Andy Warhol’s film Lonesome Cowboys, The Stonewall of the South, Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema, 1969, Atlanta

Built in 1964, Ansley Mall is an open-air shopping mall, much like so many that dot the neighborhoods of Atlanta. The mall sits at the border of Piedmont Heights and the more affluent Ansley Park, and directly beside the Ansley Square shopping complex, constitutes a veritable hub for the LGBTQ+ community, housing an array of gay bars and shops. Of the 26 retailers in the mall, in 1969, there was the Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema, renowned for its openness to the gay community for regularly showcasing avant-garde indie and foreign films often criticized by locals as explicit. 

In the Summer of 1969, Andy Warhol’s film Lonesome Cowboys was in the third week of its run at the theater despite receiving unfavorable reviews. There was decent attendance, with each of the 70 audience members paying a $2 admission. 15 minutes into the film, they heard, “It’s over!” as the theater lights were turned on. A local counterculture newspaper wrote that ten police officers hurried through the aisles, three positioned at exits to impede audience members from leaving. They never presented identification, nor did they come with a warrant. The audience members were lined against the wall, asked for their names and licenses, followed by being photographed by the police. Many of the gay men and lesbian patrons were apprehended on charges of public indecency and drug possession. The cinema’s projectionist was handcuffed and held behind the concession counter. Shortly after, in an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the police chief subsequently affirmed that the raid’s purpose was to identify and apprehend “known homosexuals.”

Fulton County Criminal Court Solicitor Hinson McAuliffe authorized the raid. “Intrigued” by the movie’s controversial content, he attended a screening and deemed it simultaneously obscene and dull, confessing to dozing off as the film played. The night before the raid, his assistant attended a screening and called the film: “obscene, vulgar and profane – just the type of thing that, in my opinion, would make the ordinary person sick.” McAuliffe perceived the film and its audience as deviant and wanted to capture photos of the audience, checking police records for any past sex offenses. Despite portraying itself as the capital of the New South, Atlanta was a beacon of progress; the reality in 1969 was that the gay community continuously encountered intimidation from the Church, the newspaper, and a police department charged with upholding the moral character of both the city against the influences of a progressively sexualized national culture.

Lonesome Cowboys can be challenging to summarize as it lacks a coherent plot and makes no attempts to develop its characters. (Paul Morrissey claimed it was their “two-hundredth film without a script.” What materialized on screen was a series of loosely connected sequences of scenes depicting various situations involving both homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Filmed over 5 days in 1968, Warhol and Viva, the lead actress from his previous films, joined a group of a dozen men for a week at the Rancho Linda Vista Guest Ranch in Oracle, Arizona. Shortly after their arrival, the locals raised objections about the explicit outdoor sexual acts. 

At times, the actors confuse each other’s fictional and real names, with little emphasis on realism or authenticity in what is ostensibly a period piece. Viva’s attire suggests a fox hunt rather than a Western, and despite running a brothel, we only encounter her transvestite sheriff, Frances Francine, as her sole visible prostitute. Offscreen instructions to the actors are audible, and the soundtrack includes airplane noises, and tourists appear in the background in another scene. Cowboys discuss surfing in California while others dance to a Beatles song. Everything feels fractured, which can easily be explained by Warhol thinking of it as a Western spoof and his co-pilot, Morrissey, conceiving it as a Western adaption of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. 

And the FBI was on this shit immediately. After a November 1, 1968 screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival, FBI agents surveilled the film and compiled a report on November 6, 1968. They weren’t fans. Unlike Criminal Court Solicitor McAuliffe, they did not seem to doze off. They wrote extensively about simulations of sex and gyrations without penetration. They appeared especially dismayed by the male actors making suggestive gestures towards other male actors, one cowboy depicted as fondling the nipples of another. They noted that “Many of the cast portrayed their parts as if in a stupor from marijuana, drugs or alcohol.”

Whether the smut made it to the screen or not, to the FBI, it was more about the implication. Their 77-page investigation into the potential crime of “Interstate Transportation of Obscene Matter” made sure to include words like “girlish” and “big sissy.” Naked men were sharing sleeping bags for an hour. There is the cowboy in Chaps performing ballet beside the hitching post. The FBI often didn’t seem to know what they were looking at. Despite the lack of overtly sordid actions on screen, the feds report maintained that the male cast “displayed homosexual tendencies and conducted themselves toward one another in an effeminate manner.” 

Back in Atlanta, the raid at the Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema was the final straw. Taking place mere weeks after the New York City Stonewall riots, the Lonesome Cowboys bust played a direct catalyst for the establishment of the Georgia Gay Liberation Front (GLF) during a passionate gathering at a coffee shop in Emory Village. The aftermath of the raid saw a surge in activism; the newly established group dedicated itself to advocating for LGBTQ rights, registering LGBTQ individuals to vote, and challenging anti-gay laws. Activists from GLF organized and initiated the first Atlanta Pride event in 1971 despite the city’s initial refusal to grant a permit. So, 125 people marched along the sidewalk of Peachtree Street, with many concealing their identities by wearing paper bags over their heads. The Pride event became a significant tradition; the incident galvanized the community, prompting them to unite and resist discrimination. Over the years, the efforts of LGBTQ activists and changing social attitudes transformed Atlanta into a significant hub for LGBTQ rights, culminating in the proclamation of Gay Pride Day in 1976.

The Lonesome Cowboys Raid at Ansley Mall stands as a landmark event that ignited the LGBTQ rights movement in Atlanta. The bravery and resilience of those who faced harassment and discrimination in the aftermath of the raid laid the groundwork for a more inclusive city.