Bruce Garner is a lifelong Atlanta resident and HIV activist. / Courtesy photo

Bruce Garner on Coming Out, Religion, and Activism

Bruce Garner is a lifelong Atlanta resident, a pillar in the LGBTQ community, and an activist for people living with HIV. He was born at St. Joseph’s Infirmary (now St. Joseph’s Hospital) and grew up in Ormewood Park and Grant Park before graduating from East Atlanta High School and Emory University.

As a child, Garner attended Southern Baptist churches, but not the sermons.

“I wouldn’t go to the preaching service because I got tired of old, fat, bald-headed, sweaty white men yelling at me, telling me I was going to hell and they didn’t even know me,” Garner said in an interview with Georgia Voice.

As a teenager seeking a different relationship with God, he found solace and safety in asking faith-challenging questions in the Episcopalian Church. Even though Garner didn’t come out until years later, his new church leaders silently accepted his queer identity when he was a teenager.

As a young adult, Garner met many gay fraternity brothers before he graduated from Emory with a degree in biology — that he’s never used. After graduating, Garner moved out of Atlanta to pursue advocacy work in other Georgia cities and returned to the closet.

In fear of losing his job and sense of safety, Garner did not live openly as a gay man until he moved back to Atlanta in 1979 when he bought his home in Piedmont Park, where he lives today.

Garner came out to his father when he was 29 years old, discussing details about selling a friend’s car between veiled questions and confirmations about Garner’s sexual orientation. Though he’d planned to come out to his mother first, “God had other plans,” Garner said.

Garner fondly recalled the first Pride parade he marched in without hiding his face under a hat and sunglasses.

“I finally just said, ‘screw this,’” Garner said. “I’m out of the closet. Go away. If you can’t do it, that’s not my problem.”

Garner has been outspoken in the past about the importance of coming out, but says he “still get[s] a small knot in [his] stomach” when coming out to crowds of people, particularly in religious spaces.

Garner has commissioned and served on several boards, including the Commission on LGBTQ Ministry of The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and the Metropolitan Atlanta HIV Health Services Planning Council, and was the only openly LGBTQ Deputy or Alternate Deputy in Province IV of The Episcopal Church for 20 years before more were elected.

Beyond faith-based groups, Garner’s advocacy for LGBTQ people during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and beyond earned him an honorary doctorate from Berkley Divinity School of Yale University in October 2016. He has also served on the Board of Directors of Lost-n-Found Youth in Atlanta, the Board of Directors of AID Atlanta for a total of 12 years, and the Ryan White Metropolitan Community Health Care Planning Council, among others.

His continued work for people with HIV/AIDS began during the epidemic when he lost over 200 friends and was diagnosed with HIV himself in 1982. Garner’s writings about life, love, and loss in the LGBTQ community and HIV/AIDS can be found in a named collection of his works at the Rose Manuscript and Rare Book Library of his alma mater, Emory University.

Though “a lot of it has been progress,” Garner hopes for better for the LGBTQ community.

“Gay marriage is great. Not all of us are interested in marriage,” Garner said. “Not all of us are married. Not all of us are coupled. So, while that’s great for the people who can fit into that category, there’s more out there for the rest of us. We should be part of the entire landscape of the general community, not just the gay community … If we could get a national law prohibiting discrimination based on orientation, gender identity, and expression, then that’s when we have, I think, accomplished the greatest goal we could have.”

Garner encourages young LGBTQ people to create community, have intergenerational conversations, and read about queer history.

“Once you lose community, it’s difficult to build back up,” he said.