“Fleshing the Bones”: A Portrait of LIVE Story Tour Co-Conductor Maria Helena Dolan

“Gay Activist Maria Helena Dolan speaking to marchers at the annual Gay Pride Day celebration,” Atlanta, Georgia, June 25, 1983. Photograph by Lanna Swindler, Atlanta Journal Constitution. Image copy courtesy of Maria Helena Dolan, 2021. Original Image: Atlanta Journal-Constitution Photographic Archives. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library. Courtesy of Georgia State University.

From 2017–2019, Maria Helena Dolan co-hosted the live version of the Touching Up Our Roots story tour with co-founder Dave Hayward. Please see the about page for a video version of one of those live performances. Personal and pandemic pitfalls have prevented Dolan from being involved in the digital story tour as much as both she and I would have liked. However, the following portrait acknowledges the role Dolan has played both in the live performance of the story tour and, more importantly, in the LGBTQIA+ Atlanta activist and cultural community. I am grateful to Dolan for meeting with me in the middle of two crises—the ongoing pandemic and the partial destruction of her home following a tree fall. During our first recorded conversation, Dolan exclaimed, “My internet connection is unstable! Well, I can’t do anything about that I’m in someone’s carriage house!”[1] This is but one example of both Dolan’s trademark candor and her desire to keep “plugged-into” the fight no matter the obstacles in her way. If you were to have the opportunity to speak with Dolan, you would notice her endearing conversational tone and unvarnished vocabulary. In fact, it is this defiant tongue which left an indelible impression on the historical consciousness of LGBTQIA+ Atlanta in her famous 1978 speech protesting Anita Bryant’s presence in the city. I have left Dolan’s direct quotations—defiant, irreverent, endearing—in her own language. Edits have been made in select instances to address clarity or context. 

La Chingona in Puerto Rico and New Haven

“Now I identify as chingona, which is Mexican-Spanish, and it means ‘bad ass bitch,’” Dolan says. “But also, I’m a big ole dyke, lesbiana, and I think I knew that from a very young age.”[2] Dolan continues, “I’m sure that when they pulled me out from between my mother’s legs on Valentine’s Day that they were not thinking that this was the daughter they were going to have. We hadn’t been invented then, the ‘queers’ so to speak.”[3] Dolan was born February 14, 1954, in New Haven, Connecticut to a Puerto Rican father and Italian-American mother. Dolan was the eldest and two years later her brother Larry was born. Dolan still calls him Larrito, little Larry.[4] Dolan reflects on the circumstances that brought her parents together:

My dad was Boricua. He entered the military, the air force as a pilot. My parents met in New Haven, Connecticut, where my mother was born and where there was a big Italian enclave there. Her grandparents came over on the boat, immigrated and settled there. My dad was a student at Yale when they met; he had a variety of scholarships, ROTC, etc., and he had to wait tables to put himself through school, which I’m sure was hard for a proud man.

Dolan’s father would make it through Yale, and her parents would get together. She recalls a story from later in their relationship that illustrates the nature of her parents’ relationship.

My father was a military man, but I remember, later in his career, he taught junior ROTC in Clayton County after he had retired from the Air Force. We were there one night when he was speaking to the crowd about the importance of having your ‘wings’ pinned on. And he pointed at us in the audience, and he said to my mom, ‘there’s the girl who put my wings on forty years ago.’ That’s the kind of relationship they had.

Although she spent most of her adolescence and college years in New Haven, Dolan notes that her earliest memories are of her father’s native Puerto Rico. “When I was young, we did several tours due to my dad’s work in Puerto Rico,” she states. “I was able to spend time with my abuelita, mis tias. That’s where I say I grew up even though I was not born there. We went back to the States when I was twelve, and I’ve lived here ever since.” Dolan mentions that her parents returned to Puerto Rico for a time, then lived in Alabama and Georgia.

Dolan did not venture far from home to attend college, enrolling in New Haven’s all-women’s Catholic school, Albertus Magnus College, where she received what she calls a “fabulous Humanities education.”[5] At college in the early 1970s, Dolan started the difficult process of coming out. She notes that “coming out up to” when she graduated college in 1975 “had not been ‘fun’ as lesbianism was frowned on in [her] Catholic college.”  Given her circumstances as a matriculate at Catholic school and a daughter of someone in the military, Dolan notes that “it was hard to get hooked up with the ‘gay liberation’ movement” which she says could have made coming out somewhat easier. Dolan describes her slow immersion in the world of activism:

I had been politically active in New Haven and even earlier in high school. I was against the war in Vietnam, which made it difficult for me in a military family. So, I was anti-war and pro-Civil Rights in my activism, and then feminism came along, which was very much home to me. In the course of feminism, there started to be lesbian activism just as I was coming out. But the lesbianism I was around in college wasn’t really hooked in with the Yale gay liberationist and that whole thing.[6]

Though an activist in women’s rights and civil rights in the 1960s, Dolan would become more involved in the “whole thing” of gay and lesbian rights movement when she left New Haven and moved to the southeastern U.S. after her graduation from Albertus Magnus College with a B.A. in Mass Communications. 

Though coming out had been difficult in New Haven and Dolan did not get “hooked up” with gay liberation, she still found time to date and connect with intimate partners. During the summer of her undergraduate junior year, Dolan went to work at a nearby coffin factory so that she could be with her then girlfriend.  “My parents wanted me to go home to Puerto Rico that summer,” she recalls. “But I got a job working in a coffin factory so I could stay in the States and be with my girlfriend at the time.” In retrospect, Dolan says her time at the factory served a dual purpose. In addition to allowing her to stay near her girlfriend, it prepared her to cope with the decimation of AIDS. “That’s the thing, you never know when something you do is going to come in handy,” she says, “But that summer job prepared me for when everyone started to die. I would go to wakes, and I would talk to the husband or the lover, and I would say, ‘You know I can’t believe that these things have not changed in all these years.’ And I’d be pointing at the casket, and typically we would have a good laugh. And then I’d tell the story of working in the coffin factory, inspecting the casket closely, and I’d say, ‘this is well made,’ because you want to give the bereaved some sense of solace. Our stories give us the power to laugh and cry and connect in that way.”[7] Though she would become known for her defiance and outspokenness, Dolan notes that her degree in mass communication helped her understand the various ways of using voice, tone, and narrative to reach people.

Becoming Defiant: Dolan’s North Carolina Interlude

After graduating, Dolan moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to study mass communications in the M.A. program with the Department of Radio, Television, and Motion Pictures at UNC.[8] Chapel Hill would prove to be a short-lived interlude in Dolan’s life. Though Dolan began to make connections to activist gay and lesbian networks in North Carolina, she describes her graduate school experience negatively and her departure from UNC and North Carolina explicitly:

In Chapel Hill, I got involved with TALF, which was Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists, and the Carolina Gay Association (CGA). It was really in North Carolina that I started to do more public activist work, but unfortunately, I was only at Chapel Hill for a semester because I wouldn’t fuck one of my professors. It was a pass/fail course, and he failed me because I rebuffed his pass at me. Because I hadn’t taken certain courses as an undergraduate, they did not allow me to return the next semester as a result of the failed class.

Though the experience at UNC was traumatizing and remains indelible in Dolan’s consciousness, she notes in retrospect that North Carolina created space for her first public gay and lesbian activist work and the difficult denouement of her time in the state paved the way for her move to Atlanta, Georgia, a city in which she has lived for forty-five years and in which she has achieved the fullest realization of her commitment to LGBTQIA+ public activism and “hellraising.” Dolan recalls how a spontaneous weekend trip to Atlanta provided her a “sign” guiding her and her then girlfriend to move to the city:

My girlfriend at the time had gone back to her college for one semester, Franconia College in New Hampshire, and she was planning to come live with me at UNC afterwards. But because UNC said don’t come back, we tried to live in nearby Durham for a while. That just wasn’t working for us. So, my girlfriend said, ‘Why don’t we go to Atlanta? I hear Atlanta’s great.’ We came to Atlanta one weekend and went to the ALFA house. They were having a party that night. Low key house party, and I played poker and won! And I’m a horrible poker player, so I said, this is a sign we must move to Atlanta. And so, we loaded up everything into a U-Haul. The only transportation we had at the time was a motorcycle I had bought from the tuition money my father let me keep after UNC kicked me out. So, we rented and loaded up the U-Haul and came to Atlanta in 1976.[9]

“I come to you today as a defiant dyke”: Maria Helena Dolan and Anita Bryant in Atlanta

In 2019, Touching Up Our Roots presented a mock version of the 1978 Anita Bryant/ Maria Helena Dolan confrontation. “Touching Up Our Roots presents the Live Performance of The Trolley Tour Trollops. Sofia Palmero, Rachel Eddy, and Greg Hernandez act in a sketch comedy alternative history piece: Maria Helena Dolan vs. Anita Bryant,” July, 11 2019. Courtesy of Touching Up Our Roots, 2021.

Arriving in Atlanta in 1976, Dolan and her then girlfriend [Lorraine] parked the U-Haul on Piedmont Avenue to unpack, settle, and begin looking for work in the Atlanta area. Dolan recalls that the two “lived in a boarding-house. It was one of the larger, semi-mansions on Piedmont in Midtown that had been converted into rooms. It was $27 a week.” Dolan made her weekly rent money by working at the Hormel plant in Tucker, a job that also affected her diet. “The only work I could find at that moment was as a security guard at Hormel. I would ride my little motorcycle there, and I got to guard the little hams and everything. That put me on my path to vegetarianism. When you see what they do, you never eat processed meat again.”

As Dolan settled into the rhythms and routines of her new Atlanta life, she became more involved in activist circles, including the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance (ALFA), the group that hosted the party at which Dolan received the sign to move from Durham to Atlanta. Dolan recalls, “I got involved with ALFA slowly and started doing things. And then, Anita Bryant came to town, and that was my bang on the scene” of activism. Dolan is perhaps best known for the 1978 speech she delivered at the protest against Anita Bryant’s presence in Atlanta, which was hosting that year’s Southern Baptist Convention. Dolan’s speech has come to be known by its introductory provocation, “My name is Maria Helena Dolan, and I come to you today as a defiant dyke!” Though Dolan’s words bear similarity to the famous introduction often uttered by Harvey Milk, one of the highest profile opponents of Anita Bryant’s crusade, in his San Francisco political work—“My name is Harvey Milk, and I am here to recruit you.”—Dolan’s explicit voice and embodied defiance is all her own.[10] Dolan recalled the speech in a 2000 conversation with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Richard Eldredge, “It was important to speak out against Bryant… Now she’s a forgotten joke, but in 1978… we had to let her know that she didn’t have the power she thought she had. She had to know that our unity for rights was stronger.”[11] Dolan remembers the energy of the protest fondly even as she recalls two personal and professional consequences that she faced in the immediate aftermath of her demonstration speech. She states:

