Lori Divine performs with Athens Showgirl Cabaret and the Atlanta Armorettes.
The first American gay pride parade was called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March and happened in 1970—a direct response to the riot at New York City's Stonewall Inn the year before. What began as a somber march to commemorate loss of life and highlight police violence has evolved into a festival celebrating freedom and diversity, and it's a tradition practiced in cities both small and large.
Athens PRIDE began in 1998, when then Georgia Review managing editor Annette Hatton organized a potluck picnic of LBGT+ friends at Lake Herrick. Hatton founded GLOBES (which stands for Gay, Lesbian Or Bisexual Employees and Supporters, though the group stresses that its “outdated” acronym does not exclude any community members from participating) with colleagues Nancy McNair and Vernon Wall in 1994, primarily to address the needs of LBGT+ faculty and staff at UGA, but the need for broader community support was immediately evident. The picnic was mostly just a community-building effort, according to Athens PRIDE Vice President and UGA instructor DeeDee Kane, and the local interest in the event was overwhelming.
Around 2011, “they really felt that they'd outgrown Lake Herrick, and so they moved to Lay Park,” Kane says. “There were about 15 [vendor] booths, they had a diva [drag] show, they had food.” Fun times were had, but they still felt that the space was too small. “So we decided to try downtown,” Kane says. Now, the festival is on Washington Street.
And what exactly has Athens PRIDE grown into? The potluck picnic and community-building spirit is still central to its role in our city, as the organization has grown in its ability to provide resources for members of the LBGT+ community and their allies. When most people think of gay pride celebrations, technicolor parades and “out” celebrities throwing candy from floats come to mind. What most don't see is the year-round community support that LBGT+ pride organizations provide to their communities and those aligned with them, and Athens is no different. The past few years' focus for Athens PRIDE has been on the organization’s community support groups, in particular the Athens Youth PRIDE group and Trans/Non-Binary Support Group. One of the coordinator/facilitators for both groups is Riley Kirkpatrick, who is also a board member for Athens PRIDE.
In addition to a variety of social events starting Thursday, Sept. 7, this year’s PRIDE festival on Sunday, Sept. 10 will feature vendor booths including not just local businesses and food trucks, but local advocacy groups and political campaigns.
“What we're trying to focus on now is growing the [support] groups,” Kane says, “and increasing sponsorships and support for PRIDE so that we can then give back to other organizations. In light of recent political events, we really want to be part of giving back.”
The group is putting an emphasis on diversifying the events it sponsors and participates in. “I feel that there are a lot of people in and around Athens who are really aligned with social justice and social change, so we really need to meet people where they're at,” Kane says. That was the reasoning behind the Hobohemians show that PRIDE sponsored in August of last year, which brought out an “entirely different” group of people than the organization is used to seeing at its events.
Athens Youth PRIDE focuses on providing support and education to middle school and high school-aged youth in the Athens area who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, queer or questioning in any aspects of those identities. They meet once a month as a general support group with community-building events sprinkled throughout. They really like game nights at The Rook & Pawn, says Kirkpatrick, so that’s where the Athens PRIDE youth social will be held on Saturday, Sept. 9. Private karaoke also went over like gangbusters, Kirkpatrick says, and that kind of socializing is just as important as support groups.
Kirkpatrick shares the story of a young trans woman who met other trans people for the very first time in her life at the trans/non-binary support group, and she'd already been living as a woman for years in a tiny nearby town. “This is small-town Georgia,” Kirkpatrick points out. For some people, “this is their only exposure [to the community]. This group is like a lifeline.”
Athens PRIDE board members who spoke to Flagpole all stressed how important community support groups can be in the current political climate, which is why Athens PRIDE has shifted from sponsoring other organizations and events to focusing on its own fundraising and fortifying its own presence in Athens.
Athens PRIDE also has a few private social media groups that allow for safe, confidential discussion and processing amongst community members. “People can check in for support at any time,” Kirkpatrick says. “And whether it be like, 'Hey guys, I have a family reunion coming up, and I need some advice,' or 'I need to process over the transgender military ban,' we have a supportive network that is both online and in person.” Providing that kind of safe space creates a breeding ground for social connections—the kind that someone from a more isolated area might not be able to forge in a small town.
LBGT+ communities of old didn't have such a focus on health and wellness, since the social stigma of the past meant that the community spaces of yesteryear were mostly grimy bars, public parks and rest stops. However, it's not helpful to judge the behavior of a shunned group doing what they could with what they had, and the past of LBGT+ Americans has shaped them into the more wellness-focused group we see today. Keeping with that theme, Nick Combs of M3 Yoga will host Rainbow Flow Yoga to benefit Athens PRIDE at his new location in the Chase Park warehouses on the opening day of this year's celebration. “Having my own studio and being able to open the space at will was really important to me,” Combs says. “Yoga's been a safe space for me as a gay man, and I want to provide that for others. I have such a cool community to partner with, and I want to do that any way I can.”
Rainbow Flow differs from typical yoga in that Combs opens each class with a general check-in. “Sometimes we all have very similar struggles, and I really try to foster that community vibe and increase a sense of awareness just by providing a safe space,” he says. It’s also another opportunity for LGBT+ people and their allies to meet outside of bars, he adds.
Athens PRIDE has grown from a friends-only potluck to a citywide celebration of personal expression with a focus on community support, health and wellness, and that couldn't have happened without the snowballing interest of a city whose citizens want to support each other. “The community support has just been amazing,” Kirkpatrick says. “As the social and political climates have changed since the election, there's been a lot of fear in the community. But there's been more presence and more visibility [from allies], even when it looks like a low-income person donating $5. We've seen a lot more of that this year as opposed to last.
“And that has shocked me—to my core,” she says. “It's one of the reasons that make it so easy for me to want to stay in this town and call it home.”
Athens PRIDE Schedule