After two years without in-person events and no parade due to the pandemic, the 2022 Atlanta Pride Festival will return to Piedmont Park in its full, colorful glory Oct. 8-9.
Executive Director Jamie Fergerson foresees “a return to celebration, a return to gathering. I want people to feel safe and welcome.”
Organizers will aim to create an open, inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ people, whether it be their first time at Pride or their 50th, said Fergerson, acknowledging how important the event is to queer people throughout the Southeast, especially those from rural communities or oppressive environments. It may be the only time they get to feel like their authentic selves or see just how diverse the LGBTQ+ community is.
Fergerson understands that innately. The first time she saw the Atlanta Pride Festival in 2001 was life changing.
“I was living in Rome, Georgia, at the time, and my best friend and I drove down to Atlanta for Pride, and we didn’t really know what we were getting into,” she said. “But we were both in the process of coming out, which was difficult and challenging.”
She was 19 at the time and attending college.
“The first thing I remember seeing was St. Mark’s Methodist Church decked out in rainbows. My grandfather was a Methodist minister, and my best friend’s mom was a Methodist minister. Neither of us had grown up with a welcoming church. For us to see that on a church was a big wow, right off the bat.”
Pride provided a seismic shift to Fergerson’s thinking.
“I had grown up believing that if you were gay or lesbian, that was a difficult life,” she said. “Being at Pride showed me my first big crowd of folks who were living happy, full, productive lives in every profession, every walk of life.”
By the next year, she was volunteering. In 2015, she became executive director. Now she walks every year at the front of the parade, surrounded by her family.
“For me, that is an emblem of how much growth and change there has been in our world,” said Fergerson. “To be in that space with them, when I never even dreamed that was a possibility, feels pretty magical every year.”
At least 350,000 attendees are estimated to attend Atlanta Pride events this year, with 100,000 attending the Sunday noon parade, weather permitting. Among the performers taking the Atlanta Pride mainstage will be headliners Flo Rida, Big Freedia and Betty Who.
This year, committing to its mission of wellness, Atlanta Pride has partnered with community health organizations and county health departments to provide COVID testing and vaccines for COVID and monkeypox. In addition, masks are encouraged but not required at indoor events.
When the 2021 festival was canceled, it created discord among some bar owners who count on an influx of business during the festival.
Jenn Maguire and Jami Lancaster, owners of My Sister’s Room, which relocated to Crescent Avenue in July, took issue with the decision and proceeded with their events as planned.
“It was very successful,” Maguire said. “All of us local bars, we were able to come together to ensure that we had a really good, strong Pride. It was actually one of the most successful ones that all of us have seen in the last 15 to 20 years, so it was very disappointing that the Atlanta Pride Committee did not have a Pride.”
This year, My Sister’s Room has scheduled multiple events featuring acts such as Lauren Sanderson, DJ Tatiana and Kia Barnes during festival weekend and has rented a second space for events at Park Tavern, adjacent to Piedmont Park. But none of the events are officially associated with the Atlanta Pride Committee.
“I’m happy to see that the Pride committee is doing something at the park,” Maguire said. “Kudos to them. They should’ve done it last year since that’s an outdoor event.”
Fergerson said last year’s cancellation was prompted by an unpredictable surge of COVID variants and was based upon the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and medical advisers from Emory and Grady hospitals.
“There were a few bars who were really upset about it,” she said. “Pride weekend is their biggest revenue weekend of the year. And they’re all small businesses who came through the pandemic, so it’s not surprising that they would be upset about the event cancelling. At the end of the day, our mission is to promote wellness in the community, and that’s a different goal than a small business or a bar that is looking to host events and drive attendance and make money from those events.”
Among the performers eager for Atlanta Pride’s return is Taylor Alxndr, a drag performer and executive director of Southern Fried Queer Pride, a nonprofit that empowers Black queer and trans people in the South. She will host Sweet Tea: A Queer Variety Show at the Gray Television Stage on Sunday and perform in events at My Sister’s Room and other venues around the city.
But it’s the festival in Piedmont Park, where you can “see people of older generations in the community and young babies from seven parts of Georgia,” that she’s most looking forward to.
Though she usually works Pride week as a performer and activist, