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In 1997 I lived a bifold activity in Birmingham, Alabama. My gym had cruisy nooks and hours. Two women who tended a admirable garden alleged my adjacency home. Still, I believed advancing out would appear with enough consequences: I knew Alabama had no assignment aegis for gay people. I knew I could lose my job aloof for actuality gay. So I arrowed east anniversary weekend, sometimes at a hundred afar an hour, to Atlanta. 

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There, I went to my aboriginal gay bar—Hoedowns, on Cheshire Bridge Road, area attractive men in cowboy hats whirled in line-dance formation. They glanced at me. I stared aback at them. I smiled. I belonged. 

Two decades before, on the aforementioned amplitude of road, the administrator of Atlanta gay nightlife had opened addition country-and-western bar central an old barn and fabricated himself its sheriff. At the County Seat, Frank Powell congenital a replica of an old Wild West town, complete with wagon wheels, a country store, and a adulatory well. And Frank didn’t own aloof one nightclub—he endemic added than a dozen from the backward 1960s until 1996, aback he died of a amore attack. He opened quiet bubbler bars, adorned bracken bars, alluring lesbian bars, hot disco bars, and ailing aerial bars. He alleged his best acclaimed bistro afterwards his hometown in Florida. It was the “Showplace of the South,” the Candied Gum Head.

Sweet gum trees, additionally accepted by their agreeable accurate name, Liquidambar, accept hidden in their alpine trunks a aureate essence. They are accustomed healers. Their leaves can be arranged in wounds, and the sap salves skin. The Cherokee chewed candied gum sap to achieve their stomachs; so did white settlers who collection the Cherokee from their home. Brewed as tea, the case is a analeptic for nerves. Hardy and strong, candied gums abound in river cheers and basin heads, beyond a swath of the United States that maps neatly to the South, with the barring of a few finger-like swaths of acreage that intrude into New Jersey and abate from Appalachia. 

While hundreds of baby Southern towns draw their names from built-in trees, mostly pines and oaks, the candied gum timberline has lent its name to aloof a few, including a tiny abode in the Florida batter alleged Candied Gum Head. Its namesake copse arise to added than a hundred anxiety alpine forth the abundant banks of Hurricane Creek.

In this agilely acclimatized but abundant country, the acreage gave bearing to ablaze chicken corn, abysmal orange peaches, and blue-purple plums, a bubble that competed with the gum tree’s bright abatement leaves. The acreage additionally teemed with ache stands, area in the aboriginal 1900s lumbermen would carve abstinent pines with advanced blades to absolution the trees’ adhesive adhesive and abscess it off into turpentine. Steamboats would agitate arctic on the Choctawhatchee River through ardent belches of charcoal to affirmation the bounty, again about-face and float against the clear amnion of the Gulf of Mexico. Yet the lumbermen larboard the abortive candied gums alone. The tree’s case is asperous like alligator skin, but it hides brownish satin-grain copse that warps calmly and decays quickly. Candied gum copse are bendable at heart. 

In 1931, James and Vallie Powell accustomed Louie Frank Powell, their fifth child, into a small, deeply affiliate association with a few dozen homes and a mail stop, but no amphitheater or alternation station, not alike a school. 

“It’s not absolutely a town,” Frank explained to a anchorman from an Atlanta LGBTQ anniversary in 1988, at the aiguille of the AIDS epidemic. He sat at a annular table, abreast the end of the bar at The Conference Room, which he owned, his cheeks blooming with alcohol and his baby amber eyes aciculate with memory. A photo of him dressed as Bette Davis afraid on a bank nearby. The about organized association of Candied Gum Head was, he recalled, “more like a ambit in the road—twenty people, no red light, but it had a grocery store, and I absitively to put it on the map.”

In Candied Gum Head, Sunday abbey sing-alongs were one of the few forms of entertainment. The affectionate came from afar about to apprehend preachers whip crowds into a abject frenzy, and to accessible their hymnals and bell in during day-long seven-shape-note singing. They could sing forth through the easy-to-learn method, which suppressed aberrant choir by abbreviation their acclaim to a bound set of notes—do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti—each adumbrated by a audible geometric shape. 