We knew she [Anita Bryant] was coming to town. We had a big meeting and asked ourselves, how are we going to deal with the presence of Anita Bryant in our fair city? Some of the gay men said we should get a big billboard that said, ‘we protest the presence of Anita Bryant in our town.’ I was like, ‘What? No. You put bodies in the street.’ You have a demonstration. You say publicly NO. And so that’s what we did. And because I had become more ‘out’ and because I was a good public speaker, they asked me to give the queer speech at the demonstration. Because there was a coalition of people at the demonstration: some of the unions, some of the civil rights groups were there; they recognized that taking away people’s rights with legislation is a very bad precedent. And so I gave my speech and people refer to it a lot as the ‘defiant dyke’ speech. I stood up there and said, ‘My name is Maria Helena Dolan, and I come to you today as a defiant dyke!’ The demonstration crowd went nuts—about 4,000 people in front of the World Congress Center downtown where the Southern Baptist Convention was taking place—they just went nuts. I was always good at riling up a crowd. Of course, the three news channels captured some of the speech (ABC, NBC, CBS), and I was faced with two morning-after consequences. The first was, my mother called me. She had been on the phone with her cousin in Connecticut the night before. They had to speak to each other after 11pm because that’s when the rates went down. And my mom’s cousin, Marietta, had the tv on, and she said, ‘What’s Maria doing on tv?’ And my mom said, ‘I don’t know. I’ll ask her.’ So, sure enough, the next day my mom calls. And I had to tell her all about the demonstration speech. She said, ‘What do you think the family’s going to think?’ And I said, ‘Well they probably aren’t going to say, ‘well that Maria’s just a career girl,’ anymore.’ I had to deal with that from afar, but ultimately that was just family drama. What really concerned me was when I went to work the next day. I was working at the time in heavy truck maintenance for the city of Atlanta. I was in a program through the Urban League that helped partner you with career pathways, and that’s how I got involved with truck maintenance after a few jobs when I first moved to Atlanta. I say now that’s when I was a ‘Diesel Dyke’ because I worked on their garbage trucks and dump trucks. But I was nervous to go to work after the media coverage. I was nervous about how the guys I worked would react. Fortunately, though, most of the guys were just thrilled to know someone on tv. They were like, ‘I know that bitch.’ Still, out of the seventy men I worked with, about thirty of them came up to me throughout the day to say something like, ‘I saw you on tv. Y’all are just giving that lady hell.’ Because it had been on tv, I was validated and ok. But I’m sure some of them didn’t really feel like it was ok. They responded more to my brief fame than the actual content of what I had to say in the speech.[12]

Though the workplace pushback to her 1978 speech were not as severe as she had feared, Dolan notes that she did face instances of harassment from the men at work for being out, furthering her point that her mostly male co-workers did not want to engage or empathize with the “defiant dyke” content of the speech which brought scrutiny upon her. In her view, Dolan’s co-workers did not want to deal with the subject of homosexuality or sexual fluidity even as they applauded the momentary televisual fame of a lesbian in their workplace.

At that time, we didn’t have words for sexual harassment. It was just life. I had been working there [truck maintenance shop] for a short time when all of these centerfolds started appearing on the outside of the toolboxes. And I complained to my supervisor because some of these could have been used for gynecology textbooks. And my supervisor said, ‘Well it’s their toolboxes; they can do what they want.’ So, I went to a gay male friend of mine [neighbor Dave Hayward] and asked him for a centerfold of the biggest, hardest dick he could find. Which, he had many! So, I put all of them on the outside of my toolbox. The men really didn’t want to see that. So, my supervisor came over to my toolbox, and said, ‘You think maybe you could take those down?’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, it’s my toolbox.’ My supervisor agreed that all pictures would be taken down from everyone’s toolboxes. This was, you know, kind of the way you had to deal with those kinds of micro-aggressions in the workplace back then. We didn’t have the language to say this is criminal or unethical or the protection to do that then. You had to fight back in the ways you knew how.[13]

In time, Dolan would leave the toxic work environment at the truck shop to accept a job working for Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), a company at which she would work for more than two decades and where her work environment was less toxic and the work itself more suited to her interests.

I started working at MARTA, and I did a job which was called a hostler before I got into the bus garage, where I worked for several years. And then MARTA began to put together the rail system. MARTA had an apprenticeship program, and that’s how I became involved in automatic train control. I found I had a talent for it, and I enjoyed the electromechanics and other aspects of that job. I did that for twenty years, and eventually I went from being an apprentice technician to being a journeyman, an electronic technician, and then a foreman/ supervisor for ten years. And then, I went to work in quality assurance and safety with MARTA. Some of my colleagues there weren’t thrilled with having an out queer, and others were like, ‘ah, well, it’s just Maria.’[14]

It’s just Maria.” Since coming to Atlanta, Dolan has been out of the closets and into the streets, to use the slogan popularized by early gay liberation activists. Dolan’s fifteen minutes of fame following her speech at the 1978 World Congress Center demonstration propelled her to continue to advocate for gay and lesbian equal rights and social justice in Atlanta as she continued to work professionally for MARTA. One memorable instance of public demonstration occurred on June 28, 1979, when Dolan and activist Gil Robison conducted a mock trial of Harvey Milk’s assassin Dan White on the steps of Atlanta City Hall.[15] Dolan recalls, “What I did was I got a copy of the transcript [of White’s trial], and I said, ‘I cannot believe this shit. I cannot believe it.’ I wrote the script for the demonstration using only words that were in the transcript. I didn’t make anything up. When I presented it on the steps of City Hall, I was like, ‘Why would you not think this guy was guilty?’ So, I asked ‘Members of the Jury,’ that’s what I called the crowd, ‘What is your verdict?’ They yelled, ‘Guilty!’”[16]

Dolan reflects, “People liked how I handled myself in public. I’m able to deliver what people want” in those performative settings. “Often it’s the energy I get from a crowd,” she says. “They want you to be good. They want you to show queer people in a positive light and also talk about the forces that were against us. But we can prevail.” Dolan’s influence was felt among her listeners; she notes numerous encounters with queer people who have told her how meaningful her public speeches have been to them. “I’m glad I could do that. I’m glad I could help you,” she recalls telling them.[17] Dolan merged her talent in public speaking with her training in mass communication when she took to the airwaves in 1980 with the radio program “Lesbian Lip Service,” which aired on WRFG.[18]

Such highly public moments of activism and performance also continued to result in Dolan receiving phone calls from her mother. As Dolan recalls in amusement, “Being an out lesbian certainly had its moments! I was in the paper I don’t know how many times, and each time, my mother would call me up and say, ‘I see you’re in the paper again.’”[19] Dolan recalls the journey towards “coming out” to her mother as linked to what she knew her parents would see in the paper:

