And ever since those first Pride marches commemorated the Stonewall uprising, Pride celebrations have played an important role in both shaping and reflecting LGBT history — providing, as Stonewall historian David Carter describes it, a crucial “common narrative” to shape our identity as an LGBT people and culture.
“If we do not know our history, how can we ask others to take our history, and therefore us as a community, seriously?” Carter asked in a recent interview marking Stonewall Week, a series of activities sponsored by the Atlanta Pride Committee and other organizations to mark the June anniversary since Atlanta’s festival is now held in October.
As our community’s largest annual gathering, the 40 years of Atlanta Pride also provide a time capsule of four decades of progress and struggle on our road to full equality.
1970s: Building a movement
The years immediately following Stonewall were marked by a new sense of urgency and visibility for LGBT activism, reflecting the grassroots, counter-culture spirit of other protest movements like the fights for women’s lib and against the Vietnam war.
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In 1971, Democratic activist Bill Smith incorporated the Gay Liberation Front in Atlanta, following a trend of gay lib groups around the country. That same year, GLF hosted Atlanta’s first Gay Liberation Day, a march that followed a route still familiar today: down Peachtree Street to Piedmont Park. Organizers said 125 attended, although media put the number at 50.
The next year, Pride doubled to 250 people, drawing both television coverage and controversy that reflected the discomfort some older gay people felt with the new movement. Some gay bars even threw out activists passing out Pride fliers.
Pride continued to grow throughout the mid-70s, with shifting leadership as GLF disbanded.
Maria Helena Dolan attended her first Atlanta Pride in 1976, and remembers those early marches as very different from the mammoth parade that shuts down city streets today.
“In those days, we had 500 to 600 people,” she said, “and you would still see some people with little masks or paper bags over their faces, and signs that said, ‘I have to cover my face or I might lose my job.’”
As a mark of the growing impact of the festival, in 1976 Pride won support from then-Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, who issued a “Gay Pride Day” proclamation.
But the support also ignited one of the first major public controversies for Pride, when a group calling itself Citizens for a Decent Atlanta took out ads in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to demand Jackson’s resignation.
In 1977, Jackson backed down and just issued a “Human Rights Week” proclamation, although the festival still drew 1,500 people and included demands for local and national gay rights laws.
That attention to national issues at Pride carried over into the final two Prides of the 1970s. In 1978, orange juice queen Anita Bryant — who had become an anti-gay crusader — came to town to address the Southern Baptist Convention.
Instead of a Pride rally, organizers held a massive demonstration outside of the convention.
“That we had 4,000 people when Pride had been drawing much less really speaks to national issues having an impact on the local level,” Dolan says.
In a further testament to that impact, in 1979, on the 10th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, Pride was put on by activists organizing the local contingent in the first National March on Washington for Lesbian & Gay Rights.
The 1979 Pride march also reflected one of the biggest gay-related news stories to date: the 1978 assassination of gay San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, and the fact that his killer, Dan White, was acquitted a year later of murder and found guilty only of voluntary manslaughter.
“One of the chants that year was ‘We want more than disco, remember San Francisco,’ because Dan White basically got away with murder, and gay people rioted,” Dolan said. “It was a way to honor that.”
1980s: And then came AIDS
After building strength through the end of the 1970s, Atlanta’s gay rights movement appeared poised to continue that progress in the 1980s.
Pride in 1980 was dubbed “Lesbian Gay Transperson Day,” showing increasing diversity.
But the community would soon face a challenge that made the previous struggles pale in comparison. In 1981, the Georgia Department of Human Resources began tracking AIDS cases in the state, with three reported.
“At that time, what we had was a movement for queer liberation, and it was essentially derailed by AIDS,” said Dolan, who began helping organize Pride in 1977 and would later be honored as a Pride grand marshal. “The focus had to shift because people were dying.”
The numbers quickly grew, hitting Atlanta Pride along with the rest of the gay community.
“From 1981 to about 1984, I went to 41 funerals, until I finally just stopped counting,” Dolan said.
The first “Stop AIDS” banner appeared in the Pride parade in 1983, and the first Pride community memorial for those who had died of AIDS was held in 1984.
The festival itself struggled as the ranks of organizers were decimated by the disease, although HIV also motivated others to get involved.
“No one cared that my husband was dying of AIDS and people needed to know that we are everywhere,” said Al Pellenberg, who started volunteering in 1985 for that reason and is now marking 25 years of work with Atlanta Pride, currently as creative director. “From then on I worked with them to make Pride a more significant event.”
As the 1980s drew to a close, AIDS remained prominent. The 1988 festival theme was “A Celebration of Life” — a poignant when funerals were common and the time between diagnosis and death was often measured in months.
By the time the 1989 Pride festival marked the 20th anniversary of Stonewall with the theme “Stonewall: Reasons to Remember,” Atlanta — like cities around the country — had lost hundreds of leaders and loved ones to the disease.
1990s: Growth and visibility
While HIV struck down many in the gay community, it also radicalized many more. People who had never considered themselves activists during the gay liberation movement of the 1970s found they had no choice but to fight back when their friends were literally dying around them, and that spirit soon energized other struggles.
Jeff Graham attended his first Atlanta Pride in 1990, and remembered the thrill of being part of “the beginning of a very exciting movement.”
“I was a young street activist in the community, and Pride was really a central focus of the year back then for those of us on the frontlines of activism,” said Graham, who was a member of ACT UP, would later serve as executive director of AIDS Survival Project, and is now executive director of Georgia Equality.
“You were making a political statement just by showing up, because so few people were willing to do that. When Pride hit 5,000 people, it seemed like the largest gathering you could imagine,” he said.
By the early 1990s, LGBT protests were common in Atlanta and around the country, as those who felt they had nothing left to lose spoke out with newfound energy.
“It’s when the death rate of AIDS was really reaching its peak, and we were on the verge of scientific advances that astounded us when they happened,” Graham recalled.
“That early research was starting to trickle in, and we could begin to see that if we put up strong political pressure, we could change the course of the AIDS epidemic.”
As the home of the federal Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta became ground zero for HIV protests that drew attendance and headlines from around the nation.
Other gay news stories also put Atlanta on the map, and Pride’s attendance grew exponentially in response.
The festival drew roughly 5,000 people in 1990, but the number leapt 30,000 in 1991, with Cheryl Summerville — who ignited a national boycott when she was fired from Cracker Barrel restaurants for being gay — as a grand marshal.
The Atlanta Pride Committee also officially incorporated as a non-profit in 1991, adding stability to the festival. Attendance doubled to 60,000 in 1992, and then hit 100,000 in 1993.
Two months later, in August 1993, the Cobb County Commission passed its now infamous resolution declaring homosexuality incompatible with community standards.
Protests over the Cobb resolution spread, as groups like the Cobb Citizens Coalition berated the commission and Olympics Out of Cobb sought to keep the county from benefitting as a venue for the 1996 Olympic Games.
Pride grew to three nights in 1994, on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall — and Olympic organizers, fearing protests would disrupt the games, announced in July 1994 that the volleyball competition would be pulled from Cobb County.
Pride hit a new attendance record in June 1996, when 300,000 turned out for the festival, which featured Indigo Girls as the headliner.
The festival theme that year was “People of the World: Listen, Think, Act,” an obvious reference to the crowds coming to pack Atlanta for the Olympics in July.
“Over that five year period of time, [Pride’s growth] was like a snowball rolling down a hill — it started slowly but it sped up,” Graham said. “And what happened with Pride in my mind is the greatest snapshot and gauge of the growing strength of our community.”
But the tragedy that marred the 1996 Olympics would soon put LGBT Atlanta in the spotlight again, and serve Pride with another huge challenge to overcome.
After a bomb ripped through the Otherside Lounge, a lesbian and gay bar on Piedmont Avenue, investigators soon connected the attack to the bombing of the Atlanta Olympics and a Sandy Springs abortion clinic.
