Savannah’s Pride: LGBTQ Legacies and Lore” is a two-hour walking tour that explores the legacy of LGBTQ history and contemporary issues in Savannah, Georgia. Topics include The Lady Chablis, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, politics, religion, and more.
In many ways, Savannah is a classic Southern, romantic tourist town. Dripping Spanish moss, antebellum era mansions, carriage rides through beautiful squares and spooky ghost tours at night. It’s an idealistic travel destination with charm and allure. For decades, the tourist experience in Savannah was likely to follow a pretty specific formula made up of historic houses, downtown shopping and walking tours that entranced their audience with tales of the eccentric city in the Old South.
The changing social dynamic of the city provides the perfect opportunity for a tour like Savannah’s Pride. Now more than ever, people come to the city of Savannah looking for honest narratives about the past and present. People are more willing to accept that things have not always been pretty, neat and traditional in Savannah’s past. Growing rates of LGBTQ acceptance increases the likelihood that tourists in the city will be receptive to learning about this subject and engaging with non-traditional stops on a walking tour. Savannah is neither an idealistic haven for LGBTQ people to live nor is it the hostile stereotypical Southern city. Like most complicated subjects, the truth lies somewhere in between. Many LGBTQ civilians thrive here and many more have experienced subjugation, hate speech and lack of acceptance from community members.
Initially, my motivations for developing this tour were admittedly self-serving. I am a queer person living in the deep south. While I do see myself represented in the faces of my fellow LGBTQ civilians, I feel that our story is left out of larger narratives about the city’s history. This to me is strange in a city that claims to value diversity and change. In order to learn about the LGBTQ history in the city, you have to go far out of your way and you don’t always find reliable information. This is a problem that I encountered while I was working on this project. many of my sources are from local magazines, generalized data about living queer in the south, and other experiences as they may relate to Savannah. As far as I can find, there has been no academic scholarship on LGBTQ history in Savannah. At this point of realization, my motivations for doing this tour became less selfish and more about the LGBTQ population in Savannah at large. They deserved it so themselves represented in the booming historic tourism sector of the city. How can a town that has more than 150 walking tours not have one about LGBTQ history and still boast itself as a “LGBT Oasis?” Why is the most well-known story about gay Savannah a story about murder and betrayal? Queer people in Savannah own successful businesses, work in the city government, and many of them work in the tourism sector that is so valued by the city and visitors. They deserve recognition.
Although there has not been an LGBTQ history specific tour given in the city, I believe Savannah is ready for this new development. I have two primary reasons for this belief. First, LGBTQ Savannians hosted and continue to host several queer culture events including (but certainly not limited to) block parties outside of the LGBT Center, pride parades in the busy historic district, and community projects that engage with local LGBTQ people. An example of these projects is the Emergent LGBT Oral History series talks given at the Sentient Bean on Bull Street. Secondly, tourist interests in the city are shifting to become more progressive and eager to explore outside of the classic Old South narratives. African Americans in the city run several successful walking tour businesses that directly address the legacy of slavery and postbellum race relations in Savannah. Institutions are shifting their interpretations to become more inclusive and less romanticized. The city is breaking out of its antiquated molds. Savannah’s Pride adds a new perspective to the exploration of the city’s untold histories.
My tour is part of a greater national movement to incorporate LGBTQ stories in public history. Historians are integrating queer history into the public eye in so many ways: archives, digital projects, museum exhibits, historic sites, and other projects. I hope that my contribution to this effort is built upon by those with relevant interests, looking to preserve the queer history this strange little city in the south. Additionally, I hope that the tour fosters an understanding of the legacy that created contemporary queer issues and where people can focus their effort to promote meaningful change, continue proud legacies, and create new history
For further reading on this topic see:
Hiding by Candy by The Lady Chablis
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen
After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by Marilyn Bardsley
Growing Up Gay in the South: Race, Gender, and Journeys of the Spirit by James Spears