When I moved from Boston to Atlanta last year, I knew I was riding out of a gay-rights bastion into the front lines. So last weekend, this Yankee hit my first Atlanta Pride with the enthusiasm of Sherman aiming for the sea.
Pride events mean different things to different folks: an expression of unity, a safe haven, a par-tay. To me, Pride means mustering the troops in a show of force against the armies of loathsome bigots, cranks and killers.
Frankly, any Pride event will be too tame for my tastes. I prefer torches and pitchforks to floats and disco-dancers. I’d rather join Stonewall Part Two than sit elbow-to-elbow with fellow queers guzzling mojitos. But I appreciate Pride as a joyful morale-booster and psy-ops.
For the same reason, I blew off the last few Boston Prides. In 2003, when a group of Massachusetts couples won the pioneering marriage-equality lawsuit there, I had the privilege of covering their press conference. Shaking their hands and looking into their teary eyes in that historic “holy crap, we finally won!” moment trumped anything Pride could offer me. And the LGBTQ rights laws that followed only further dulled Pride’s edge. By last year, my parade attention was drawn more to efforts to get gay marchers into South Boston’s notoriously homophobic St. Patrick’s Day procession.
But Atlanta Pride feels downright urgent. Homophobia here is so pervasive, it even explained why I was heading to Pride on MARTA from the northern ’burbs. Last summer, I set up what seemed to be a great roommate situation with a nice gay guy in East Atlanta. Only at the last minute did I learn he’s a registered sex offender with a parole officer who comes snooping.
That nasty surprise put me at the mercy of an apartment broker, who planted me outside the Perimeter. But I still feel for the roomie. Why? Because his “sex offense” was consensual gay sex, or what Bostonians call “none of the government’s damn business.” He was convicted in the 1990s under a sodomy law declared unconstitutional the very next year. But he continues to suffer the wages of Georgia’s mind-bogglingly medieval worldview.
Such insanity was on my mind as I exited Midtown Station and joined the throngs marching past guys selling shots out of suitcases all the way to Piedmont Park. Dudes, size really doesn’t matter to me, but I was struck by how big the festival and parade were – bigger than Boston’s, bigger than I expected. It told me a lot about the vibrancy of the city’s LGBTQ community – and also about the desperation of those who live outside its support, but within Pride’s driving distance.
A champagne tower of lube? So gay
I liked how the parade mingled Hollywood glamour, like Big Boo waving at me, with intensely local touches, like the marchers paying tribute to the late Ria Pell.
I’m such a Yankee noob that I wandered the park saying things like, “Ooh, look, a cactus growing outdoors!” Still, I think I’m right that there was something especially Southern about the fest including a classic-car show. It was cool listening to gay auto enthusiasts chatting Cadillac engine specs with a motorcycle cop. And my fear that Dixie politeness might tone down the fun was quickly dispelled. The champagne tower of lube on display at one booth might be the gayest thing I’ve ever seen.
The full LGBT alphabet soup diversity and inclusiveness of all the events impressed me as well. As someone who’s never cared for – nor fit neatly inside – gender/orientation labels, I appreciated it. I call myself bi for close-enough convenience, but that doesn’t really lay out my life’s complexities (or messiness). When I go to one of these Pride things, I always have vague fantasies that a punk-rock dyke will drag me off by the hair and turn me into her girlfriend, or maybe an androgynous anime guy will throw himself down at my feet. But really I’m just an event nerd in a sensible hat and practical backpack, and that was OK. I did not get hit on at Atlanta Pride, but I did feel like there was a place for me.
That’s not to say I didn’t have some cool conversation. Checking out the park’s “Free Nelson Mandela” monument, I got to talking with a woman who turned out to be a meteorologist with hobbies including tornado-chasing and organized roller-coaster-riding trips.
Randomly meeting intriguing, genuinely offbeat people is one of Atlanta’s extraordinary pleasures. It rarely happens in Boston, where folks are chilly as the weather, and gentrification has displaced people rich in experiences with people who are just rich. If someone talks to you at a Boston monument, it’s probably to tell you to move out of their Google Glass shot. At Boston bars, the bartender is invariably the most interesting person in the place; in Atlanta, I wander into the Highlander, and within minutes a lesbian ex-Marine is telling me about the time she broke out of the Tower of London when a covert date went sour. I love the South’s warmth and Atlanta’s people, and it was awesome that Pride had that vibe.
Still, gentrification remained on my mind. After all, getting priced out of Boston is the whole reason I’m here. And gentrification has long been the uneasy companion of gay rights, which often really means the rights of the white, cis, assimilationist gentry.
Standing on Peachtree for the parade, and on 10th Street for the Trans March, I recalled the first time I explored these Midtown streets earlier this year. I was reporting on the local gentry’s latest claims that the neighborhood was under siege by a “trans prostitute gang.” All I saw were people walking pedigree dogs or exiting luxury cars in suits and cocktail dresses. I soon learned the notorious history of the local middle-class – much of it LGB – displacing queers of color and declaring a transphobic war on crime that included shuttering a famed gay nightclub. The very gayborhood that hosts the Trans March was seeking a law to literally banish trans people.
The Boston Pride parade also runs through gay-gentrified neighborhoods with some similar hypocrisies. And it has similar relationships with corporations and politicians eager for gay-gentry cash, but not always as friendly as they seem. I just found the dubious deals more stark in Atlanta’s version, where they matter more.
'Is that Jason Carter? Is that him?'
It’s cool that famously gay-friendly Delta Air Lines sponsored this year’s parade. But it’s not cool that Delta is also a big donor to Republican bigots, including Gov. Deal and others in direct charge of Georgia’s homophobic regime.
I wasn’t surprised that none of those pols showed up at the parade, but I was amazed that only some Atlanta City Council members and the reliable Rep. John Lewis did. It blew my mind that Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn only sent sign-holders. Up North, that’s unthinkable. In fact, there was a big controversy in Boston this year when the Democratic state convention coincided with Pride, preventing major candidates from marching.
“Is that Jason Carter? Is that him?” asked one hopeful man standing behind me. Sorry, dude, that’s just a sign-carrying flunky. These candidates just want your queer vote, not to be seen in public with you.
With allies like these, no wonder Georgia is now lagging even some other Southern states on LGBTQ rights. When a downpour hit the fest on Saturday, sending folks scrambling for cover under scattered trees and awnings, it seemed like the very image of the political reality Pride is bucking against. We’re all seeking shelter from the ongoing storm of bigotry, discovering there’s not enough umbrellas to go around, and some of the ones we’re handed are full of holes. After the storm, I looked hard for a rainbow so I could wrap up with metaphorical hope but no such luck.
Which is exactly why Pride is so necessary in Atlanta, and why I’ll do it again next year – every year, until homophobic supremacy is just another overpriced museum exhibit in Centennial Olympic Park. But one modest suggestion: How about a nice, inclusive Pitchfork March all the way up to the Governor’s Mansion?
John Ruch is a journalist and editor in metro Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter.