Atlanta’s Pride Parade

Is it time for this venerable parade to return to its radical roots as a protest march?

Like most Atlantans, Lester West vividly recalls seeing his first Gay Pride parade. In 1978, West, a singer and drag performer from St. Louis, had just moved to the city with the lure of working at the County Seat gay bar. But when the nightspot unexpectedly closed two weeks later, West was left adrift. That June Sunday afternoon, he was busing a table at a Peachtree Center restaurant, when the parade
went past the window.

“I was a senior in high school when the Stonewall riots happened, so to see all those people lined up on Peachtree Street—the main street in Atlanta—cheering for folks in the parade felt thrilling,” West, now 71, recalls. “Community was the reason I moved here, because Atlanta was considered the gay mecca of the south in the ’70s. People who couldn’t be themselves in their small towns moved here and were accepted for themselves.”

Just a few years later, West would be poised atop a float in the parade waving to admirers as his now-iconic Atlanta drag persona Lena Lust.

Along with countless other LGBTQ locals, West is eagerly anticipating the return of this year’s Atlanta Pride Parade, scheduled for October 9, after being canceled for two years, due to Covid-19. But the hours-long, televised, corporate-sponsored, rainbow-hued spectacle that steps off on Peachtree Street in 2022 is eons away from the city’s first Pride marches—protests held in the aftermath of New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969, which became the accelerant for the modern gay rights movement. performer from St. Louis, had just moved to the city with the lure of working at the County Seat gay bar. But when the nightspot unexpectedly closed two weeks later, West was left adrift. That June Sunday afternoon, he was busing a table at a Peachtree Center restaurant, when the parade went past the window.

At those early protest marches, held without a city permit, Atlanta police officers were looking for reasons to arrest the hundred or so participants as they marched in solidarity to Piedmont Park (some covering their faces with brown paper bags), rather than helping to direct traffic as officers do today.

As a member of the Gay Liberation Front, longtime activist Dave Heyward recalls marching with his late mentor, Berl Boykin, who wrote in to correct the United Press International wire story coverage of the “Gay Liberation Day” march published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1971. (The AJC did not routinely begin covering the parade until years later.) Recalls Heyward: “Berl delighted in correcting the AJC reporting that there were only 50 marchers—‘There were 125. I know, I counted them twice!’”

With Sam Massell in office as the city’s first Jewish mayor,  the parade was eventually issued a city permit. “As a minority myself, I knew some of the feelings of hurt and pain, so it was easier for me to make some progressive reforms,” Massell recalled to Atlanta magazine in 2020, in one of the final interviews before his death. “So much of the greatness of our city has always been derived from those who are different. If we nurtured each other, we could build a great community.”

When Evelyn Mims moved to Atlanta in 1976 as one of the trailblazing first Black hires at WXIA-TV 11 Alive, she immediately felt a kinship with the city’s LGBTQ community. “The parade was smaller and different back then, but still really uplifting,” recalls Mims. “My gay boyfriends were some of the first people in this city who welcomed me and made me feel accepted. We had a blast together. Like I always tell people, I’m so glad camera phones didn’t exist in the 1970s!”

As in recent years, with volunteer allies from the Pansy Patrol blocking out bullhorn-amplified anti-gay protesters with large, colorful painted flower placards as the parade turns onto 10th Street, participants have always faced tensions along the route. In 1990, as a member of the LGBTQ activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), Jeff Graham recalls, “There was a lot of tension when we got to [Fifth Street] where the First Baptist Church Atlanta was located. We never knew if the police were going to begin arresting people. ACT UP always found the Pride Parade as a great opportunity to spotlight the issues we were working on at the time, like investing in expanding services for people with HIV/AIDS.”

As Graham nervously eyed the cops on the lawn of the Baptist church, he didn’t know that just across the street, Rev. Mike Cordle, the brand-new pastor at Saint Mark United Methodist Church, was gazing on the parade with a more Christ-like vision. The next year, Cordle and his congregants lined the sidewalk to pass out water, along with invitations to worship.

“When Saint Mark started handing out water to us, the tone began to shift dramatically,” says Graham. “Suddenly, we saw other churches, congregations, and families out there cheering us on.” The First Baptist Church Atlanta later sold its Midtown property in 1990 and relocated to Dunwoody.

Riding in the parade for the first time in 1983, Lester West encountered some friction at the opposite end of the route. “I remember being heckled by some of my own people,” says West. “African Americans were shouting at me to get down off the float. In the Black community, back then especially in the South, you weren’t accepted if you were gay. I just tuned them out, along with the street preachers calling us blasphemous at the Five Points [MARTA] station. I’m very proud of who I am. God must be, too, since I’m still here!”

In 1984, serving as the only minority member of the Atlanta Pride committee, West recognized the organization’s diversity issues, along with its resistance to including drag performers. “It wasn’t until maybe the early ’90s that I started to see more diversity in the parade, more people of color, more leather people, more drag performers. It was a combination of us fighting for it and the people in charge understanding us more.”

For West, the parade’s increased diversity was accompanied by a few blisters. “The first year I walked in drag as Lena Lust, I marched with Kristy Kaye and Rene Ross, my drag castmates from Crazy Ray’s where we all worked. We walked the entire parade route in heels! I have no idea what we were thinking!” West pauses a moment and adds softly, “They’re all gone now. I’m the only survivor from our group.”

Jeff Graham says participating in Atlanta’s Pride Parade has always been a political act for him, especially as the AIDS epidemic swept through the city’s queer community in the early 1990s.

