The laws of pleasure 

City of Atlanta cracks down on the dancefloors

It's about 11 Saturday night at the Metro Video Bar on Peachtree Street in Midtown and the puritans seem to be winning.

Maybe it's early, but the crowd seems quite sparse to me. I can't help wondering if the plethora of negative publicity about the club, and the new tide of moral righteousness sweeping Atlanta, isn't to blame.

As reported elsewhere in the media, the city of Atlanta's License Review Board, a group of citizen appointees, recently voted to revoke the club's license to sell alcohol. Now, Mayor Shirley Franklin will have to decide whether to enforce the board's recommendation. Backstreet, a 24-hour club also in Midtown, has been ordered to appear before the board to show cause why its license shouldn't be revoked too.

In both cases, the sale of illegal drugs to undercover police is cited for the recommendations. Backstreet is already operating on borrowed time because of a new ordinance that forbids private clubs from existing for profit and mainly to sell alcohol. The law is not being enforced for now because of a lawsuit challenging it.

These developments follow a crackdown on the city's bars that began about two years ago after African-Americans dared to invade Buckhead's mainly white party scene on Sunday nights. In order to circumvent the eruption of racial tensions nobody wanted to openly acknowledge, the Atlanta City Council decided to require all bars to close Sunday nights at midnight. Then they began enforcing the old blue laws that prohibit bars from opening Sundays at all, though many remain open under loopholes.

The Metro is, in my estimation, the most genuinely Fellini-esque nightspot in Atlanta. A remarkable collection of night creatures hangs out there -- druggies, drag queens, Latinos, older men, average Midtown gay men, women, tourists, all with a taste for the odd. Part of the attraction is the exotic dancers that perform around the bar. This evening, a young, slim man in white briefs is dancing playfully opposite a very muscular dancer in a red thong.

Undoubtedly, the scene is outre by the standards of most Atlantans, especially those religious folks who seem to have Shirley Franklin's attention. But it's not particularly strange in the erotic culture of any other big city in America.

The Metro's woes seem to be part of a general trend toward turning Atlanta into a nice clean town again. Those of us who were around in the '70s remember when Fulton County Solicitor Hinson McAuliffe led a campaign to do the same thing. Adult businesses, like video stores, were closed right and left. Gay men were arrested constantly in public cruising areas like Piedmont Park. Ordinances were adopted to regulate strip clubs. I remember inane diatribes by politicians about the need for strippers to cover their nipples.

All of that relaxed completely in the '90s and even the state blue laws were widely ignored, until now. Of course, nobody talks with the same explicitly puritanical edge that they did during the '70s. Now the popular demonization of drugs is used to advocate the same agenda of purging the nightlife of sin.

Obviously, the Metro isn't responsible for the fact that undercover cops managed, in two years, to make a dozen drug purchases (none of which have been prosecuted). Although the law does hold bar owners responsible for enforcing the laws, it is hard to imagine a club in Atlanta where one can't buy any number of (stupidly) illegal substances. The reporting about the effort to shut down "raves" around the country has repeatedly made the point that no matter how diligent club owners are, they can't keep drugs off the premises. Ten tabs of ecstasy are easily hidden in a shoe.

If the city isn't using the drug laws to punish sin, they find other means. They closed down a popular sex club, Southeastern Meet Company, in a warehouse district under a zoning technicality. After the club reformed and found a new location and invested money in construction, the city denied them a permit when a tiny unknown but nearby church objected. Meanwhile, other sex clubs continue to operate -- because they had the wisdom to go underground.

The likely closing of the Metro will be a loss to the city's gay population. The likely closing of Backstreet will be a shock to the entire city. Although primarily gay, the club is a virtual institution among Atlantans who like to party late. It's not unusual to find a more heterosexual than gay crowd there.

And that points to one of the consequences of puritanical agendas: People get balkanized. In the theater of the erotic, different types of people come together to play and forget their differences. That's what happened in Buckhead with the influx of African-Americans. At the Metro and Backstreet, you see people of all types under the influence of that drug that drives us all: sexual desire.

And that, of course, is intolerable to authoritarians. In their world, we must all stay to our own kind to avoid the messy complications that arise from difference and we must forget pleasure because, paradoxically, pleasure makes us forget our differences.


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