The Bombing of a Lesbian Bar, A Violent, Murderous Activist, and a Gay Community Gripped in Fear.
Sixteen years ago, pride and the continuing gay liberation movement in the gay community of Atlanta was threatened on the night of February 27, 1997. Around 10:00 p.m. in the evening a bomb exploded on the patio of the The Otherside Lounge, a lesbian nightclub located near Midtown, the gay mecca of the city. The bar was crowded with about one-hundred and fifty patrons on Monday night, far fewer than any other evening during the week or weekends. Five people were injured that night, one seriously. The seriously injured lesbian, Memrie Wells-Cresswell, was there that night to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Wells-Cresswell was not “out” at her job, so when then Mayor Bill Campbell mentioned her name to the media during a news conference, she was outed and soon after fired from her job.
Far more lesbian and gay patrons, as well as their straight friends, could have been maimed or killed that fateful night since bomb squad technicians had located a second explosive in a tattered backpack outside of the lounge near an outer wall, likely meant to go off after first responders such as police, firefighters, and paramedics converged following the first explosion. Or perhaps the device was meant to detonate and collapse the cinderblock wall onto party-goers, thereby injuring more gay people. It’s a miracle the shrapnel-filled bomb, packed tight with metal, screws and nails didn’t blast as intended. I thank God for that human error.
I actually heard about the bombing the following day from a news briefing on the radio while heading into work. These were the days when CNN was in its infancy, Headline News, FOX and other 24-hour cable news channels had yet to appear and gain mass appeal, before the Internet grew into mainstream, even before cell phones became less a luxury and a staple of everyday life. We got our news in those days (for those who actually paid attention) by reading the daily newspaper, listening to news briefs between songs played on the radio, or sitting in front of a television for the nightly news broadcast on the three major networks, ABC, NBC and CBS.
When I heard about the bombing the morning after, I felt an incredible fear, first for my possible friends who might have been in the bar that night, then as the day wore on, a gnawing, painful anxiety that had reached to my very core of my soul. It was though members of my family -my extended family – had been directly targeted and harmed simply because of whom they were, whom they chose to love. In the most harrowing, cowardly fashion, some sick, bigoted, ignorant, weak coward (and a few more choice words best not printed here…) had come out to kill us, our community in a failed attempt to proclaim we did not matter.
Never had I experienced until that point in my life anything so blatantly directed at the gay community to which I belonged as the bombing of the The Otherside Lounge. Though the bar wasn’t one I frequented, I still felt an immediate kinship, as most gays and lesbians in the city, indeed the country, who sympathized for the victims, their lovers, and their families. After all, we were all “family”.
I feared for the gay community in general and what this one act of violence could mean to a growing, more tolerant and accepting society than decades past. I was too young to have experienced the condemnation of gays and the horrors of the late 60s, of Stonewall Riots, of the horrifying fire-bombing in June 1973 of the Upstairs Lounge in the French Quarter of New Orleans that had claimed thirty-two lives, and barely out of the proverbial closet when openly gay San Francisco City Supervisor, Harvey Milk was assassinated. So this cowardly act, the attack became my first exposure to just how much hate for gays and lesbians existed, waiting in the dark shadows and crevices of the city for that perfect spark to insight fear.
The bombing was all anyone could talk about at the travel agency I worked in at the time, a decidedly liberal company headquartered out of New York with a local satellite office employing both straight and only gay employees. The travel business was one of the few industries at the time who embraced our rainbow brothers and sisters with open arms, especially in this bible-belt, ultra-ultra conservative southern state. Our office had rallied around each other hearing the news, determined to stand up to the threats against our very existence. We refused to be shunted inside our apartments at night or terrorized by the radicals, to show them we were not scared.
But, I was afraid, nervous every night I ventured out to the bars, the dance clubs, my favorite haunts, fearful this night might be the next time a bomb exploded, or when fire ripped through a club I was dancing in. Yes, gays and lesbians at the time were all scared, but we put on our brave faces and in that fuzzy space of the unknown, we found our strength and courage in numbers, and there were many, many of us in this city who refused to let such a gutless act of domestic terrorism shove us back right back into the closet from which we had sprung. We called upon our bravery as one and refused to be bullied for being who we were, for whom we loved, and for choosing to live our lives openly and freely.
The injured eventually recovered from their wounds, the gays continued flocking to the latest dance club unfettered, and I eventually got over my fear of venturing out. Sadly, The Otherside Lounge never made a comeback after nearly seven years in business, owned and operated by a lesbian couple of twenty years at the time. The bomber was eventually caught years after living and hiding out in the woods of North Carolina. Extremist Eric Rudolph said in a written statement provided to the court by lawyers at his sentencing…
“…the next attack in February was at The Otherside Lounge. Like the assault at the abortion mill, two devices (sic) used. The first device was designed not necessarily to target the patrons of this homosexual bar, but rather to set the stage for the next device, which was again targeted at Washington’s agents. The attack itself was meant to send a powerful message in protest of Washington’s continued tolerance and support for the homosexual political agenda.” – Eric Rudolph
BUT, the coward did not get the last word. Several of Rudolph’s victims and surviving family members (of all his bombings) had shown up at the sentencing on August 13, 2005 as well and made statements of their own, including the seriously injured lesbian from The Otherside Lounge bombing, who bravely said to Rudolph:
“I am here to tell you personally today that you didn’t kill me.” – Memrie Wells-Cresswell.
I could not have said it any better. October is the month to celebrate Gay History, for better or worse. Let’s all take this time to remember those who have come before us and support those who will carry the torch long after we are gone.