When an anti-gay bomb shattered the peace in Atlanta, was the far Right’s new “leaderless resistance to blame?
Originally published in Out.
EVEN THOUGH IT WAS ONLY 9:45 P.M.—early for a Friday night in Atlanta—the Otherside Lounge was already cranking up February 21. One hundred and fifty women and men had settled into the dark, comfy bar, claiming their favorite stools and racking their first sets of pool balls. Some were regulars, others gay and lesbian teachers in town for a weekend meeting. In the Olive Room, an intimate space with sofas and armchairs clustered around a stone fireplace, pianist Keith Allen was getting ready to perform his next set. Nearby, Rhonda Armstrong was presiding over the bar she tends—when a flash of light caught her eye.
The light shot through a stained-glass window like a car’s headlights approaching and then suddenly veering off. A second later came the blast. The building shook. The window imploded but didn’t break. Armstrong froze. For a second she couldn’t figure out where the sound came from. “I thought lightning had struck a transformer,” she says. “Then when it echoed—ka-BOOM—I knew it was a bomb.”
“Somebody’s been shot!” a patron called from the next room. Two women burst through the Olive Room door, one covered with the other’s blood. She laid the victim on a chair, then vaulted over the bar to call 911. Two other customers rolled back the victim’s sleeve and discovered a nail embedded in her upper arm. The nail, along with numerous others, had careened across the nightclub’s outdoor patio, shattering windows and raining down on the Otherside’s main room. Later that night, police found and detonated a second, stronger bomb hidden inside a backpack in the bar’s parking lot.
The incident was the third to hit metropolitan Atlanta in seven months—a chilling reminder of how domestic terrorism is sweeping the United States. In January, a pair of bombs blew up at a suburban Atlanta abortion clinic, injuring seven people. Before that, a late-night explosion in Centennial Olympic Park killed one woman and wounded more than 100 others. In all three cases, the bombs were timed so that police would be on the scene during an explosion, suggesting that the culprits intended to kill law-enforcement officials. As this articles goes to press, police have made no arrests.
The bombing shattered more than glass at the Otherside, a converted Steak and Ale restaurant with a racially diverse crowd. It also shattered the complacency of Atlanta’s greater lesbian and gay community. Though no one died, and only one of the five victims was seriously injured, the incident has undermined the feeling of safety that permeated the Southeast’s most tolerant city—a place that, for many residents, truly was too busy to hate. Since February, “it’s much scarier to be an out gay person in Atlanta,” says Chris Mabry, who ran a lesbian and gay visitor center during the ’96 Olympics. “It’s much more frightening—that someone tried to blow up a gay bar. That someone tried to kill people.”
For sure, the bombing was unnerving because it happened in Southern mecca. But more unsettling is the fact that it could happen anywhere. According to people who monitor hate groups, lesbians and gay men have become a growing target for people who engage in guerrilla warfare. From New York to Oklahoma to Washington state, the government has uncovered conspiracies involving the political bombings of gay targets.
What’s more, bombings and other acts of terror are likely to grow more frequent and more random. That’s because the violent Right has adopted a philosophy called “Leaderless Resistance,” which encourages individuals and small groups to commit their own militant acts without getting approval from some Grand Dragon. Those acts can range from simple hate crimes—like the January 1996 fatal stabbing of a Houston gay man by two neo-Nazi half-brothers—to more dramatic schemes like the October 1996 bombing of the Back Door Bar in Lancaster, California.
“There’s a revolutionary movement at work,” says Atlanta journalist Vincent Coppola, author of Dragons of God: A Journey Through Far-Right America. “It’s not an army that will come marching down the street lynching people. It’s the individual or the cell that will plant bombs. I’ve had a number of people come right out and say homosexuality is punishable by death. Some of them are eager to execute people.”
DRIVE THROUGH THE MIDDLE-CLASS neighborhoods of Atlanta on a weekend afternoon, and you’ll think an entire city has been colonized by homosexuals. Start at Piedmont Park, a 180-acre oasis in the city’s heart. Hundreds of men, some shirtless at the first hint of warm weather, sunbathe, walk their dogs and rollerblade. A block away, at one of Midtown’s most visible intersections, lesbians and gay men drink coffee in the window of Outwrite Books while reading As Francesca or the Sunday New York Times. Up Piedmont Avenue, a generic-looking strip mall beckons gay customers to three nightclubs, a record shop and a variety store selling everything from mouse pads to lubricants.
It doesn’t end in Midtown. Fan out in three directions, to neighborhoods like Inman Park, Candler Park, Buckhead, Little Five Points. On certain blocks, rows of rainbow flags hang from the front porches, one after another. Pickups and Saabs sport pink triangles and LOVE MAKES A FAMILY bumper stickers. From the standpoint of sheer visibility, Atlanta could be the queerest city in America.
“My vision of the Southeast was of hostile rednecks who collect guns, listen to Rush Limbaugh and have Confederate flag vanity plates,” says 31-year-old Max Beck, who followed her partner from Philadelphia in 1995. Instead, the couple settled into a racially diverse district called Grant Park, where neighbors hang out together on their front porches and straight families regard the sizable lesbian and gay presence with a collective shrug. Now Beck, the technical director of a sleep-disorder center, says she’ll never move back north.
Long before Yankees like Beck discovered Atlanta, generations of rural Southern queers looked to the city as a refuge. They came from remote corners of Georgia and Alabama, fleeing wrathful families and small-town Baptist preachers. In Atlanta they found good jobs; more important, they found acceptance and safety. The birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta prided itself on moving more peaceably than most Southern cities to end legalized segregation—out of fear that racial unrest would hurt business. In doing so, it avoided some of the violence that infected more intransigent places like Birmingham and Little Rock. Ten years later, when lesbians and gay men started demanding respect, the city fell back on its tradition of civility toward minorities.
“Dr. King’s gospel of non-violence has always been a benchmark for the city,” says Phil McDonald, a gay man who serves as special assistant to Mayor Bill Campbell.
Not that it hasn’t taken hard work. Atlanta’s lesbians and gay men have volunteered for campaigns, served on task forces—and then called in their chips. They’ve built social organizations and businesses. (The local gay business directory runs 200 pages.) When necessary, they’ve taken to the streets. When the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain fired at least 10 employees for homosexuality in the early ’90s, the local Queer Nation chapter—trained in King’s non-violent tactics—staged a months-long civil disobedience campaign that made national headlines and embarrassed their target. “Cracker Barrel changed the city,” says gay lobbyist Larry Pelligrini. With Queer Nation T-shirts popping up everywhere, and activists standing in prominent intersections raising money from drivers, straight Atlantans stopped looking twice at ordinary rainbow flags.
For sure, there have been bias crimes, including a wave of robberies and assaults outside a popular Midtown bar. Still, Atlanta has become such a comfortable city that some lesbians and gay men had forgotten that they live, in Max Beck’s words, in “an oasis in a reactionary, redneck maelstrom.” An act of terrorism like the Otherside blast seemed so unlikely that not a single activist interviewed for this article had predicted such a thing could happen. “It’s easy to become complacent,” says Cindy Abel, director of the Georgia Equality Project, a statewide gay lobbying group. “We’re less apt to realize that we are under siege, that there are people targeting us.”
A 64-MILE LONG FREEWAY encircles Atlanta, separating the mecca from the maelstrom. Crossing the Interstate 285 “perimeter” heading west, it’s less than an hour to Carrollton, where Neal Horsley lives in a suburban house surrounded by a wraparound porch, a duck pond and towering ornamental pear trees. He’s the picture of Southern charm, a 52-year-old computer consultant with blue eyes, salt-and-pepper hair, and the wild inflections and gestures of a stand-up comic. His teenaged daughter darts about the house, past needlepoint samplers and computer boxes, preparing for a debate-team meeting at a local steakhouse. It’s the archetype of American normalcy—until you learn that Horsley, a self-styled candidate for governor, runs an Internet site that urges citizens to “arrest faggots” and gather dossiers on abortion doctors.
“According to the dictionary, Faggots are ‘fuel’ for the fire,” Horsley writes on his web page. “The English language has always allowed people to…be called faggots if the destiny of those people involved being burned in a fire.” By arresting homosexuals, Horsley explains, his followers can “give faggots an opportunity to be delivered from [the] behavior that will inevitably cause them to be burned in a fire.”
As for “abortionists,” Horsley envisions “Nuremberg” trials for clinic doctors and owners, and for judges who uphold Roe vs. Wade. He asks his readers to send photos and videotapes, license plate numbers, children’s names and “anything else you believe will help identify and convict the abortionist in a future court of law.” In a sample “Nuremberg File,” Horsley details the history of a Portland, Oregon, clinic director, noting the address where she lives with her “alleged lesbian partner.”
It would be easy to dismiss Horsley as an aberration. But the fact is that the region outside Atlanta’s perimeter swarms with Far Right activists. Operating under names like the Confederate Hammerskins and the Aryan Resistance League, they’ve terrorized blacks and Latinos, painted swastikas and racist graffiti, held parties celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday, bashed lesbians and made death threats against gay men.
Horsley isn’t believed to be a suspect in the bombings. And unlike Aryan Resistance members, he doesn’t espouse racial hatred. Still, he does condone violence against some of the Right’s favorite targets. Horsley tells of visiting Washington last January to attend the White Rose Banquet, which honors activists who murder abortion doctors and bomb clinics. There, a speaker invoked the Atlanta clinic bombing five days earlier. “Everyone went, ‘Yea! Yea!’” Horsley recalls. “I go, ‘Yea!’ You know why? No babies died that day.” As for the lesbian bar bombing, Horsley says he disagrees with the tactic but doesn’t fault the bomber. “When you’re in the middle of the war, you don’t talk about the battle as a good thing or a bad thing,” he explains.
Horsley, a former drug dealer who served time in federal prison, dates his political conversion to his time in a Pennsylvania seminary. One day during Hebrew class, he says, he was seized up by an “overwhelming conviction” that “thousands of babies a day were being slaughtered.” That led him on a crusade against abortion. He contacted everyone he could who shared his beliefs—including Paul Hill, the defrocked minister who would later murder a doctor outside a Pensacola, Fla., abortion clinic.
Gays and lesbians came next. Horsley says he felt a growing intolerance for the notion, voiced by some liberal Christians, that all sexuality comes from God. It drove him crazy that gay people claimed the Lord’s approval. “Everybody’s out, and insisting on this definition of the Creator being accepted by the people of the United States of America,” Horsley gripes. Pushed, he confesses that his fear of being “fucked in the ass and killed” in prison might have intensified his hatred.
Horsley’s Web site offers JAIL FAGGOTS bumper stickers to anyone who shares his sentiments. But he’s quick to refute those who claim he’s inciting murder. “Homosexuals are lawbreakers,” he says. “I’m not saying burn faggots. I’m saying arrest them.”
Others aren’t so charitable. Ninety degrees around the perimeter, suburban Cobb County has become a veritable hotbed of hate. Since 1993, when its county commissioners officially condemned the “gay lifestyle” (thereby chasing away the Olympics), Cobb’s Klansmen, neo-Nazis and racist skinheads have turned their attention to gay men and lesbians.
“Listen, you goddamned faggots,” said one of many similar phone calls to the Cobb County Coalition, a gay advocacy group. “You all need to stay the fuck in Atlanta or L.A. We don’t want your gay asses running around here…. You come and mess around here too much, and we’ll get the boys on you.” In Georgia slang, “the boys” refers to the Ku Klux Klan.
The threats aren’t limited to phone calls. The Atlanta-based Neighbors Network, which monitors hate activity, reported a spate of harassment and violence after the commissioners began debating the anti-gay resolution. In one incident, a pickup truck followed a gay man into a shopping center; when he returned to his car from the store, he found a menacing notice on his windshield. It was signed by the Klan.
Far Right activists also show up at gay events, including the Hotlanta River Expo, a rafting party that draws 20,000 participants to the Chattahoochee River in Cobb County. “Every year, the right-wing groups are in the woods, on the other side of the river, videotaping us,” says activist Floyd Taylor. The Neighbors Network keeps track at who shows up at events like these, and the list is scary. The 1993 list included Cleburne Jordan, a Far Right figure whose close ally, J.B. Stoner, was convicted of firebombing a black church in Birmingham; white supremacists Dave Holland, Ed Fields and Frank Shirley, who were charged with beating an anti-racist activist (they weren’t convicted); and skinhead Jason Field, whose Aryan National Front has been implicated in stockpiling military weapons and murdering homeless black men.
GROUPS THAT TRACK THE FAR RIGHT say they’re not surprised that Georgia’s white supremacists and have turned their attention to homosexuals. “Anytime we see a greater push for rights for gays and lesbians, we see a concomitant backlash,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center on Hate and Extremism at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, N.J. While not every right winger hates blacks or immigrants or abortion doctors, “gays are the one target almost universal to bigots.” Noah Chandler, a research associate for the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, says that when it comes to anti-gay terrorism, “We’re just seeing the beginning.”
What makes it harder than ever to crack down on homophobic terror is the latest trend in the violent underground: “Leaderless Resistance,” which calls for individuals and small groups to commit unrelated acts of terror. First articulated in 1962 by anti-communist crusader Ulius Louis Amoss, the idea didn’t take off for 30 years—after the federal government had destroyed Far Right groups like The Order with aggressive criminal prosecutions and expensive civil lawsuits. By then, extremists were beginning to understand how simple it was for the government to break up organizations with highly structured chains of command. So they resurrected Amoss’ idea of decentralized violence.
“The last thing Federal snoops would have, if they had any choice in the matter, is a thousand different small phantom cells opposing them,” writes longtime Klan leader Louis Beam. “Leaderless Resistance presents no single opportunity for the Federals to destroy a significant portion of the Resistance.”
Then came along the Internet, which allowed extremists to communicate without attending meetings or wearing white robes. A white supremacist or anti-gay activist could post his philosophies on the Web, trusting that his followers across the country would respond to his calls to action. Some lone homophobe, sitting in his living room surfing the Net, might take it upon himself to bomb a lesbian bar. Or an abortion clinic. Or both. And there’s no reason that process couldn’t repeat itself over and over.
In fact, the Otherside bombing was one of a long line of violent political attacks, successful and otherwise, on gay people and institutions. For example, in April 1996, an Oklahoma jury convicted 65-year-old Willie Ray Lampley, along with his wife and a former housemate of theirs, of conspiring to bomb not only gay bars, but also welfare offices, abortion clinics and civil-rights organizations. Describing himself as a prophet, Lampley had vowed a holy war against homosexuals, Jews and the government.
Before that, in July 1994, a 21-year-old racist skinhead in Reno, Nevada, stabbed a gay man 20 times, killing him. The murderer admitted that he had wanted to carve a swastika into the victim’s flesh but didn’t have enough time. Skinheads have also committed anti-gay murders in New York, St. Louis, San Diego, and Salem, Oregon.
And in September 1994, neo-Nazi Wayne Paul Wooten Jr. was sentenced to four years in prison for his role in bombing the Elite Tavern, a Seattle gay bar. According to the FBI and court documents, Wooten and his housemate planned explosions at synagogues, military bases and civil-rights groups. (The housemate, Jeremiah Gordon Knesal, was also convicted of bombing an NAACP meeting hall.) Investigators say Wooten and Knesal hoped to spark a race war by participating in a series of terrorist acts up and down the West Coast.
Michele Lefkowith, director of the Oregon watchdog group Communities Against Hate, says the Wooten case is emblematic of the Far Right’s M.O. “It’s sort of a package deal these days, based in fear and ignorance and hate,” she says. “All these people”—gays, African Americans, Jews—“are targets of the white supremacist movement.”
The Washington, Nevada and Oklahoma incidents are not directly connected. But that’s the very idea behind Leaderless Resistance, says Noah Chandler. “A conspiracy doesn’t have to be organized by a cabal of people,” he says. “It simply has to be held together by an ideology.”
BACK INSIDE THE PERIMETER, as investigators piece together the physical evidence and telephone leads from the Otherside blast, the lesbian and gay community is piecing itself back together too. “Our whole sense of trust is thrown off,” says Jill Cohen, owner of the lesbian bar Revolution. “Everyone who walks into the club who is not familiar is a potential terrorist.” After the bombing, a long-dormant network of bar owners resurrected itself to talk about safety issues. Cohen says the days of lax security are over.
“We used to think nothing of taking someone’s coat behind the bar,” she says. Now the nightclub has installed extra lighting and painted its rear lawn orange to aid in bomb detection. Backpacks and purses are banned. And when a strange male customer uses the rest room, someone checks the garbage afterwards. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, bar owners in other cities have also been looking into new security measures.
Atlanta’s larger gay community is addressing its own fears too—by encouraging people to stay visible at the very moment they most want to hide. A week after the bombing, 1,000 people attended a “Rally for Peace,” at which activist Cindy Abel urged gays and lesbians “not to retreat in the face of this attack. Use this as an opportunity to tell the truth about your lives.”
On a political level, activists have seized on the bombing as evidence that gays and lesbians need legal protection from discrimination and violence. Activist Lawrie Demorest contacted U.S. Senator Max Cleland to explain that, without an anti-discrimination law, witnesses to the Otherside bombing are afraid to come forward for fear of losing their jobs. The Human Rights Campaign organized an Actiongram blitz of the Georgia legislature, which was considering a hate-crimes bill. And 23 organizations wrote to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, citing the bombing as an example of why Congress needs to pass tougher hate-crimes legislation on a federal level.
The task, according to gay leaders, is to grow more resilient. Atlanta’s symbol is the phoenix, the mythical bird that lived for 500 years and then rose from its own ashes. “The history of the city is resurgence,” says Atlanta native Philip Rafshoon, owner of Outwrite. “It was burned by Sherman. It rebuilt. It had a big fire that burned down the city. It rebuilt.” During the ’60s, the city recovered from racist hatemongering and legal segregation. And, Rafshoon says, it will recover from this. The night after the Centennial Olympic Park explosion, Atlantans poured into the streets in a “great big collective fuck you.” The Otherside bombing, he says, “was the same for the gay community. We were mobbed in here all day. The clubs were mobbed that night.”
At the Rally for Peace, Rafshoon made a direct appeal to whomever bombed the Olympic park, the abortion clinic and the Otherside Lounge. “Terrorism doesn’t work,” he said from the podium. “You did not stop the Olympics. You did not stop us from going to Centennial Park. You have not stopped abortions…. You have not stopped us from going to the bars.”
Postscript: Six after this article was published, longtime fugitive Eric Rudolph was arrested for bombing both the Otherside Lounge and the 1996 Olympics. He pleaded guilty in 2005. “The first device was designed not necessarily to target the patrons of this homosexual bar,” he said in a statement accompanying his plea, “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.”
Neal Horsley died in 2015. The Otherside Lounge is closed.