Longtime Atlanta LGBT activist passes away at 57

Longtime LGBT activist Rick Porter passed away on June 1 in what is believed to be from complications from HIV. The community will gather for a celebration of life ceremony on Saturday, June 20.

Richard Alton Porter was born on May 31, 1958 in Dunwoody, where he spent the rest of his childhood. He met his longtime partner Jerry Bright in 1983 at the Atlanta Eagle when it was at the corner of Virginia and Highland Avenues (where the Highland Tap now stands).

“We basically had a one-night-stand that lasted 32 years,” Bright tells Georgia Voice.

Rick Porter was instrumental in the creation of John Howell Park, named after the late gay activist. (Courtesy photo)
Rick Porter was instrumental in the creation of John Howell Park, named after the late gay activist. (Courtesy photo)

Porter and Bright were instrumental in the creation of John Howell Memorial Park in Virginia-Highland, the first public park in the United States to pay tribute to those lives impacted by the 1980s HIV epidemic. Howell was an Atlanta gay activist who passed away from HIV complications in 1988.

Porter and Bright were vice president and president, respectively, of the John Howell Park Project Board, but Bright says, “[Porter] basically drove the project due to his experience as a construction project manager.”

The park was initially funded by people donating money to have their names put on bricks which were laid out to make a brick walk.

“He insisted there be no dates because he didn’t want it to look like it was just for memorials or a graveyard,” Bright says. “Eventually the neighborhood understood it wasn’t just for people with AIDS and felt at ease putting their kids, pets and there is even a section of drag queens.”

When the HIV epidemic was at its worst, Porter pulled together extra money to give free bricks for HIV-infected patients at Grady Hospital who couldn’t otherwise afford one. Those with bricks in the park now include Elton John and husband David Furnish, Greg Louganis and Matthew Shepard.

It was a project that eventually earned him thanks from U.S. Congressman John Lewis, neighborhood organizations, and Atlanta elected officials, plus a Community Service Award from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, signed by the late Coretta Scott King.

One of Porter’s biggest thrills through the end of his life was seeing the park show up on GPS, when he would turn to Bright and say, “See that green spot. We changed the planet.”

‘He had an absolutely amazing way of putting people at ease’

Bright speaks of Porter’s ability to connect with people, saying, “He was able to talk to anyone at their level no matter if it was his boss, one of the guys who worked for him or someone crazy about the Kardashians. He had an absolutely amazing way of putting people at ease.”

Bright says Porter was extremely creative, loved art museums, had a bit of a temper at times with others who just “didn’t have a clue,” had some past childhood problems that haunted him, and while he didn’t go to church he was a man spiritually grounded by his mother’s deep faith.

Porter is survived by Bright, the Ordaz and Bright families in Colorado, Texas and Illinois, the Hanson family in Nashville, Tennessee, the Paulson family in Austin, Texas, the Richards family in Bald Knob, Arkansas, his many friends throughout the country and his devoted dog, Scout.

Condolences can be sent by email to Jerry Bright at brightport@att.net or on Porter’s AJC obituary page. All are invited to the Celebration of Life Ceremony, with friends and family invited to Porter and Bright’s home afterward.

Rick Porter Celebration of Life
Saturday, June 20 at 2.p.m.
Elton John Plaza in John Howell Park
780 Virginia Ave.
Atlanta, GA 30306