Remembers Graham: “One year, ACT UP carried a coffin with us, and another year with the AIDS Survival Project, we had close to 100 people march with us, all carrying placards of photos of friends and family members we had lost to AIDS. Each year, we all had to show up and be angry or be focused on drawing attention to an issue.”

But in 1997, thanks to the introduction of an effective new cocktail of HIV drugs, Graham finally got to celebrate at the parade while riding on the AIDS Survival Float dedicated to the medical advances that were saving countless lives.

Evelyn Mims, meanwhile, was using her influence as a community relations specialist at 11 Alive to push Atlanta’s NBC  affiliate to begin broadcasting the parade live on the station’s website in 2010.

“I remember seeing the New York Pride Parade being broadcast and thinking, ‘Atlanta has the biggest Pride parade in the South. Why can’t we do that?’” The station’s new general manager had just moved to Atlanta from San Francisco, a city that hosted an equally epic Pride parade each year.

Joined by friends and “Peachtree Battle” playwrights John Gibson and Anthony Morris, Mims set up a makeshift online broadcasting booth in front of her friend John Stupka’s Blue Med Spa business on 10th Street.

“They gave us a camera on the roof for wide shots but we couldn’t get the station laptop to work for the street shots,” Mims recalls laughing. “So I fired up my own laptop and pointed it at the parade with John saying, ‘Evelyn, hold it up higher, higher!’” When 11 Alive execs got a look at the website traffic, Mims got more cameras, a stage festooned with an 11 Alive banner, and a new parade cohost, her friend and future WSB news anchor Karyn Greer.

“I believe in service for everybody, that’s why I fought to get the parade broadcast,” says Mims. “Because I had watched it for so many years, I knew firsthand that Atlanta’s gay community had this enormous representation that people needed to know about. It wasn’t just drag shows and cute boys in the park. Viewers needed to know that these people worked at Coca-Cola, at Bank of America, Delta Airlines, and at Turner Broadcasting. What better way for them to know that than to watch the Pride Parade?”

In 2013, in honor of her decades of support to the city’s LGBTQ community, Mims was named one of the parade’s grand marshals and tooled through Midtown atop a black convertible Rolls Royce. “I felt like Cinderella going to the ball,” Mims remembers, getting a little choked up. “I kept thinking, ‘How did I get here?’”

Thanks to the efforts of Mims and Lester West and their brothers and sisters, a whole new generation feels seen and empowered at the parade. Erin Davis, 21, a student at Savannah College of Art and Design, first marched in the parade five years ago. “At 16, being a part of Pride was an exercise in self-acceptance,” says Davis. “I was anxious and scared and conflicted, especially as a Black girl, a part of a community that condemns any type of queerness as the antithesis of what Blackness is supposed to be. I was on a journey to both self-define and reconcile these two very significant aspects of my identity. Luckily, I had the privilege of doing so within the Black LGBTQ community that thrives in Atlanta, a place where there is a space for everyone, but especially for those more melanated of us queer folk.”

While Georgia politicians now routinely participate in the parade, convincing many of the positive optics was a tough sell in the past, with one exception: U.S. Congressman John Lewis.

“Congressman Lewis was in every Pride Parade I’ve ever been a part of,” says Graham. “Now, it’s considered a must-appear event for candidates running for statewide office, but in those early years, it was just John Lewis and a few Atlanta City Council members, like Mary Davis who represented Midtown.” In 2020, as part of his funeral procession, the hearse containing Lewis’s body made one final stop at Midtown’s 10th and Piedmont rainbow crosswalk in recognition of his lifelong dedication to championing LGBTQ rights.

In 2018, as the first Black female gubernatorial candidate to ever participate in the parade, Stacey Abrams made sure she stopped in front of Saint Mark. As a girl and a member of the congregation along with her parents, Abrams had passed out water to parade participants.

And like Abrams, as the executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit Georgia Equality, Jeff Graham will be back as the parade returns to the streets of Atlanta on October 9 for the first time in three years. Like many activists in the LGBTQ community, Graham is sounding the alarm: “Not only will we be drawing attention to the sense of urgency about what’s at stake in this year’s midterm elections, but very specifically, [Supreme Court Justice Clarence] Thomas’s concurring opinion where he encouraged people to bring cases that would not just challenge gay marriage but Lawrence v. Texas as well. People born after 1999 may not recall that’s when Georgia’s state supreme court overturned our sodomy laws, or in 2003 when Lawrence was decided at the U.S. Supreme Court. Younger people may not know that the very act of admitting that you had a significant other—our very sexual identities themselves—were not just criminalized but were considered a felony offense here in the state of Georgia. If that’s overturned, it’s hard to say what the implications might be. The threat is real.”

In these uncertain times, Dave Heyward, who was marching as a member of the Gay Liberation Front back in 1971, would also like to see a return to the roots of the event. These days Heyward is a historian and writer behind Touching Up Our Roots, Georgia’s LGBTQ Story Project: “Many of us dinosaurs bemoan Atlanta Pride morphing from a march to a parade. It’s still an event to be savored and relished, [but] the roots of Pride are protest and activism and outrage.”

Veteran activist Lester West—along with his alter ego Lena Lust—is also planning to take to the streets once again, sans heels these days. “As soon as I saw Justice Thomas’s [concurring] ruling, I immediately said, ‘We’re going to have to fight even harder now to protect our rights.’ No one is going to do it for us. It’s up to us. The younger generation, I think, takes these things for granted and thinks these [rights] are just going to be there. I’ve been out since 1972 and it’s been like being on a see-saw. We have our great moments, and then we have these outside factions that keep trying to pull us back down. We’ve got to stay on top of it. And the only way to stay on top of it is to stay out there, raise awareness, and keep it on point.”