With an anti-gay bomber with a record of targeting large public gatherings on the loose, would anyone show up for Pride in 1997?
Security increased exponentially, but having faced down AIDS, gay Georgians weren’t about to run scared: Some 300,000 packed Piedmont Park.
One of those 300,000 was J.P. Sheffield, who attended his first Atlanta Pride that year as junior in high school.
“I had never seen that many queer people in one space up until that point,” Sheffield said, explaining that until then he hadn’t really understood the need for a Gay Pride celebration.
Sheffield recalled that he still had to hide his new rainbow gear from his father, but with the freedom of college, in 1999 he began volunteering for Pride.
“I felt fortunate that I didn’t have to live that way anymore, and it was important to me to go and help keep Pride available for people,” said Sheffield, who is now executive director of the festival. “ If they didn’t get to be gay anywhere else, they would always have that space.”
The last two Pride festivals of the 1990s saw attendance drop somewhat as a result of extreme heat one year and a deluge of rain the next, but Pride ended the decade with attendance 40 times higher than when it began.
“Pride began to be that one place once a year where you could find others like ourselves who you always knew were there but could never find. It just got bigger and better every year,” Pellenberg said. “The community found a voice and a common thread.”
2000s: Milestones and marriage
Riding the wave of huge growth in the 1990s, Pride celebrated in 2000 with its biggest entertainer yet — the B-52s, who helped drive attendance to the highest in Pride’s history, an estimated 400,000.
The parade set an attendance record in 2001.
Major developments in the ongoing fight for LGBT equality were also reflected in the festival. In 2003, Atlanta Pride’s theme of “Freedom to Be” gained new meaning just days before the festival, when the United States Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in the case of Lawrence v. Texas.
“When that ruling came down, it was right before the event happened and absolutely those types of things play a huge role in how people are feeling and what drives them to come out and be visible,” Sheffield said. “That was a huge year. The park just kept filling up.”
Pride in 2004 also reflected major national fights for gay rights, although not as positive. With anti-gay marriage amendments on the ballot in many states, including Georgia, marriage became much more visible at Pride, from wedding themes in the parade to heightened media attention directed to Pride’s annual Commitment Ceremony.
The stunning defeat on the marriage amendment, which was approved by 76 percent of Georgia voters in November 2004, gave credence to the argument that LGBT groups must do a better job of partnering with other social justice movements.
Pride organizers took up that call, debuting a Human Rights Exhibit in 2007 that is now an inspiration for Pride organizers in many other cities, and also working more closely to co-sponsor events with other community organizations.
“It’s so important that Pride has its own vision in terms of asserting LGBT liberation, as not just a celebration but as a serious human rights action,” said Craig Washington, a longtime Atlanta LGBT and HIV activist who has attended Pride since 1993, and served as a Pride speaker several times.
“There needs to be these rituals that really insure that people feel like, ‘Yes, I do feel queer community here,’ and Pride helps sustain that,” added Washington, who is a spokesperson for this year’s AIDS Walk Atlanta.
“At the same time, because our human rights are not guaranteed and there are certain rights that we still are fighting for, Pride — given its influence and its size — has to acknowledge that.”
Current events also had a major impact on the last Pride festivals of the 2000s, this time in the form of the massive drought.
After being celebrated the last weekend in June in Piedmont Park for most of its history, Pride was forced to move in 2008 when city officials booted large festivals from the parched park.
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.
This year, Pride caps four decades of growth and change by settling into its new date — the second weekend in October, to coincide with National Coming Out Day — at its old home of Piedmont Park, LGBT Atlanta’s unofficial backyard.
But while the festival has faced changes through the years, one thing remains constant: the desire to inspire LGBT people and our allies to continue the fight for full equality.
“In many ways Pride gave our community a place to meet, to show each other our different sides, our common interests, and our unique capabilities,” Pellenberg said.
“It has the power to gather and galvanize us, and that leads to greater diversity and choices for each of us.”
Editor’s note: A version of this article appears in Atlanta Pride magazine.