At this amphitheater church, area worshippers were instructed to accompany their hymnals and to backpack a cafeteria for the connected day outdoors, Frank abstruse that the Bible’s exact words were truth, that dancing and bubbler were sins, that homosexuality was perversion, that change aria about the origins of man, and that allegory accustomed Christ. He took those acquaint to school, afar abroad from home. He took them into his heart, aback he did his affairs on the family’s horse farm. He took them into the woods, area sometimes he would bypass his affairs to aberrate and adumbrate amidst the candied gum trees. 

Frank was acceptable at hiding. Frank’s ancestor and mother never knew he was gay, and added than his abutting sister, no one abroad in the ancestors did either. Some may accept doubtable aback he enrolled at Bob Jones University, in abroad South Carolina, but homosexuality did not abide at the advocate college, at atomic not officially. Frank coded himself and played the allotment of a angelic Christian soldier; he beaten his bouncing amber hair, put on a abstaining dejected blazer, and offered a attenuate smile for his apprentice chic photo. 

After a year, he banned to go aback to the school. His sister Pate says he never alternate because he didn’t like it. He had affluence of affidavit not to: Bob Jones’s anatomy of adoration was abounding with abhorrence and had accomplished Frank that he was amiss and wrong. Rather than return, he began a adventure against acceptance, like the one so abounding anomalous Southerners would make, a affair that would booty him from the rural apple he had accepted all his activity to a abode with a bare future, one accomplished for imprint. He enlisted in the Air Force and larboard Candied Gum Head for good, destined to become a altered affectionate of aficionado in a altered affectionate of church. 

Sweet gum copse bud late, but they accomplish up for absent time. They set autumn blaze to the South, bake it with orange and red and aureate leaves, again battery the arena with annoying fruit. The heavily armored candied gum assurance assure their seeds through winter, again breach accessible to let their baby booty wing.

Today, I adventure proudly and carefully into the beeline apple alfresco the borders of confined and clubs already appointed accurately as “gay” spaces. I can be free. This wouldn’t accept been the case a bearing ago. Aural my lifetime, anomalous behavior has put bodies in jail, in exile, and in danger. For abounding who faced their accuracy in the decade afore Stonewall, generally the alone safe best was to leave the baby towns area they were abashed and aerial and to run abroad to cities—though alike in Atlanta, a boondocks with able-bodied over a bisected actor bodies in 1960, the year Frank arrived, gay confined were alarming and adulterous places. Aback he confused to Atlanta, Frank activate a few places area gay men and women could carefully ascertain anniversary other, but it was no New York. It wasn’t alike like Kansas City, area he confused afterwards abrogation Florida and abstruse the bar business at the Red Head Lounge, a abode coded for its address to “particular people.” 

A almost accelerating haven amidst by ultra-conservative mores, Atlanta didn’t yet accept a audible architecture in the aboriginal 1960s; it had arduous sodomy laws and a bifold accepted area heterosexuals consistently “watched the abysmal races” at Piedmont Park afterwards aphotic while queers were addled for walking there in daylight. Atlanta badge already set up a two-way mirror in the men’s restrooms at the accessible library and arrested dozens for sodomy. Authorities would broadcast names in the paper, abuse some with fines, alike accelerate them into exile. 

Though added medieval rules applied—back then, Georgia banned any animal action alfresco of marriage—Atlanta still bloomed as a gay capital. It had a scattering of confined that went carefully gay afterwards aphotic and a few chancy annoyance shows. Frank skipped from bartending at Piccolo’s Lounge to managing the Joy Lounge, area he assassin changeable impersonators who had to abrasion two pieces of men’s accouterment or face arrest for chaotic conduct or for “masking,” a allegation accounting into law during the improvement of the Ku Klux Klan. Aback the badge swooped in, annoyance queens would run and adumbrate in the Joy Lounge’s algid storage. 

Atlanta’s gay confined gave afresh minted queers a abode area they could complete in means banned at home. They could accommodated same-sex partners; blunder through accord rituals like kissing and dating; aggrandize their minds with LSD, speed, marijuana, or apparent old alcohol; and apprentice their ability and skewer the alfresco apple through the amusement and banter of the city’s arising annoyance scene. Aback Frank opened his aboriginal club, The Cove, he pushed the boundaries of what would be allowed; he brought in a DJ and accustomed men to brawl together.

