When I came out at age 38, I didn’t know a single gay person. I had lived my life in an evangelical bubble and my life was largely made up of church members. It was a scary prospect to get out there and start to meet people and develop friendships but I was hell-bent on creating a life for myself that I wouldn’t regret at the end of it.

The first “gay” thing I ever did was go to a local gay bar. I’m not a big drinker and hadn’t been to many bars in my life up to that point. I didn’t even know what a bar tab was. Everyone there seemed to know each other already, it was very smoky so I couldn’t breathe and the music was too loud for me to actually try to engage in conversation with anyone, even if I possessed the courage to (which I didn’t).

I sat in a dark corner, nursing a horrible cocktail, hoping that an attractive, feminine woman would walk up to me and start an interesting conversation about books, politics or ‘80s hair bands. Needless to say, I left disappointed but not discouraged.

I told a straight friend about my negative gay bar experience. She took me to downtown Decatur and informed me that it was the “lesbian capital of the nation.” I remember walking around Decatur Square looking for lesbians and not knowing how to identify them (my gaydar is still non-existent).

Ironically, I work in downtown Decatur now and each time I walk through the square, it takes me back to that day when I was searching the faces of the women there looking for some sign that she was like me. I wanted someone to see that I was gay and acknowledge it somehow.

Finally, I decided to stop wishing someone would approach me to be my friend and just started being myself. I did what I’ve done my whole life: I volunteered. I found several LGBTQ nonprofit groups and asked them what I could do to help. I organized at the Rush Center. I worked at the silent auction at the annual HRC dinner. I manned registration tables at various events and, as a result, I began meeting my gay self as well as my queer community.

Throughout the years, I have been able to connect with the most amazing men and women that make up the queer community in Atlanta. I have developed quality friendships with people who work every day to make the world a better place for others to live in. They speak for those who don’t have voices, resources or abilities to effect change for themselves. They show love in ways that I could never conceive of.

When I think back to my first gay bar experience when I didn’t know a soul, it makes me happy to know that I made my life into what I had spent so many years yearning for it to be. I work on a (largely) gay real estate team, freelance write for Atlanta’s local LGBT bi-weekly, a gay law firm and a gay-owned olive oil tasting room. I also just finished a year of being the president of my local PFLAG chapter.

Steeping myself in my community as a volunteer and then as a professional not only gave me the opportunity to help alleviate some of the problems that our queer community faces, but it gifted me the family that I always yearned for but was never able to participate in. I’m happily a part of LGBTQ Atlanta and here to stay.

Shannon Hames is a mom, writer, realtor, volunteer, rocker chick, world traveler, and ’80s hair band aficionado. She loves babies, observing people, reading great books and taking hot baths. She has been writing for Georgia Voice since 2010.

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