I was not officially out [to my parents] for a long time. It was a process. I remember trying to come out to my mother once after they had moved to Alabama. We were driving in her huge Impala. She was driving. I was in the passenger side. And I said to myself, ‘you know, I’ve just got to do this. They’re going to see things in the paper. I’ve just got to do this.’ So, I started in, ‘Mom, you know I’ve had sex with men,’ and before I could go any further, she put her hand on my stomach and said, ‘It’s too upsetting to talk about sex with your daughter.’ Well, that was a clear message. But, you know, I had to tell her. For my mom, an Italian American, your mother is the closest person in your life, and you expect that from your daughter. Being a lesbian put some strain on that for her. She resented people for a while, but in the end, she came around.[20]

And Dolan would appear in the newspaper numerous times for her activism. She told Debbie Newby, who covered 1985 Pride for The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “We still have to deal with a lot of prejudice… People think we want special treatment. But we just want treatment that other people should have. We don’t want to be regarded solely on the basis of our sexual preference and what we look like.” Dolan also reflected on the structure of the closet in queer life, “Some people have not told their place of employment or their folks (that they are gay)… Fortunately, that’s not too many.”[21] Dolan told the AJC’s Holly Crenshaw for 1995 Pride’s coverage, “When you see your government and civic leaders don’t give a [expletive], it radicalizes you… A lot of issues have come up—gay bashing, employment discrimination, the rights of lesbian mothers—and people are fed up. And marching is a real positive step to take.”[22]

“Forward Together” and “Never Straight”: Atlanta Pride, AIDS, and “The Thing”

As Dave Hayward recalls, “Maria is a devout rabble rouser. After her arrival in Atlanta in 1976, she became a major organizer in LGBTQIA+ rights, and for many years launched the Atlanta Pride marches with fiery exhortations to hit the streets for our rights and our freedoms.”[23] In her trademark voice, Dolan puts it a bit differently: “What it comes down to is I’ve never had a problem being the turd in the punch bowl.” Though humorous in tone, Dolan’s elaboration is serious: “I’m going to go where I need to go, and I’m going to say what I need to say,” and not worry about “if that disturbs your feeling of well-being.” Dolan cites trans-trailblazer Sylvia Rivera as an inspiration for her refusal to quiet down when confronted with both intercommunal and intracommunal forces that would keep her voice at a lower volume or muted altogether. In a piece for the Georgia Voice on the importance of Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, Dolan writes, “It’s clear both Marsha and Sylvia embodied what black queer feminist thinker Alexis Pauline Gumbs calls the ‘never straight’ — queer pioneers unable or unwilling to hide their difference — which means they forced their queerness to be publicly acknowledged wherever they went … the ones at the forefront of queer rebellion.”[24] Both Johnson and Rivera “are huge heroes for me,” Dolan says.[25]

Since 1976, the “never straight” Dolan has lifted her voice “at the forefront of queer rebellion” by encouraging others to use theirs. As Hayward mentions, Dolan has frequently given “fiery exhortations” at Atlanta Pride marches to energize her queer brothers and sisters. Though Dolan is a regular Pride fixture, even serving as one of the Grand Marshalls for Pride in 1995, Dolan attended her first Atlanta Pride out of sheer curiosity. Dolan recalls that she did not understand the primary purpose of Pride when she was first invited to attend in 1976: “I’m used to demonstrations being for something or against something, and when my friend Scott, a gay bartender, invited me to my first Pride in Atlanta in 1976, I said ‘what’s this about?’ And I’ll never forget, he said, ‘I don’t know. It’s every year, and we just do it.’ And I went, and I learned what it was all about. I’ve gone most years ever since.” Though Dolan understands Pride to be highly political in its continued commitment to LGBTQIA+ equal rights and protections, Dolan also learned early on that Pride is an important social event full of camaraderie and fun. She reflects, “I remember one of my favorite events in the park during Pride was ‘Dunk a Drag King.’ We rented one of those pieces of equipment. If you threw the ball and hit the target, then the seat would open, and the Drag King would be dunked. Gay men of course were not as good as lesbians at hitting that target! It was very funny! And it was fun. You know, we had fun together!” Dolan knows that Pride offers moments of levity as much as social solidarity. “There’s a great deal of queer life that’s amusing,” Dolan states. “Every minority group that’s abused or persecuted uses humor to make your way smoother.” Dolan recalls that one of her most biting moments of Pride levity involved resignifying a negative professional comment in the service of her own wit:

One year I was standing on the sidelines instead of marching in the parade and I had my sign which said, ‘Yes, I am an agent of Satan, but my duties are mostly ceremonial.’ A woman at work had told me this one day, just randomly, ‘you know you’re an agent of Satan.’ I took that [comment] and made it into something absolutely ridiculous, which it of course is. We have survived by using humor in this way.[26]

Hayward extends Dolan’s humor: “I like to say Maria is a recovering Catholic and a born-again pagan.”[27]

Dolan notes that not every Atlanta Pride march has ended with a “fun” party in Piedmont Park. In many instances, Pride goers marched to other locations in Atlanta for more direct political visibility and recognition. “One of the first Pride’s where I was a speaker,” Dolan states, “we marched to City Hall. We spoke on the steps of City Hall, which to me is the whole point of pride. You come out, march, and you’re a part of something. You feed off the energy of the crowd and return it to them so you all can speak truth to power.”[28] In other instances, Pride participants marched to the state capitol. “That was important,” Dolan says. “It was the Forward Together theme year [1986]. Coca-Cola was approached to sponsor that year and would’ve been I think the first out-right corporate sponsors. There was lots of pushback, and some of us went out and bought lots of Pepsi. Of course, the politics have changed now and Coke is a huge Pride sponsor. But this is the history, and nobody knows it.” Reflecting on the 1986 Pride events, Dyana Bagby writes, “Coke reportedly offers two trailers for the rally, until the company finds out the subject [of the event]; then Coke offers to donate ice cream, safely without the corporate logo.”[29]