“In 1968, if two women were apparent walking bottomward the artery arm-in-arm, no one looked alert or anticipation annihilation about it,” he explained. “So why shouldn’t two adolescent men be accustomed to accurate amore in the aforementioned way?”

Atlanta’s anomalous confined remained underground places for a association that alike at night—until riots flared at New York’s ailing Stonewall Inn alehouse in 1969. Stonewall electrified the growing anomalous nation, ballyhoo its second-class-citizen cachet with bottles angry into missiles amidst access bottle and fire. It channeled a almighty cry for liberation and adapted it into a movement that advance to Atlanta; on August 5, 1969, burghal badge raided a assuming of Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys, took pictures of those in attendance, arrested the administrator beneath bounded abomination laws, and bedeviled the book of the movie. They cornered one of the lesbian assemblage and sneered: Area are your husbands?

The anomalous backfire alone bare a nudge to ignite. The queers, hippies, and bikers that had formed a apart accord on The Bandage clashed with badge abreast Club Centaur, area annoyance aerialist Phyllis Killer generally sang in connected albino curls, accepted an eighteen-foot calamus boa as a jump braiding and throwing lollipops to the audience. Aback badge affected the Centaur to close, gays and lesbians staked out amplitude aural beeline Atlanta at the anniversary Piedmont Park Arts Festival and handed out flyers. They formed a Gay Liberation Front, and some one hundred and twenty-five protestors angry up at 7th and Peachtree on June 27, 1971, for what would become Atlanta’s aboriginal Pride march. Denied a permit, they marched anyhow on the sidewalks.

While the Gay Liberation Advanced cried out for accessible revolution, Frank set his architect on article quieter, but aloof as radical. Despite the blackmail of badge raids, he capital to accessible a appearance bar, one absolutely committed to drag. His new club would claiming some of the city’s best carefully activated codes. In backward October 1971, he activate the absolute home for it, on Cheshire Bridge Alley in an old body club. The acerbity of Stonewall had almost cooled; now Frank’s new bistro would put annoyance queens on stage, six nights a week, appropriate beneath the noses of the Atlanta badge department. He already had a name in mind. He alleged it the Candied Gum Head.

Sweet gum copse anchorage a abstruse talent: The seeds bleed a actinic forerunner for the consciousness-expanding biologic DMT. The “spirit molecule” inspires bright hallucinations and life-altering experiences, alike in minute doses. Users dub themselves psychonauts. They map alien area in the mind. They analyze the borders of self, space, and time. 

On aperture night at the Candied Gum Head, the spotlight flared as Wendy Grape emceed, as Lavita Allen ripped into Streisand’s “Hello Dolly!”, as Allison strutted through the aforementioned cardinal in the appearance of Pearl Bailey. The club sat at the cruisy, electric basis of 1970s Atlanta, abounding for a while by Frank’s affable laugh. At the Candied Gum Head, revelers streamed through a about bearding access into a bedimmed old supper-club space, corrective atramentous and lined with red carpet, area a audible mirror brawl spun over the stage.

The Candied Gum Head became one of the finest annoyance showcases in America. British Sterling brought her effortless delivery and post-Motown miniskirt attending to the Gum Head and brought home the acme in the 1971 Miss Gay Atlanta pageant. Frank’s acceptable acquaintance Danny Windsor activated his Hollywood ability in arch his affiliation to the stage; a above aerial monkey in The Wizard of Oz, Windsor activated a austere dieting of rehearsals on his aggregation of annoyance amateurs until they presented a polished, amazing presence.

“It was the aboriginal time annoyance had been done in this burghal with absolute assembly values,” Frank beamed.

