in Spanish only, giving space to other people's languages and taking the time to listen to them," she says. Cannon seems acutely aware of her relationship to other people, the idea that being a representative means physically representing others—embodying them even. "Other people are speaking through me," she says, more than once.
Later that evening, in the parking lot of the New Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, Cannon sits on top of my raincoat in my car and watches my fogging window as she speaks. "I am very much in the business of queering politics, as a verb," she says. "How can we abstract it and pull it apart?"
Her question is abstract, in a way, but the work is real. Cannon sits on the Georgia State House Small Business Committee, along with the first openly gay male to serve as an elected state representative in Georgia, a fellow queer millennial named Sam Park. When Cannon first came into office, she stepped into the heat of the fight over House Bill 757, the "Free Exercise Protection Act," which would have allowed privately-owned businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ customers.
"The way things are institutionalized in the South has led to an inability to promote our efforts to combat white supremacy and discrimination," says Cannon. She says many of the South's social and activist networks are organized along old, sometimes exclusionary lines. "You go to church and you want to be your full self, but you can't, because the Southern Black Baptist church has this history of being a center for the fight for civil rights in the South."
Cannon has a wry, controlled way of speaking, so it takes a minute to fully register what she means. "When you come to church you're looking for faith and help — how are we really uplifting our communities?"
Cannon is also trying to change legislation surrounding HIV in Georgia. She says the Georgia state code on HIV testing uses stigmatizing language to discuss the recipients of positive test results, as opposed to those who test negative. Cannon recently co-sponsored House Bill 454 to get the Georgia Department of Public Health to provide more comprehensive information on HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment to people upon receiving results from an HIV test. The department will also be required to make this information publicly available on their website, an improvement from simple instructions to "use a condom."
"We know people can happily and healthily live with AIDS — we need to move away from an ideology of fear and uncertainty to move closer to scientific prowess," Cannon says.
Liliana Bakhtiari has focused much of her campaign on engaging newly hopeful, newly hungry voters. "The average donation among all my campaign contributors is $60," she told me proudly at the Big Tree, an art and film exhibition venue. At a fundraiser called "Dear Atlanta," a melee of both rosy-cheeked and grizzled Southern hipsters gathered to sip wine out of plastic cups in support of Bakhtiari and her partner, Kristina, who performed an interpretive dance alongside a poetry reading. Outside in the backyard, a black-clad troupe of performers known as Nameless spun flaming batons in pinwheels. Eventually, Liliana took the floor to talk about the fate of the arts in the city.
"We have to take back our community spaces." Art is what builds and saves this city, she said, but like so much of what makes Atlanta vital, the arts have been politically sidelined and defunded. Bakhtiari also condemned the lack of local political action in favor of the city's most vulnerable: the homeless, the mentally ill and drug-addicted, and the "majority of people making $25,000 or under a year who cannot afford to live within Atlanta city limits anymore…affordability issues in the city, driven by high land costs, are worsening, but there is nonetheless a sheer lack of political will when it comes to housing."
The outlay of projects currently underway to address affordability in Atlanta are a major campaign issue. Proposed in 1999, the now-infamous Beltline promised an innovative way to link Atlanta's multiple city neighborhoods with a transit system along old railway corridors that run around the city in a loop. The plan came with promises of affordable housing, revitalization, and sustainability. Over the years, however, the Beltline acquired flashier and more high-end development that catered more to Atlanta's growing population of wealthy yuppies than its existing population living below the poverty line.
"We have to work doubly hard to make the numbers add up to make affordable housing viable for developers," Bakhtiari said. She has voiced support for initiatives like mandatory inclusionary zoning practices for property sales, as well as commercial approaches like letting developments build on public transit lines without adding giant parking lots.
Park Cannon is only in her first full year of working in the state house, and Liliana Bakhtiari is working against steep odds to unseat a 16-year incumbent.
But Brigitte Bidet says Atlanta's queer community is full of people that are coming from all over Georgia to invest their hope in this city, and the drag queen thinks these are the people who will one day run the South.
"I've traveled to Europe, and there, you can use your city—there are bakeries and pharmacies and local banks all walkable on the block. It's not blocks of apartments, series of hamster cages," Bidet says. "I wish developers would think about making the city more usable."
All the times I have driven down I-85, to go to drag shows in my favorite part of town, meet friends who live where they can afford to, and interview candidates in their various districts, I have felt like a tourist, unable to really experience Atlanta as an integrated, connected home. Bidet's frustration speaks to me: our transit lines make no sense, our highways are nightmarishly clogged, and little of the city is walkable. It all leads to a city full of people who don't know each other. Everyone tunnels into their worn, daily routes, and Atlanta residents rarely find themselves stumbling into new areas on their ways home from work or school.
Bidet, like me, wants the city to be a comfortable home to those who already inhabit it—those who desperately need it to work for them rather than against them. It is a desire that requires an eye sensitive to the many invisible barriers that construct a limited, brochure-glossed image of Atlanta. Atlanta is full of people who don't know their neighbors—or their local drag queens. Bidet hopes Liliana Bakhtiari can help change that.
"Queerness in politics—I love it," Brigitte quips. "I wish there was more."