Celebrating pride: how a raid on a movie theater helped propel Atlanta’s gay rights movement

ATLANTA — As Atlanta celebrates Pride Week, we’re taking a look back on the fight for equal rights for Georgia’s LGBTQ+ community.

In Atlanta, that fight dates back to the late 1960s, when police raided a movie theater at Ansley Mall for showing a movie thought to be provocative.

According to one woman who was there that night in 1969, it became the tipping point of a movement that changed everything.

Abby Drue was one of several people who were looking forward to seeing the Andy Warhol movie called “The Lonesome Cowboys.” At the time, it was described as a homoerotic underground comedy.

“To see his film here in Atlanta … (it was) a big deal. Like, ‘Oh my God,’ that film was in at the Modern in New York.”

The film was such a big deal that its content attracted the attention of protesters who had been clashing with the growing gay population.

“What they saw were two cowboy, gay-like men in the film kissing one another,” Drue said.

“Which, for 50 years ago, was scandalous,” Channel 2′s Jorge Estevez told Drue.

“Terribly scandalous in one sense,” Drue said. “But this was not a porno film.”

Fifteen minutes into the film, it stopped. Then Atlanta police stormed the theater.

“I said, ‘What’s going on?’ And a fella in front of me said, ‘My dear, we’re being raided.’”

“You couldn’t believe it,” Estevez said.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Drue said. “Over a movie.”


Drue said the mission of police that night was to enforce obscenity laws and identify the potential gay people in the audience.

“They went row by row and they stood everyone up. They frisked all the men against the wall — all of them,” Drue said.

“For some of the people in the movie theater, it probably shocked them to think here is a progressive place showing a progressive movie. They wanted to see it. They paid money. And they weren’t allowed to see it,” said Martin Padgett, author and historian of Atlanta’s LGBTQ community.

But that was the reality for a time when conservative and progressive values clashed. Atlanta’s queer community had to not only fight for a physical presence but a presence to be a part of the conversation.

Padgett, who met his husband in midtown Atlanta — home of the now famous rainbow crosswalks — said that moment changed Georgia.

“The Ansley Movie theater raid was just the beginning of a series of episodes where the queer community forced itself to come out of the closet and say, ‘We can have rights,’” Padgett said.

Rights, that some of those 70 people there that night would never get to enjoy after fighting so hard for so many years.

“Hopefully, they saw a part of the change in the decades to follow?” Estevez asked Drue.

“They were part of it. I think they were such a part of it, they wanted to do so much, and the story can go on about how people got their courage after the raid,” Drue said.

Two years after the movie theater raid, Atlanta had its first gay pride parade with a little over 100 people. Then in 1976, the city adopted Gay Pride Day and now there are laws protecting the LGBTQ+ community.

Yet, so many people feel that fight for equal rights is constant.

Bar owner Richard Ramey found himself in the middle of Atlanta’s gay rights fight when his business, the Atlanta Eagle, was raided in September 2009.

“What does being a part of the Eagle family mean?” Estevez asked Ramey.

“It was just a place for people to come and enjoy themselves and not be judged,” Ramey said.

APD’s Red Dog unit, which was designed to target areas with prevalent drug activity, was in charge of the operation.

“What’s the one thing that gets to you when you think of your Eagle family going through that night?” Estevez asked Ramey.

“The way they were treated,” Ramey said. “The stories that you heard after that … it just broke my heart.”

Raymond Matheson was there.

“We thought we were being robbed at first, like something out of a movie, you know? Everybody on the ground, something you would see in a bank robbery or something like,” Matheson said.


That night, officers arrested eight employees for not possessing a proper business license, but found no drugs.

“The whole experience … it was horrible to live through something like that,” Matheson said. “Laying in glass, having your ID ran, being treated like a criminal when you just, you know, are having a drink with your friends. It’s hard to put those into words.”

So Ramey, along with other plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit against the city.

“Why fight and just not say, ‘OK, I’m out,’” Estevez asked Ramey.

“It was just too important,” Ramey said. “And then to have the Southern Center for Human Rights say the thing that happened to the boys at the Eagle happens to privileged Black gentlemen in Atlanta all the time and we need to put a stop to it.”

Both sides would eventually settle for $1.5 million.

“Everyone got money, yes, but we wanted change so bad, and I do believe we made change because of that night,” Ramey said.

Along with the settlement also came an apology from the city with a promise to train officers on proper search procedures.

APD also mandated LGBTQ+ sensitivity training included in its training. The Red Dog unit was eventually disbanded in 2011.

“We’re just here to let them know we are here for them, we see them, and that the department also reflects them,” said Officer Brandon Hayes, Atlanta Police Department LGBTQ liaison.

The department sent Channel 2 Action News a statement, saying:

“As a result of the September 10, 2009 raid at the Atlanta Eagle, the Atlanta Police Department implemented a number of changes geared at addressing the issues surrounding the raid.

“Those changes include:

  • Regular, mandated Search and Seizure training for all sworn employees
  • Civil and Human Rights Training
  • LGBTQ+ Cultural Humility training for all employees
  • LGBTQ+ Training for every recruit, including reality based training scenarios with members of the LGBTQ+ community.
  • APD.SOP.6170 — created the positions of LGBTQ+ liaisons and outlining their responsibilities; full-time positions were established for two officers to help bridge the gap between APD and the LGBTQ+ community.
  • APD.SOP.6180 — established protocols for all sworn APD personnel to follow when speaking with members of the LGBTQ+ community, including addressing individuals by their chosen names and asking for preferred pronouns. This SOP was created with input from the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Our uniform policy was updated to require anyone in uniform to have their name tag plainly visible on their uniform and required officers to identify themselves upon request.
  • We implemented a policy prohibiting officers from interfering with the public’s right to photograph or record officer activity and we implemented training to ensure all sworn employees understood this requirement.
  • We also made changes to our internal investigation process to ensure complaints of misconduct receive an appropriate investigation and to ensure they are investigated within 180 days.

“A lot has changed over the past 13 years. Since that time, the Atlanta Police Department has had a police chief and currently has an interim police chief who are both members of the LGBTQ+ community. We feel we have made significant progress in partnering with and supporting each of the communities throughout our great city and we are committed to continuing our efforts to ensure we are providing the best level of service possible for everyone.”

The original Atlanta Eagle closed in 2020 at its home along Ponce de Leon Avenue after more than 30 years. Ramey said the bar is now coming back.

He announced last month that the Eagle will reopen in the space that is currently Midtown Moon. It should be open sometime this month.

With the new Eagle, Ramey said he hopes to see a new era of lessons learned.

“I mean not just the people who were at the Eagle, the entire community learned a lesson,” Ramey said. “It could happen to anybody.”

In its statement, Atlanta police also said that it welcomes the Eagle as it reopens in its new location. APD said it was “confident the changes that are now in place and the progress our department has made over the past 13 years will be evident and encouraging to management and patrons of the Atlanta Eagle.”