Edric Floyd essentially came out at Atlanta Pride. But which year depends on what counts as “coming out.”
After moving to central Georgia from South Florida, Floyd struggled with being gay. He gathered the nerve to drive to Atlanta from Warner Robins, Ga., to attend a book-signing by gay Olympic diver Greg Louganis at Outwrite Bookstore, and also learned about a coming out support group in Atlanta, but never mustered up the courage to attend.
Then he heard a news report about the 1995 Atlanta Pride festival.
“I just knew that was finally going to be my coming out. I even stopped at the car wash so my almost brand new red Saturn coupe was as shiny as my feelings and hopes were that day,” he said.
Unfortunately fear won out, and Floyd spent his first Pride sitting in his car across the street from Piedmont Park.
“I spent the next year as a basket case,” he said.
But by 1996, Floyd was determined.
“One of the scheduled speakers was Coretta Scott King, the widow of the man I admired the most, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It became my mission to go to the gay Pride festival to see a civil rights legend,” he said.
And he did. Floyd watched the parade, heard Mrs. King speak, then visited the festival booths.
“It was there that my coming out was official and my life was reborn,” Floyd said. “A nice woman spoke to me as I stood in front of her table and asked me if I needed help. She said I looked lost.”
The woman was president of the Macon chapter of Parents, Friends & Families of Lesbians & Gays. Floyd began attending meetings of the group a week later.
Flash forward 15 years: Floyd now serves as president of PFLAG Macon and hasn’t missed an Atlanta Pride festival.
“I have life because of these entities and I feel they are important resources for lost souls who live in places where support and acceptance is hard to find,” he said.
“Atlanta Pride is a magnet that bring us together and helps some of us discover our true selves,” he continued. “I don’t think I would be here if not for it.”
From June to October
Pride festivals are traditionally held in June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, fought back against police harassment in what is widely seen as a turning point for gay rights.
But after being held the last weekend in June in Piedmont Park for most of its history, Atlanta Pride was forced to move in 2008 when city officials booted large festivals from the park due to a record drought.
Held over July Fourth weekend at the Civic Center, Pride attendance and finances suffered. The festival moved back to Piedmont Park for 2009, but over Halloween, to get around city policies that limited festivals in the summer season due to drought concerns.
In 2010, the Atlanta Pride Committee announced it would hold future festivals on the weekend closest to National Coming Out Day, which is Oct. 11. For 2011, that means the festival will draw tens of thousands to Piedmont Park Oct. 8-9.
Pride and National Coming Out Day are a perfect fit, according to James Sheffield, Pride executive director.
“I think Pride events play a significant role in coming out. You don’t have to come out at Pride, but the boost in self esteem and access to support it provides aids the process,” he said.
Pride has a personal connection to Sheffield coming out, too — not once, but twice.
He attended his first Atlanta Pride in 1997, while still in high school and still living as a woman.
“I collected all the free rainbow stuff and took it home, where I promptly hid it in a t-shirt drawer. Something about knowing it was there made me feel better, even though it was rare that I could actually take it out,” Sheffield said.
But the high school student came home one day to find the drawer wide open.
“I remember thinking, ‘Well, I guess I just came out to my Dad,’” Sheffield said. “I started working for Pride a couple of years later and have always held that particular memory close as the festival wraps up.”
Sheffield also came out as a transgender man and transitioned while serving as director of Atlanta Pride — a second, very public coming out that helped educate the community about the “T” in LGBT.
National Coming Out Day and every day
It’s stories like those told by Floyd and Sheffield that are what National Coming Out Day is all about.
The holiday was created more than 20 years ago to bring increased visibility to the LGBT community, which had faced difficult struggles with HIV/AIDS, the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding sodomy laws, and more, yet was also energized by the 1987 gay rights March on Washington.
“The only time the world had to deal with us, or hear about our issues, was in June” when Pride celebrations were held, said Lynn Shepodd, one of the original organizers of National Coming Out Day and a former Atlanta resident. “The rest of the year our needs were virtually non-existent in the public conversation; the media didn’t cover us that much and we were hardly even on the radar screen of Congress.”
The first National Coming Out Day was held in 1988, and was led by gay groups The Experience and National Gay Rights Advocates. Shepodd was hired as executive director in 1990. In 1993, National Coming Out Day became part of what is now the Human Rights Campaign. Atlanta Pride is a great fit for National Coming Out Day, said Shepodd, who serves on HRC’s national Board of Governors and lived in Atlanta for 10 years before moving to Los Angeles in 2008.
“For Atlanta Pride to create the space for LGBT people to tell the truth about their lives is precisely the right thing to do. There is room for celebration, education, fun, and commitment to a brighter future,” she said.
“If there is a place where our community has critically important work to do, it is Georgia,” she added. “Atlanta Pride builds community because it brings so many of us together as one of the largest Prides in the country.
“That empowerment inspires us all to move forward.”
Top photo: The Atlanta Pride Festival is now held in October to commemorate National Coming Out Day. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)