Last week, three Korean immigrant women — Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim and Soon Chung Park — were killed by a 21-year-old gunman at Gold Massage Spa, which sits just next door from the building that once housed the Otherside.
“The minute it [the attack] happened, I thought, ‘Here we go again,’” Beverly McMahon, the Otherside’s former owner, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I just see a lot of hate. I saw it then, and I see it now.”
For McMahon, 79, the parallels between the two violent incidents are undeniable: Although the Otherside had been a well-known hub for Atlanta’s gays and lesbians, law enforcement officials never officially concluded why it had been bombed.
And last week, after police in Cherokee County, Ga., appeared to downplay the role of race in the spa shootings, many advocates have since called for the incident to be treated as an anti-Asian hate crime. Of eight victims killed at Gold Spa and two other businesses, six were Asian women.
“It’s just an awful thing that happened to them, and the same to us,” McMahon said. “It is a hate crime, and it doesn’t go away.”
McMahon had already been running an Otherside Lounge in the 1980s in Florida, when she decided to franchise the bar and open up a second location in Atlanta, according to the Georgia Voice, a local LGBTQ news outlet.
A former steakhouse, the cavernous, 12,000 square-foot nightclub was meant to feature something for everyone. Business-minded customers could cut deals by the Martini Room’s jazz trios and see-through fireplace, she said. Live bands performed on a sprawling outdoor patio. Much of the rest of the space was reserved for the dancing crowds — gay and straight, White and Black, and everything in between.
“My goal in that bar was always to bring people of all lifestyles together and make them feel safe, and make them happy,” McMahon said. “Somebody could come in and be who they are.”
Otherside hosted an annual transgender convention and chose a different nightclub theme every night — country, Latin, hip-hop — though a cookout was always the main event on “Cruise Ship Sundays,” said former manager Dana Ford. Among other famous customers, Ellen DeGeneres and tennis champion Martina Navratilova both paid visits.
The bar was just hitting its stride when Rudolph, 31, hid two explosives filled with nails on Feb. 21, 1997. According to his memoir, he had identified the nightclub as “one of several Sodomite organizations in Atlanta” while hunting through in the “lifestyles” section of the local newspaper.
When the first bomb exploded, a loud “pop” went off by the patio. Managers thought there had been a shooting, and McMahon rushed to the scene, arriving just as the other bomb went off.
“There was just blood and glass everywhere. It was horrendous,” she recalled. “All the customers were lined up across the street. Police closed everything down looking for the potential bomber.”
Although she and Ford rushed to reopen the Otherside, the violence left them fighting the fallout on all fronts. Interest from some clients fizzled out. Insurance would not cover bombings at the time, McMahon said, and she spent the ensuing years in legal battles to cover about $5 million in damage.
More painful, she said, was what happened to many of her customers. Ensuing news conferences forced many of the bombing survivors out of the closet, with at least one badly injured woman reportedly losing her job over it.
Law enforcement officials did not officially solve the bombings remained until 2005, when federal officials struck a plea deal with Rudolph.
By then, he had gained notoriety as the bomber who attacked the 1996 Olympic Games — and then escaped for five years in the mountains of North Carolina.
After he was caught in 2003, Rudolph confessed to a string of bombings in the South: at the Olympics, at abortion clinics in Alabama and Georgia, and at the Otherside. In all, he killed two people and injured more than 100 others.
Rudolph said Olympic bombing was plotted “to confound, anger and embarrass” the federal government due to its “abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand.” Although he has denied being a white supremacist, he once lived with a group that participated in a so-called “Christian Identity” movement.
McMahon said she believed the nightclub may have also been targeted because of her brother, a doctor who performed late-term abortions. In his memoir, Rudolph wrote that his previous attacks on clinics had left them on high alert, forcing him to turn to an LGBTQ establishment.
At a trial over the bombing, she approached Rudolph to ask what exactly motivated him to attack her nightclub. He didn’t answer.
Robert Aaron Long, the suspected killer in last week’s shootings, told police in an interview that his attacks were not racially motivated. Instead, he reportedly cited a self-described “sexual addiction,” though many advocates have questioned that account, which they say is inextricable from potentially overlapping motives of race and gender. He has been charged with eight counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault, and authorities say they are still investigating his motives.
Twenty-four years after McMahon’s own business was attacked, the fallout over the deadly violence next door has reaffirmed her own response to the bombings.
“The gay people, they’re picked on, the Asian people, they’re picked on, all these groups are picked on — and the past four years has not helped with any of it,” McMahon said. “With this kind of hate, we have to stay strong and band together.”
— Tim Craig contributed to this report.