Kris Kale Hanson stands outside Swinging Richards in a black wig and fishnet shirt, lips smeared with dark lipstick. He says it’s his third night in a row at the club. His friend Robin, wearing a velvet jacket, adds, “We’re here to worship at the church of Tyson!”—referring to one of the club’s dancers. She’s been coming since 2014, and has the X-rated picture a dancer took with her phone to prove it. It’s January 15; they’re here to witness the club’s last day. Striding past a crowd of about 150 on his way inside, a dancer asks if everybody is ready to see some—well, some Swinging Richards. Everybody cheers.
Swinging Richards, which opened in 1996 on Northside Drive, was one of the few remaining strip clubs in the country that catered to gay men, and the first club in Atlanta to allow full-frontal male nudity. When it opened, gay sex was still illegal in some states. In 1996, President Bill Clinton—who had already banned openly gay people from serving in the military—signed the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as between a man and a woman only. Swinging Richards’ 26-year life has coincided with a sea change in LGBTQ rights: In 2003, the Supreme Court struck down antisodomy laws; Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell fell in 2011; and in 2015, the Supreme Court extended the right to marry to same-sex couples.
Over the decades, Swinging Richards has been much more than a den of debauchery, says Cameron Belle, the club’s social media director: It was “a pillar of the LGBTQ+ community from its onset,” hosting benefits for organizations like Atlanta Pride and the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus. “People have created memories here,” Belle says. “They fall in love in here. They have met best friends here. They had their sense of community here.” Over the years the club has seen a number of celebrities walk through its doors, including Tiffany Haddish and Ed Sheeran.
Inside Swinging Richards on its last night, Britney Spears’s “Gimme More” blasts as crew-cut Howie, 43, does push-ups onstage wearing nothing but a pair of silver and white Air Jordans. On another part of the stage, Scotty—all six-pack abs and floppy auburn hair—arranges himself into a Warrior II pose. Customers gather on the side, dollar bills clasped in their fists, waiting to stuff them into the dancers’ armbands, or more adventurous locations.
The club is both a place for gay men and a “place for people who are still in the closet to be who they are,” Howie says. Over his three years at Swinging Richards, he’s danced for many married “straight” men on business trips. Questions about sexuality were ever present. “Every night, we were asked if we were gay or straight,” says Scotty. “When putting food on the table is dependent on putting smiles on faces, you become very fluid.” Howie—who is straight—makes enough in tips to justify his flying down every weekend from Chicago. Many gay men “find the straight guy the sexiest thing, but they want his attention on them, not on the girls,” he observes. Other gay men prefer to stick to their own: “They’re like, I’ve had my heart broken too many times by straight guys.”
As the night continues, skinny men, hairy men, and dad-bodied men take the stage as the crowd—about three-quarters men—oohs and aahs. By the end of the night, over 600 customers from around the world have plunked down the cover fee—$15 before 10 p.m., $25 after. Daniel Hernandez, who lives in San Diego, tells me he’s been coming here since 1997.
The dancers have changed since then. They used to all look like Greek gods, Belle says. “But we understand that everybody’s not into muscles, so our owner decided to hire a more diverse group,” including genderqueer dancers.
Swinging Richards’ owners decided around Thanksgiving to shutter the club; Covid-19, Belle said, had tanked business. Yet Swinging Richards has encountered obstacles for nearly a decade. Since 2013, the club has faced lawsuits from dancers who claim they were improperly classified as independent contractors, instead of employees who deserve minimum wage. One lawsuit led to a court ordering Swinging Richards to pay $1.3 million in back wages. The company still owes some of its former dancers over $746,000, according to court records. The club’s parent company filed for bankruptcy in 2019. That year, trying to generate income, Swinging Richards brought in female dancers to perform from noon to 8 p.m., when the club was usually closed. The experiment didn’t work, and Swinging Richards soldiered on with male dancers.
Is this truly the end? From his booth overlooking the stage, the DJ hints at a possible rebirth in the Cheshire Bridge Road area (though Belle says the comments were more reflective of the DJ’s hopes than any concrete plans). “Thanks so much for all the support over the years, waiting out in the cold and rain,” he continues. “God bless.” Then, without skipping a beat, he returns his attention to the show: “Main stage we’ve got Howie.” House music blares, and Howie shimmies, his “Never Give Up” chest tattoo glimmering under the lights.
Two days later, Scotty writes to me: “Essentially, all of society is playing the strip game, too. We slowly take off layers and become okay with the things we find out about ourselves.”
This article appears in our March 2022 issue.