Two days. Two stages. 200 parade entries. 200,000 attendees.
Atlanta Pride is by far the biggest LGBT event in the Southeast, drawing people from around the region to party for a purpose.
“We want to encourage people to make the most of the weekend,” said Buck Cooke, Pride managing director. “Have a great time, check out some new organizations and businesses, enjoy the parade, dance to the entertainers in the park, but always bear in mind that we are in need of wide-spread community support for full equality as citizens.
“That takes everyone, LGBTQ people and our straight allies alike, to make that happen.”
After a week of lead-up events including the annual AIDS Vigil, Commitment Ceremony and Georgia Aquarium Kick-off Party, the Atlanta Pride Festival packs Piedmont Park Oct. 13-14.
This is Cooke’s first year at the helm, after former Executive Director James Sheffield stepped down to become director of organizational development for the Health Initiative, which focuses on LGBT wellness.
Although Cooke had served as a Pride volunteer for five years, including three as programming co-chair, he said he was still surprised by how much it takes to put on the annual festival.
“Even though I’ve been involved with the organization for years, I had no clue how complicated this is,” he said. “I knew it would involve a great deal of multitasking and lots of moving parts to every aspect of the festival and our other programming, but I was still surprised.”
That Atlanta Pride somehow “just happens” is the biggest misconception about the festival, agreed Cooke and Glen Paul Freedman, Atlanta Pride board chair. Both encourage festival attendees to join the nearly 300 volunteers who make the weekend possible, with shifts starting at just four hours.
“It is cool that I get to meet so many new people who are volunteering for the first time and those friends returning to assist throughout the weekend,” Freedman said.
“I always hear the same remarks that volunteering allows me to give something back to our community, be truly out and proud and supportive of an organization who treats me and my friends with respect and shows us a great time,” he said. “Of course, you get a real cool Pride volunteer t-shirt!’
Pride by day and night
The Atlanta Pride festival and its related events strive to be as diverse as the community they represent.
Entertainers include everything from country to hip-hop, with plenty of folk and dance divas in the mix.
Vendors run the gamut from health organizations and non-profits to small LGBT-owned companies and giant corporations.
Events range from edgier offerings like Saturday’s Trans and Dyke marches to Sunday’s more festive Pride Parade.
Pride also offers a cultural exhibit in Piedmont Park to specifically draw attention to the community’s accomplishments and challenges.
“This year’s Cultural Exhibit, formerly known as the Human Rights Exhibit, will focus on the LGBTQ contributions to the arts and creative fields, and those of our allies,” Cooke says.
“Hopefully, participants will want to check out … the display in the park on Saturday and Sunday since there is some great work done to highlight LGBTQ and ally contributions to art, music, theater, television, motion pictures, dance, etc.”
Beyond events Saturday and Sunday in Piedmont Park, Pride also offers a schedule of “official” nightlife events in conjunction with local party promoters.
These official events include Friday night’s Kick Off Party at the Georgia Aquarium and Kick Off After Party at Jungle; Saturday night’s Peach Party, which is the Official Women’s Party, and the “Kiki By the Park” joint fundraiser with the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, sponsored by the W Atlanta-Midtown and Scissor Sisters; and Sunday night’s Official Closing Party at Opera.
“To have a world-renowned music group like Scissor Sisters on board to help us raise money for Atlanta Pride is just incredible and we are thankful to Ben Cohen; Alison Doerfler, executive director of the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation; and Patrick Davis, president of the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, for making that event happen,” Cooke said.
‘Out and proud’
From the meadow of Piedmont Park to the streets of Midtown during the annual Pride parade, the Atlanta Pride Festival works both to empower LGBT people and increase our visibility in the community at large.
“I think we send a very specific message, which is part of our mission statement,” Freedman says. “’Atlanta Pride Committee promotes unity, visibility and self-esteem among LGBTQ persons to promote a positive image in the Atlanta area and throughout the Southeastern US through community activities and services.’”
For both Cooke and Freedman, a highlight of the festival is the cheering crowds that line Peachtree and 10th streets to watch Sunday’s parade.
“It is hard to explain that kind of emotion I am feeling and I always tear up,” Freedman admits. “But it is that feeling of being out and proud as a gay man saying to everyone, ‘Join us, join the fight for full equality and march with us.’”
Cooke cites helping carry the giant rainbow flag along the streets, as supporters tossed in donations to Atlanta Pride, among his fondest Pride memories.
“I loved the esprit de corps and the cheering, the high-fives from people, the love and the support. It’s such a great feeling and we’re raising lots of money for Atlanta Pride while we’re doing it,” he says.
“As you get down Peachtree and you think it can’t get any better, you turn the corner and see down 10th Street and it is just overwhelming,” he adds. “This sea of humanity spreads out before you and I have choked up and/or cried every time I have done it.”
Overall, Atlanta Pride has become a family reunion of sorts, offering the region’s biggest opportunity for LGBT individuals, organizations and allies to come together in the same place at the same time.
“I believe that the Atlanta Pride Festival and parade is the only event where the entire LGBTQ community and our allies come together under one umbrella/theme of unity and respect,” Freedman said. “We are all together in one central location and we all march together as one unified group.”
Top photo: Organizers expect some 200,000 attendees at this year’s Atlanta Pride. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)