Over the years, Atlanta Pride has changed in many ways – leadership, dates – as well as the events surrounding it. Though there are scores of activities leading up to the Southeast’s largest Pride celebration, the weekend itself is still the hotbed of activity.

Buck Cooke, executive director of Atlanta Pride, is hoping for large crowds again this year.

“We hope to have comparable crowd sizes as last year,” says Cooke (the Pride website estimates annual attendance at 250,000). “Many of our market vendors ran out of products or collateral last year on the first day of the festival.” He would love a 2013 repeat.

Cooke notes several new events for 2013.

“We have partnered with Campus Pride to host the first LGBTQ-friendly college fair in Atlanta,” says Cooke. “Campus Pride hosts these fairs all across the US and we are thrilled to help them bring admissions reps from LGBTQ welcoming college campuses so they can meet with families from our community.

The Campus Pride College Fair, sponsored by PNC, is from 2 – 5 p.m. Saturday at the large tent near the Playground and Greystone Pool House.

Atlanta Pride has also partnered with JustUsATL and offered them the use of the park’s Bandstand to host their Youth Power Space.

“Over the past few weeks, we have fielded many phone calls from parents of middle school and high school students who have come out and who are bringing their newly out children to the festival,” says Cooke. The JustUsATL Youth Space goes from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. all weekend.
 
A military veteran taps and wreath-placing ceremony by AVER and Out Serve, also in its first year, will take place on Saturday afternoon from 5 – 5:30 p.m. at the flagpole and veterans’ marker near the 12th Street Gate.

LGBT musicians on a national level are uniting for the concert “Color Our World: Life, Spirit, Magic!,” presented by MailChimp and the Atlanta Freedom Bands and featuring a few hundred LGBT musicians from across the country. It takes place at the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech at 8 p.m. Saturday.

One of the major differences this season is the addition of the VIP experience.

“In addition to the VIP/Sponsor Party on Friday night, we also have our Kaiser Permanente VIP Hospitality Center in the Piedmont Park Visitors Center, which is located near the 12th Street Gate,” says Cooke.

Pride Ambassadors will be on hand over the weekend to welcome guests and offer refreshments in the air conditioned facilities. A new feature is the Celebrity Cruises VIP Seating Area overlooking the Coca-Cola Stage, featuring a beer garden, bistro tables, a private cash bar, private restroom facilities and great views.

In terms of returning activities, the official kick-off party for Pride Weekend is Friday night at the Georgia Aquarium. According to Cooke, the party, now in its fifth year, is a perfect start.

“(It’s) a fantastic way to begin the weekend because it gives our visitors from other places a chance to see one of the shining jewels in our  city’s entertainment crown,” he says. It’s also a relaxing one for local attendees.

Returning from 2012 is the popular YoGaga Lady Gaga-inspired yoga, presented by Tough Love Yoga and lululemon athletica.

“Over 200 Little Monsters showed up (last year) and enjoyed putting their paws up and downward dog,” says Cooke.  YoGaga is coming back at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday morning at the Athletic Fields as part of the bigger Community Health Expo.

Expanded kids programming is on tap Saturday from 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. This year sees two puppet shows from the Kaiser Permanente Educational Foundation, arts and crafts, kids yoga with Nirvana Yoga, and the Anti-Defamation League’s Read4Respect program.

An element of Pride festival that can fly under the radar is the Cultural Exhibit, displayed on the bridge over Lake Clara Meer.

“This is the seventh year we have featured a display with panels about our LGBTQ history, our struggle for equal rights, the challenges faced by LGBTQ people across the globe,” says Cooke. Retrospective of past exhibits will be displayed.

Couples wanting to exchange vows can do so at the Atlanta Pride Commitment Ceremony from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturday at the W Atlanta’s Altitude. It has moved to a weekend activity to give participants a better chance to attend.

Two marches take place on Saturday. The Trans March begins at 1:45 p.m. and then the Dyke March begins at 6 p.m., with a Queer Your Gender Dance Party to follow. Sign-making event precedes both at the Piedmont Park Dock.  to Cooke, both have experienced growth in recent years. The Trans March attracted around 200 people last year and the Dyke March has grown to over 500 participants.

Of course, Atlanta Pride wouldn’t be complete without the Vendors Market. More than 200 booths will fill the park, from local businesses to nonprofits to national corporations.

Cooke feels especially good about the lineup of this year’s entertainers.

“I am pretty damned excited about the talent we have lined up!” he says. “From new artists like A Great Big World and Steve Grand to one of the most recognizable voices in music, Taylor Dayne, I think we have something for everyone.

“I am also thrilled to showcase Bonnie McKee as she begins her recording career. She has written hits for Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Elle Goulding, Carly Rae Jepsen, Adam Lambert, Ke$ha, Pitbull, and Kelly Clarkson. I am looking forward to see what she has in store for us when she performs on Saturday.”

Grand, the out country star whose music video about his crush on a guy, “All-American Boy,” will take the Coca-Cola stage at 3:45 p.m. Saturday and Dayne will sing a slew of her hits at 8:25 p.m.

Later that evening will be the official Women’s Party presented by My Sister’s Room, at 7 p.m.

The Parade – traditionally winding down Peachtree Street – kicks off Sunday, beginning at 1 p.m., with “Sordid Lives” creator Del Shores, Daniel Hernandez and Sheriff Lupe Valdez as the honorary grand marshals and plenty of local names as grand marshals.

“I think our honorees this year cover the gamut of the LGBTQ community in Atlanta and throughout the state,” Cooke says.

“We have longtime, grassroots activist Lorraine Fontana; HIV and AIDS blogger Mark S. King; media maven Evelyn Mims, who supported LGBTQ people before it was cool or widely accepted; behind-the-scenes rockstar and HIV activist Charles Stephens; academic activist Christina Bucher of Berry College; the caretakers of the oldest feminist bookstore in the US, Charis Circle; and the divine divas, the Atlanta Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.”

In addition to those being celebrated, Cooke says that than 200 organizations have registered to be in the parade.

The Southeast’s oldest drag show, the Starlight Cabaret, closes Sunday with a who’s who of entertainers.

“As usual, the sky is the limit for what our eclectic queens and kings will bring to the Coca-Cola Stage that night,” Cooke says. “The Starlight Cabaret showcases the absolute very best of Atlanta’s vibrant drag community.”

After the parade, the parties are plentiful around the city, but the official Closing Pride party is at Jungle Atlanta Sunday beginning at 9 p.m.

Photo: The Starlight Cabaret with dozens of performances by metro Atlanta’s best drag queens and kings closes out Atlanta Pride each year. (Photo by Laura Douglas-Brown)

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