This year will be my 20th Atlanta Pride, and yet the sight of our community spread out in Piedmont Park and taking over the streets for the parade still fills me with wonder.

Even though I am one of the lucky few who gets to be not only gay, but professionally gay, when I walk into the park for the festival, a part of me is once again that shy, scared teen awestruck to finally be surrounded by so many LGBT people.

Pride never ceases to make me feel grateful and, yes, proud of all of us for what we overcome to be able to embrace who we are.

But Atlanta Pride weekend packs so much into two days that it’s easy to miss out on chances to feel even more empowered. Here are 10 suggestions.

Visit the health section

Your health might not be the first thing on your mind when you head out to Pride for a weekend of celebrating with your friends, but remember that healthcare is key issue for everyone — especially in our community.

The Blue Section of the marketplace might be dubbed Health Central for Pride, packed with organizations that can help you with everything from a free HIV test to information about how to access low- and no-cost health examinations. There will also be plenty of information on how to stay healthy.

See an old friend

Pride is many things, including the biggest “family” reunion of the year. Instead of just figuring out how to the dodge your ex, make a plan to meet up with an old friend you may follow on Facebook, but haven’t seen in person recently. It will remind you why social media, while important and entertaining, can’t replace plain old socializing.

Make a new friend

Pride is a great opportunity to meet new people — not just potential hook-ups, but your new Mr. or Ms. Right, or just as importantly, the person who could be your new best friend.

And even if it is only for a moment, it feels good to share a smile or kind word with others who are here to enjoy the same freedom and happiness that brings you to the park this weekend.

Not sure how to just say hello? Ask if you can join in a pick-up game of soccer, football or Frisbee in the meadow. Turn out for YoGaga (Lady Gaga yoga) on Saturday morning and laugh together at the silliness.

Or, try a random act of Pride kindness: offer a hand to the person struggling to carry food and drinks from the food lines, or give a compliment without expecting anything in return.

Join something

The Pride market is filled with nonprofit organizations looking for new members. Whether you enjoy business networking, politics, outdoor activities, events you can attend with your kids, or simply socializing, there is bound to be a group that fits your needs.

Being part of an LGBT organization is a way to extend the feeling of unity and connection that you get during Pride throughout the rest of the year. If you aren’t quite ready to become a member, start small: join the email lists for a few organizations that interest you and commit to yourself to attend just one gathering.

Buy something

Pride’s vendors are here to make money, but also to show their support for your right to equality. Maybe you don’t really need another t-shirt, necklace, hat or rainbow art; maybe you can wait to eat or have a beer until you get home. But buy something anyway to support the merchants who support you.

Check out one event that isn’t “you.”

Join or watch the Trans March on Saturday, even if you aren’t transgender or don’t have transgender friends. Join or watch the Dyke March, even if you aren’t female or you don’t consider yourself a “dyke.”

Head over to the stages to catch a country act like Justin Utley or Leslie Christian, even if you aren’t a country music fan.  Check out a hip-hop band like Unbreakable Bloodline if you think you don’t like rap.

Pride is about celebrating the diversity of our LGBT family, so check out at least one event, entertainer, or organization that doesn’t represent your particular stripe in the rainbow.

Sing and dance

Pride has an amazingly diverse musical line-up, ranging from famous headliners to small up-and-coming acts, in genres including pop, folk, hip-hop, dance and country.

This weekend is all about fun, so don’t hold back. Dance in the meadow, clap, sing along — music has an intense ability to inspire us, and Pride offers dozens of opportunities.

Get educated for the election

It’s less than a month until Election Day, and Tuesday, Nov. 6, offers a stark choice on LGBT issues at the top of the ballot.

President Barack Obama pushed for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; Republican Mitt Romney opposes allowing gays to serve openly in the military. President Obama supports marriage equality; Romney would ban gay marriage in the U.S. Constitution.

Obama’s campaign is scheduled to have a booth in Atlanta Pride; Romney, well, you know.

But as crucial as it is, the presidential race isn’t the only important race on the November ballot. You should also visit the booth of Georgia Equality, the state’s largest LGBT political organization, for information on state and local endorsed candidates and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Change happens because we make it happen, and one of the most important places is at the ballot box.

Donate time or money

It takes an organizational budget of more than $700,000 and more than 300 volunteers — including 258 volunteer shifts during the weekend — to make the Atlanta Pride Festival a success.
When you see the volunteer “bucket brigade” collecting donations, be sure to throw in some cash. And don’t be stingy: Pride is free to attend, so donate at least as much as you would spend on a concert or night out with friends.
Pride also needs volunteers, throughout the weekend and throughout the year. Shifts start at just four hours, so offer your help to make the festival run smoothly. You’ll have fun and get to experience Pride from a whole new perspective.

Say “thank you.”

Donating time and money are vitally important, but so is simply saying the words. When you see someone wearing a Pride volunteer t-shirt, take a moment to stop and say “thank you” for the wonderful, empowering weekend they are helping make possible for all of us.

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