Dolan has witnessed the evolution of Atlanta Pride since first arriving in Atlanta in 1976, from the days of gay and lesbian liberation to more inclusive present Pride events that draw in corporate sponsorships and thousands of people from across the country and around the world. “The early Prides were about ‘queer’ liberation,” Dolan states. “There were people in the 70s and 80s who were willing to be public, like myself, and sometimes I felt like I was dragging people along. But, other times, I felt like, ‘wow, look at everybody. This is great. Pride did draw people in like that.” Though Pride increasingly has become a celebratory event in which LGBTQIA+ Atlantans shared humorous moments, claimed liberation and political recognition, and forged identity and social connection, it has not been without its moments of tragedy in Dolan’s recollections. “I remember a kid named Lyle speaking at Pride one year,” Dolan recalls. “He talked about what all the colors of the rainbow flag meant to him. It was a sweet moment. Truly. That night, he was killed. Beaten to death by a young man who was staying at his apartment and supposedly helping him in some way. It was horrifying.” Dolan notes that it is to remember people like Lyle and to welcome all those young men and women who need to believe in the colors of the rainbow flag that Pride still matters. Despite some “horrifying” memories, Dolan states succinctly, “I can’t imagine not having Pride.”

Dolan would accumulate more difficult memories across the 1980s and 1990s in Atlanta as the community struggled with its local HIV/AIDS epidemic. If many of the early Prides were about what Dolan terms “queer liberation,” then she notes “that trajectory got derailed by AIDS.”[30] In the early 1980s, Dolan recalls the highly energized work activists were doing to engage the community in critical conversations. “We organizers set up a one-night-a-week series of panels and discussions with different queer topics,” Dolan states. “It was at the old gay center that was on Ponce de Leon. The one that attracted the most people from what I remember was about lesbian separatism. People had a genuine curiosity about it. This is the kind of thing we were doing. We were creating community; we were trying to establish that sense of connection. Then AIDS started… The whole arc of early gay liberation was derailed to a great extent by AIDS.”

Though the activist energy shifted from early liberationist tactics to those designed to combat deadly misinformation, stigma, and government neglect of communities most affected by AIDS, Dolan recalls more intimately the immense toll HIV/AIDS took on the lives of lesbians like herself who served as caretakers to their gay male friends dying of AIDS. “Because I had so many very good friends who were gay men, it was hard,” Dolan remembers. “They were just dying. You’d hear someone had been diagnosed and then two weeks later they were dead before you even got a chance to go see them. And they were dying horribly.” Even so, Dolan recalls that “a lot of lesbians took care of their gay friends. And the gay men took care of each other also, don’t get me wrong.” When asked if she noticed the urgency of AIDS bringing gay men and lesbians closer together, Dolan responded that some of the friendly internecine battles from early gay and lesbian liberation persisted throughout the early years of the AIDS crisis, but most did not. “There were many gay men who wanted nothing to do with lesbians and many lesbians who wanted nothing to do with gay men,” Dolan recalls,

I was one of the organizers for the Southeastern Conference for Lesbians and Gay Men. There was a lot of education that had to take place before we [gay men and lesbians] could work together. Our lives are very different in many ways, and we had to develop that common language and understanding with one another. It isn’t something that you just have. There’s a lot of privilege that many men, especially, had no concept of. That had to be worked on… But [once worked on] there were many gay men and lesbians who had deep, deep friendships. AIDS really reminded us of our importance to one another beyond the petty shit.[31]

Ray Kluka, ca. 1979. Photograph courtesy of Dave Hayward, 2021.

Personally, Dolan notes that one of her most difficult memories from this time is the loss of one of her deep friends, local activist, director of the Atlanta Gay Center, and editor of Etcetera Magazine Ray Kluka, who died of AIDS on June 10, 1989, and after whom the Ray Kluka Park on Monroe Drive is named. Dolan and Kluka had attended the second National March on Washington in 1987 and had been arrested for their acts of civil disobedience on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court for protesting the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision. Covering the protest, Stacey Benton quoted Dolan as “addressing the crowd as ‘sisters and brothers of sex criminals.”[32]

Dolan recalls the arrest,

You have to organize civil disobedience if it’s going to have meaning and have a manifestation of what your goal is. You’re assigned to an affinity group. We had a big morning session before the protest where we got into groups and picked names for our affinity group. My group was the ‘shameless hussies.’ There were five of us. Some groups did performances on the steps. As the cops came, groups slowly got zip tied and dragged onto the buses. We would sit on the ground during arrest, our act of defiance. But I stood up for arrest because I have a back condition and didn’t want to be dragged. So, I asked if I could stand and walk on the bus. And I did. Ironically, my arresting officer was a lesbian who told us to take our zip ties off when we got on the bus. It was clearly all ceremonial. Most of us got bused to the city jail and were let out very quickly by paying a fine of $100. I was arrested with ‘Oscar Wilde’ and ‘Nancy Reagan,’ those were the names some friends gave in booking. After we got out, we went to Chinatown for dinner. So my arrest wasn’t all that traumatic compared to so many others we’ve seen.

Though Kluka was not in her affinity group, Dolan mentions that they met up not long after the protest. “It turns out Ray had a trick!,” Dolan laughs. “I’m telling you, he loved men! I mean he was really the nicest, funniest, cutest little guy, but he could not resist a dick anywhere! He had what we might say is a healthy appetite.”

Dolan would be instrumental in the preservation of Kluka’s papers after his death through her work with the Atlanta Lesbian and History Thing.[33] “Towards the end there were some of us who were really there for him but also for his parents, because they came down because it was clear he was going to die. When things are very clear like that, it cuts through bullshit, you know? You’re really present,” Dolan says. “Before he went into his final non-lucid phase, he said to me, ‘I want you to have my papers. You’ll know what to do with them.’ And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know what the fuck I’ll do with them, but ok.’ And he had these three big shipping boxes, and that’s what I had in my study after he died. And I had a few little personal things of his that his mom gave me as well. He was a big Star Trek fan, and he had all these Star Trek things. He even went to a convention once. He was a sweet-natured guy. He was fun.”[34]

We do have a history, and that’s how you can be a people. That’s the thing that coheres.”