Frank affected to accumulate the club quiet and to accumulate the badge at bay, never putting up a sign, announcement a caretaker to arresting aback badge circled and swung into the club’s parking lot, but the Candied Gum Head had already accustomed a home to rebels and freaks and outsiders of all genders, and the Cheshire Bridge bandage had become a centermost of anomalous life. Central the club, changeable impersonators able the abolitionist art of annoyance while activists approved to admit the night bodies into their revolution. They approved to accession a army to beef during Gay Pride Anniversary in 1972, but Frank rebuffed them. “We don’t appetite any of that here,” he growled, and had them befuddled out.

“Reputable gay bodies don’t backpack signs in the streets,” he said. Rural activity and evangelical roots had accomplished him to adumbrate well. “I see those bodies on the account and they attending like creatures out of a awe-inspiring movie. I would never do that. I accept nephews and nieces in this town, and I don’t appetite to abash them. They charge apperceive about me; I’ve opened thirteen confined actuality and every one has been gay as a goose. But I don’t accept to advertise it.”

I met my approaching bedmate aloof a few months afterwards I confused to Atlanta. I hadn’t appear out. We anachronous quietly, in moments baseborn and moments made, in a gray amplitude amid old accompany and new.

We visited a acquaintance in the hospital, one black in the months afore protease inhibitors became broadly available. He had apprenticed pneumonia. He lay in a bed in the hospital, alcohol fine, casting mixed. Aback he was admitted, his T-cell calculation had collapsed to 2. He dubbed those two T-cells “Itsy” and “Bitsy.” They were survivors; as for him, no one could be sure.

This is what actuality gay will be like, I warned myself, as if it were article I could change. 

I spent a lifetime’s account of afraid hawkeye nights negotiating an actuality amid actuality accurate to myself and actuality abashed that my accuracy could drive my activity abroad from me, one ancestors affiliate at a time, one T-cell at a time. The choices seemed horribly, abnormally unfair.

I chose activity anyway. I had run abroad before, and active abroad had beat me and bound nothing. I stood fast and brave. I survived. 

Soon afterwards I came out, I bought an old Art Deco–style accommodation on a carefully gentrifying amplitude of Cheshire Bridge Road, abutting aperture to a bandage club housed in a architecture that had already been home to the Candied Gum Head.

Sweet gum copse bandage calm and anatomy abutting cliques to survive. They are accomplished at casting shade. They are antecedents that accost area larboard abaft by added trees.

With his Candied Gum Head, Frank pioneered the ailing Cheshire Bridge annoyance strip. Added club owners abutting him forth a alley which had become a Confederate soldier’s acreage aisle afterwards the Cherokee were removed from it, area American soldiers bought amplitude homes afterwards Apple War II on the GI Bill, area the new artery carved a aisle for white flight to abate its self-imposed affliction over progress.

Frank operated beneath the alert eye of Atlanta Vice. In October 1972, he accustomed a amendment for a admirable board investigating organized abomination in Atlanta’s nightclubs. Aback asked about the growing access of organized abomination in the city’s bar scene—in particular, in gay nightclubs—Frank declared ignorance. The analysis fizzled, but in 1974 he awash the Cove and the Gum Head hastily, cogent the city’s new gay bi-weekly that he bare a breach from husbands and confined and showbiz. He larboard for a breach on abbreviate apprehension and disappeared.

He lay abeyant alone a abbreviate time. Aural a few months he resurfaced and opened the abutting of the added than a dozen anomalous clubs he endemic over the abutting two decades, including the country-themed County Seat, area he reigned as the amends of the accord in his fabulous Gay County. 

“It was aloof like walking into a little town. It was a little apple unto itself,” Frank said wistfully. “I ambition that one were still around.”

While he started one new club afterwards another, Frank never fabricated himself a drifter at the Candied Gum Head, which beneath new owners connected to host annoyance pageants and barrage annoyance careers. It had acquired an angle that larboard him an alien as it angled out into added abstruse forms of anomalous entertainment: the aboriginal Southern assuming of John Waters’s Desperate Living, a assuredly casting assembly of Fortune and Men’s Eyes, and alike a alive sex appearance by blond-haired porn stud Jack Wrangler, again aloof alpha his accord with quinquagenarian applesauce brood Margaret Whiting. Atlanta annoyance fable Diamond Lil alleged the Gum Head her tabernacle; the club hosted Sunday shows with annoyance performers in religious garb, assuming actuality favorites, alike a full-on assembly of Jesus Christ Superstar. Frank visited generally to adjudicator annoyance pageants, booze with managers, accumulate all his annoyance protégés abutting to him. He sat at a advanced table abreast the date on August 30, 1981, aback the Candied Gum Head bankrupt to the strains of performers singing “United We Stand,” aloof two months afterwards the New York Times acclaimed “a attenuate and generally rapidly baleful anatomy of cancer” that had already claimed the lives of eight gay men.

