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Mardi Gras Bash Celebrates Athens’ LGBTQ History

Historic Athens’ annual Mardi Gras Masquerade is returning this Fat Tuesday, and will honor the vibrant history of Athens’ LGBTQ community. 

Historic Athens has recognized a variety of causes with their Mardi Gras celebration in its four-year history, including the West Broad Street School and Preservation and Sustainability. This year’s theme, curated in partnership with Athens Pride and Queer Collective, pays homage to the stories and accomplishments of Athenians who identify as LGBTQ. 

The event calls particular attention to one groundbreaking piece of Athens’ LGBTQ history: the University of Georgia Committee on Gay Education’s first dance, whose 50th anniversary is approaching on Mar. 10. Regarded as the first openly gay social event at a Southeastern university, approximately 500 students attended. In a sign of the times, the Red & Black student newspaper placed black bars over the faces of attendees in photographs to hide their identities. 

Backlash from the UGA administration nearly prevented the dance. In fact, Superior Court Judge James Barrow granted a restraining order to CGE students against UGA mere hours before the dance, allowing it to take place in the nick of time. Resistance continued, though: a member of Ravenstone, the local band performing that night, was even confronted outside the venue by a Klu Klux Klan member. Asa “Bill” Green, a CGE co-founder who helped to organize the dance, reported receiving phone calls threatening his life. CGE held steadfast and is now operating as the Pride Alliance.

“Especially at a time right now where we’re having discussions all around Athens about whether we are an affirming community for people in the LGBTQ community, this felt like an important time to emphasize how long that discussion has been going on. And to celebrate—it’s not just pointing out the shortcomings of where the community has struggled with affirmation. We’re also looking to commemorate the bravery of the people that held that dance and that attended that dance,” Historic Athens Executive Director Tommy Valentine said. “It felt appropriate to celebrate the legacy of that party with Mardi Gras.” 

Terrapin Brewery is hosting the event, to be held Mar. 1 from 6 p.m. to midnight. Attendees are encouraged to wear masks—not the crumpled surgical ones hanging from your rearview mirror, the fun Mardi Gras kind—and can purchase tickets here.

The masquerade will be hosted by Hope Iglehart, Historic Athens’ newly hired director of engagement and African American heritage, and Monique Sanders, a New Orleans native and founder and CEO of the education nonprofit Get STEMulated. 

In addition to crowning the annual Mardi Gras court and holding a best-dressed competition, the celebration will feature live music by Blair Crimmins & The Hookers, a traditional Samba dance performance by the Modern Pinups and a drag show thanks to Athens Pride and Queer Collective.

Most of the proceeds will go to Historic Athens, which is hoping to make Iglehart’s position, currently funded by a year-long grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, permanent. The remaining 10% will support Athens Pride and Queer Collective. 

Terrapin’s location allows for indoor and outdoor celebration. For additional COVID-19 safety, masqueraders are required to present proof of vaccination or a negative test. 

Much of what brings people together in Athens is advocacy and promoting social causes, Valentine said. Historic Athens’ Mardi Gras event is a special opportunity to build fellowship among diverse groups in Athens outside of activism.

“While protests are incredibly important, there’s also a necessary amount of camaraderie-building that has to happen for movements to be successful,” Valentine said. “We’re excited because this event brings people together from different racial backgrounds, different socioeconomic statuses, different geographic locations in Athens. This year it’s a special time to consider how we’re bringing together people from different orientations and identities.”

Historic Athens boasts a full calendar for the months following the Masquerade. Iglehart is launching her Full Story Initiative in April, which seeks to unearth histories of marginalized communities to build a more well-rounded portrait of Athens history. Historic Athens will celebrate National Preservation Month in May, and in June will hold their 53rd annual Athens Preservation Awards Ceremony.