— Maria Helena Dolan in conversation with Eric Solomon, 2021

Though AIDS was emotionally and physically depleting for activists acting up in the service of their friends and fellow LGBTQIA+ Atlantans disproportionately affected by the then fatal virus, Dolan also notes that AIDS ignited further energy for activist Atlanta. “But AIDS also radicalized many of us further,” she reflects. “Here’s a moment when your privilege and your access to things didn’t matter. You or people you loved were dying and no one wanted anything to do with you or them.”[35] When confronted with such existential crisis, Dolan notes, the only thing to do was take to the streets, take to the pages of the press, and use your voice and body in any way you can to help.

Candace Chellew, “Atlanta Gay and Lesbian History Thing wants your stories,” Southern Voice, January 28, 1993. Screenshot by Eric Solomon, 2021.

Amid loss and grief, Dolan helped to establish an archive to serve as a repository for the stories and artifacts of gay and lesbian Atlantans. Along with local activists Cal Gough, John Howard, Joy Wasson, Liz Throop, Gil Robison, Terry Bird, and David Whittier, Dolan was one of the founders of the Atlanta Lesbian and Gay History Thing. Dolan notes, “We referred to it as ‘The Thing,’” and Dolan specifically praises Atlanta History Center’s Ann Salter as being instrumental in “getting things going” and Don Rooney for continued efforts with the collections. “We worked with the newly named Atlanta History Center [it had been the Atlanta Historical Society until 1990] to get a collection going. Memorabilia, t-shirts, my collected writing, other people’s writing, and materials. The things from people we lost.”[36] Dolan reflects on the origins of her personal involvement: “I had Ray’s papers, and I had cats who were sleeping and such all over them. Terry [Bird] said, ‘we really should approach AHC, because these are historic things that only happened here.’ Ann Salter was one of the people that we met with [at AHC], who was instrumental in getting things going. They said, ‘This is a part of Atlanta history that has not been preserved. We need to do this. This is important.’  I drove my boxes over there, Ray’s stuff and some of mine too. I was really proud of getting that going. And of the work we did with the 25th Anniversary of Pride exhibit they put on.” Terry Bird, a former Secretary for AGLHT, reflects that the bulk of the group’s activity took place over eighteen months: “When Liz and Joy moved away, the group lost steam.”[37] Dolan reflects on one of her favorite artifacts in the AHC collection, “One of the things they had was a stool from the Tower lounge. Now,” she pauses, “that has seen a lot of lesbian butt right there.”[38]

Reflecting on her involvement with the “Thing” and the kinds of work the small collective accomplished, one public event stands out in Dolan’s memory:

I remember that’s when we were still very much plugged in the struggle for liberation and some of us with ‘Thing’ had a table at Pride. We had a trifold foam board with a map of the world that we set up and we invited people to come put a push pin in the spot where they were from. We always had this feeling that Atlanta was this beckoning hub for queers to come from little towns. Based on that very unscientific survey, we found that yes, a lot of people from very small towns around the South had come to Atlanta because they wanted to have a queerer life. But people would come from all over. In fact, I remember there was one pushpin in Balochistan. We had people from Europe, South America, and it really reminded us that this ‘History Thing’ is far more complex than we understand. How people move through Atlanta as queer-identifying folk is not simple. By and large, though, it was people from all over the South. We tried to use this to reach our people. It was one way we tried to collect stories.

The collection and preservation of stories served as a central mission of the group. In “Atlanta Gay and Lesbian History Thing wants your stories” published in The Southern Voice, Thing co-founder John Howard publicized a January 1993 oral history seminar to train local Atlantans and stated one of the purposes of the Thing’s mission to collect oral histories: “This way we can learn about our past, and by the very process of collecting the histories, we create community now across generational lines by having younger people interview older community members.”[39] Howard proposes a radio-show that could help promote the work of “Thing” and collect the stories of queer Atlanta. “We do have a history, and that’s how you can be a people. That’s the thing that coheres,” Dolan states.[40] Dolan’s comment echo what she told The Atlanta Journal Constitution‘s Holly Crenshaw in 1995: “We wanted the exhibit to show that we’re a viable community, that we have a history and that we’re not invisible.”[41]

A collage featuring three examples of Dolan’s column “Our Stories: Fleshing the Bones of Lesbian/Gay History” in Southern Voice.

Dolan sees he work with the “Thing” and her writing during this period as some of her proudest moments as a lesbian-activist-storyteller. Much of Dolan’s writing and drafts of her essay are housed in her own personal collection at the Atlanta History Center. In addition to her column “Maria’s Believe it or Else” published in the ALFA newsletter, Dolan wrote for Atlanta queer publications such as Etcetera Magazine and Southern Voice. She continues to regularly publish with Georgia Voice. Some of her published series include “Slouching Towards Lesbos,” “Sapphic Frenzy,” “Dyke Writes,” and “This Ole Hoe.” As a result of her regular tongue-in-cheek nature column, “This Ole Hoe,” published with Southern Voice, the editors invited her to write a queer history column, which she titled “Our Stories: Fleshing the Bones of Lesbian/Gay History.” In one “Fleshing the Bones” entry titled “The Fire Within Us,” Dolan writes, “We come from divergent backgrounds, yet we each bear that fire within us, which burns to connect with other members of our true pack… To understand ourselves as a people, we need to know our lore. When we know where we come from, we can better formulate where we wish to head in the future.” Dolan tells me, “I’m very proud and humbled to have been able to have written about this history. I tried to say that gay men and women and trans people are a community. I tried to flesh out that in my writing. Put flesh on the bones of who we are.”

Maria Helena Dolan, “This Ole Hoe: Earthshakin’ Observations,” Southern Voice, May 26, 1994.

Dolan’s commitment to the preservation of queer history made her involvement with the Touching Up Our Roots live story tour a natural progression merging her performance skills with her historic consciousness. She had been a friend of Dave Hayward for many years, even being next door neighbors at one point. Hayward and Dolan met through mutual acquaintance Gil Robison in the 1970s. “When the apartment next door came up vacant,” Dolan recalls, “I told Dave he might as well move here. It couldn’t really support life as we knew it because it was cold, but we lived next door to each other for a while early on.”[42]

“It’s Been Rebuilt” or “It Takes More than a Slipped Disc to Stop an Amazon”: Coming Home, Remaining Defiant

Maria Helena Dolan and Chris Carroll, 2021. Courtesy of Maria Helena Dolan, 2021.

Towards the end of our initial conversation, Dolan answered a phone call from her wife, Chris Carroll. After a few moments, Dolan told me, “We’ve been trying to get temporary housing for a few months because it’s going to be a very long time before we get back in our house. She just said that Monday we’ll be able to get in.” As of September 2021, Dolan and her wife Chris are no longer in a “carriage house” or temporary housing and are back in their own home. As Dolan told me in a text message. “We’ve been putting life back together after the house was destroyed last July. Well finalmente! It’s been rebuilt.”[43] Dolan continues, “People who haven’t been through something like this, don’t know what it does to you. I’m a pretty tough old bird, but this has been hard.”[44] I recall what Dolan told the AJC’s Holly Morris when attending the 1993 Atlanta Pride festival while in a wheelchair, “It takes more than a slipped disc to stop an Amazon.”[45] I know it will take more than a fallen tree to stop the indomitable Maria Helena Dolan.

Dolan and Carroll’s rebuilt home function as an apt metaphor for their relationship. Dolan notes that she and Carroll initially met in North Carolina at a TALF event, and the two moved to Atlanta around the same time, ca. 1976. “We’d chic-chat and that kind of thing, but it wasn’t until I started doing things in the community that she really noticed me. It’s a common lesbians story,” she notes with a laugh. “We met a long time ago and reconnected years later [1994] after I’d stopped being a ‘hot dog’ so to speak. But we’d circled each other for a long time.” The two helped form the ALFA associated Lucina’s Music, which was part of a women’s music circuit helping to bring artists to town and promoting local artists like “Pretty Good for Girls.”[46] “I didn’t realize it, but Chris had me in her sights for a long time. It just took our working together and some failed relationships along the way for us to finally get together.”[47] Dolan and Carroll have been together for nearly thirty years. Though the two attempted to get married in California before the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, Dolan and Carroll are not legally married.  “Wife,” Dolan says, “is easiest to help people understand, but I call her my ‘old lady,’ mi queridita.” 

The two have a song, “Bésame Mucho,” which is “actually kind of a sad song,” Dolan says, “but there was this moment when we were in Mexico City. We were sitting at a table in the bar where Pancho Villa had shot up the roof. Right on the Zócalo there in Mexico City. They had musicians coming around strumming. They asked us what song to play, and I said ‘Bésame Mucho.’ They played it. I reached for her hand as they sang. Nobody cared or looked at us funny. It was a sweet moment. I still look at her and say ‘bésame.’”

“In my better moments, I still believe in my people, the queers: cultural and sexual nonconformists, with the best of us seeking to better the world.”

– Maria Helena Dolan

Maria Helena Dolan, “A Personal Election Note,” Georgia Voice, November 5, 2020, https://thegavoice.com/outspoken/a-personal-election-note/.

Print Edition of Dolan’s “Little Five Points Was Just Crawling with Lesbians!” in Georgia Voice, September 11, 2020. Scan by Eric Solomon, 2021. Courtesy of Dave Hayward, 2021.

In “The Woman-Identified Woman” (1970), Radicalesbians wrote of their desire for lesbian-feminism to move past self-definitions dependent on male culture: “For in this sexist society, for a woman to be independent means she can’t be a woman— she must be a dyke… As long as the label ‘dyke’ can be used to frighten women into a less militant stand, keep her separate from her sisters, keep her from giving primacy to anything other than men and family—then to that extent she is controlled by the male culture.”[48] Since leaving her Catholic college and her military-family upbringing, Dolan has refused to be controlled and has set the terms for how she defines herself and interacts with the world. Forty-five years since arriving in Atlanta to unpack a U-Haul to move into her $27 a week apartment on Piedmont Avenue, Dolan continues to identify as a “badass woman, la chingona, lesbiana, dyke.” Across her time in Atlanta, Dolan understands that the city has “several queer histories,” many of which are still being told by a new generation of bold and defiant storytellers.[49] Ever imploring audiences to join her “badass” defiance, Dolan gets the last word with an Atlanta fairytale of sorts, a final critical invitation told as only Maria Helena Dolan could tell it:

Once upon a time in Atlanta, there were enclaves where queers bunched together. For the white men, it was Midtown. They bought the old run-down, dilapidated houses, and re-did them. That pushed out the people that had been living here. That’s what happened to the house I first lived in week-to-week when I got to Atlanta. And some of the houses now are gone, and now they’re these restaurants. A lot of lesbians were in Little Five Points, which became known as Little ‘Dyke’ Five Points, and the joke was how come there are never any floods in little five points? Because there’s a dyke on every corner. In the West End, there were a number of white and black queer people. Atlanta’s always been a segregated town. It still is. There’s no question about it. When the professional class white people come in, they push other people out. That’s messy, and we need to address that. There’s a lot of that history that hasn’t been told.

There’s plenty of work to be done. Let’s be real. We have a better sense of the optics these days and who must be included: trans people, AIDS groups, people of color. But of course, that isn’t enough. I remember when I was Pride Grand Marshall in 1995… Pride had become a celebration then, and for many, the radical roots had been severed. Many didn’t know about the early eras of activism and others just wanted some queer joy in the middle of AIDS, which we totally needed. We still need queer joy. But we also need the radical roots.[50]

Author: Eric Solomon

Originally Published: October 13, 2021

[1] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020.

[2] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020. For more on the resignification of “chingona,” see Paulina Rojas, “Chingona Definition: Reclaiming What It Means to Be A Fearless Latina,” Coachella Unincorporated, January 22, 2018, https://medium.com/@CoachellaUninc/chingona-definition-reclaiming-what-it-means-to-be-a-fearless-latina-ce904efa4be2.

[3] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020.

[4] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021.

[5] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020.

[10] Harvey Milk, “The Hope Speech (1978),” We are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics, edited by Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan (New York: Routledge, 1997): 451–453.

[11] Richard L. Eldredge, “30th Annual Atlanta Pride Festival: The Early Years- Those Who Fought for Gay Rights Recall the Struggle,” The Atlanta-Journal Constitution (Atlanta, GA), June 23, 2000.

[12] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020.

[13] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020. Follow up clarification, Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021. See also, Shelia M. Poole, “Your Workplace, Gays on the Job: Working Against Fear, Acceptance Varies with Employers, Co-worker,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, (Atlanta, GA), Oct. 18, 1993.

[14] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020.

[15] Wesley Chenault, “Atlanta Since Stonewall, 1969-2009,” https://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/atlanta-since-stonewall/out_in_atlanta.

[16] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Dolan recalls, ““I was doing the show when Bill Smith died.” Bill Smith died on March 9, 1980. Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021. See Maria Helena Dolan, “Little Five Points Was Just Crawling with Lesbians!,” Georgia Voice, September 10, 2020, https://thegavoice.com/community/little-five-points-was-just-crawling-with-lesbians/. See also, Martin Padgett, A Night at the Sweet Gum Head (New York: W.W. Norton, 2021), 290.

[19] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020.

[20] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021.

[21] Debbie Newby, “700 March to Support Gay Rights- Prejudice Still Problem for Many, Activist Say,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, GA), June 23, 1985.

[22] Holly Crenshaw, “Gay Pride Events Expected to Attract Record Crowds,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, (Atlanta, GA), June 22, 1995.

[23] Dave Hayward email message to author, September 15, 2021.

[24] Maria Helena Dolan, “Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera: Two of the Progenitors of the Modern Queer Movement,” Georgia Voice, October 8, 2020, https://thegavoice.com/community/marsha-p-johnson-and-sylvia-rivera-two-of-the-progenitors-of-the-modern-queer-movement/. Dolan cites Alexis Pauline Gumbs idea of the “never straight.” See Gumbs, “In Praise of the Never Straight: Cheryl Clarke,” The Feminist Wire, October 4, 2012, https://thefeministwire.com/2012/10/in-praise-of-the-never-straight-cheryl-clarke/. See also, Hugh Ryan, “What Does Liberation Look Like?,” Slate, June 24, 2015, https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/06/pride-is-a-time-for-liberation-not-just-tolerance.html.

[25] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021.

[26] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020.

[27] Dave Hayward, email message to author, September 15, 2021.

[28] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020. Although Dolan could not recall the year, according to Dyana Bagby in 1981, “LGT Pride events include a street festival on 7th Street and a march from Piedmont Park to City Hall; an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 attend.” See Bagby, “Celebrating 44 years of Atlanta Pride and who we are,” Georgia Voice, October 10, 2014, https://thegavoice.com/news/georgia/timeline-celebrating-44-years-atlanta-pride/.

[29] Bagby, “Celebrating 44 years of Atlanta Pride and who we are.”

[30] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020.

[31] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020. In a subsequent conversation, Dolan recalls that organizing for the conference felt like “being beat upon with several different two by fours… We were so burned out.” Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021. As Hooper Shultz writes, “The Conferences changed the Southeast by organizing one of the first public and open spaces for openly gay men and lesbians to congregate” (1). Atlanta hosted the conference in 1978, 1983, and 1987; Dolan recalls being involved in the first two conferences. For more, see David Hooper Schulz, “The Southern Front: Gay Liberation Activists In The U.S. South And Public Hist And Public History Through Audiovisual Exhibition visual Exhibition” (2020). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. https://egrove.olemiss.edu/etd/1884/

[32] Stacey Benton, “200 Protest High Court Ruling Upholding Sodomy Law,” The Atlanta Journal- Constitution, (Atlanta, GA), July 4, 1986.

[33] See Wesley Chenault, “Out in Atlanta: Atlanta’s Gay and Lesbian Communities Since Stonewall: A Chronology, 1969-2012,” https://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/atlanta-since-stonewall/out_in_atlanta.

[34] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021.

[35] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Terry Bird conversation with the author, October 2, 2021.

[38] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021.

[39] The Southern Voice, January 28, 1993. The Atlanta Gay and Lesbian (Lesbian and Gay) History Thing and the Pride 25th anniversary exhibition in Atlanta parallels other exhibitions in the early-mid 1990s in cities around the country, from Becoming Visible: The Legacy of Stonewall at the New York Public Library (1994) to AIDS/Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Historical Society (1993–1994) to Public Faces/ Private Lives: Boston’s Lesbian and Gay History presented by The History Project at the Boston Public Library (1996). Archivist Wesley Chenault would curate another exhibit at the Atlanta History center in 2005: “The Unspoken Past: Atlanta Lesbian and Gay History, 1940–1970.” See Susan Ferentinos, “Ways of Interpreting Queer Pasts,” The Public Historian, 41, no. 2 (2019): 19–43.

[40] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021.

[41] Crenshaw, 1995.

[42] Maria Helena Dolan text message to Eric Solomon, September 14, 2021.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021.

[45] Holly Morris, “55-foot-long Gay Pride Timeline Notes 50-year History in Atlanta.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, (Atlanta, GA), June 24, 1993.

[46] Dolan writes, “1977 saw the launch of Lucina’s Music, a women’s music production company, where we all ran the sound boards, created flyers, and booked acts.” See Maria Helena Dolan, “Little Five Points Was Just Crawling with Lesbians!,” Georgia Voice, September 10, 2020, https://thegavoice.com/community/little-five-points-was-just-crawling-with-lesbians/.

[47] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021.

[48] Radicalesbians, “The Woman-Identified Woman,” We are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics, edited by Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan (New York: Routledge, 1997): 397–398.

[49] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 23, 2021.

[50] Maria Helena Dolan in discussion with the author, September 24, 2020.