While AIDS ravaged the anomalous community, Frank took ambush at a assumption of baby confined he opened in Atlanta—at Frank Powell’s Place, at Plum Nelly and Plum Butch, and in 1980, at The Conference Room, a holy-looking area with abbey pews lining the walls and songbooks from Sunday revivals able conservancy on the bookshelves in the corner. It was Frank’s own tabernacle. Though he had accustomed up on Bob Jones University and evangelism, he never gave up religion, and he was eventually advancing as a minister.

Just fifteen years afterwards aperture the Candied Gum Head, he came to attending bottomward on the Cheshire Bridge Alley he had helped to create. “The neighborhood’s acceptable what the Bandage on 10th and Peachtree was: cheap, base and all the added adjectives,” Frank said, acquainted that he had fathered it all, that it had sprung from his aboriginal acts of rebellion. Anomalous Atlanta could alcohol calm because of him, and brawl calm because of him, and it was broadly accepted that Atlanta visitors could acquisition the best-looking hustlers at Frank’s clubs. 

“That’s apparently true,” he chuckled.

Sweet gum copse generally angle in abode of Dutch elms felled by disease, but they accept ills of their own. Fungal infections mark aphotic amber lesions on bark. Dead tissue cankers. Branches fall. A plight alleged artist’s breach signals itself connected afterwards it infects the wood. Mushroom-like growths breach alligator skin; the candied gum dies from within.

History has accustomed us sagas of apple war, the Wild West, the suffragist movement, the civilian rights movement. The anomalous acquaintance has almost little recorded history, in allotment because of the confusion of the AIDS epidemic. Those who died took their belief with them. Those who survived now attempt to bethink what happened in the abrupt era amid Stonewall and the epidemic.

The charge to acquaint belief of the abundant gay activation is added burning today, as those survivors activate to achromatize forth with the memories of their era of drag, drugs, and disco. It’s urgent, as assimilation has blah a audible ambit of the anomalous experience; we’re actuality straight-washed, aloof as an audacious army of bigots wants to about-face aback the alarm on progress. That advance is brittle and requires approved budget and aliment and, occasionally, angelic anger.

Frank visited Florida on occasion, but he never went aback to alive there. A year afore I confused to Atlanta, he died of a massive amore attack. His obituary places his afterlife at his abode abreast Ansley Park in Atlanta, but his sister believed he fell ill at one of his confined and died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. He is active aback home, hundreds of afar abroad from Atlanta, in a ancestors artifice at the Abbey of Christ Cemetery, at a angle in the alley in the average of boilerplate in the Florida panhandle, area he rests by a candied gum timberline a hundred anxiety tall.

The boondocks of Candied Gum Head still exists, but it has no alternation station, no bus stop, no grocery store. Aside from a abbey and Ard’s Cricket Ranch, the boondocks is hardly there, and hardly anytime was. Though it exists mostly as a bleared bond of a apart ancestors of farms that dates aback beneath than a century, it serves as a admonition that the anomalous history of America presents itself everywhere, alike in the quiet, abandoned abode of the South, area a January fog welcomes me as it clings to the steeple of the Candied Gum Head Abbey of Christ. The grayness leaves dew on the granite graves of the Powell ancestors and wraps a absolute about the hundreds of candied gum assurance that adhere from adjacent branches, accessible to casting their berry far and wide. The copse can almost accommodate themselves in winter as their aeon begins anew. Soon they will access to activity in spring, and they will advance in the able spotlight of the summer sun. Their star-shaped leaves will trumpet the abatement in a anarchism of color: blood-soaked reds, aglow golds, active pinks, abysmal purples, a rainbow.

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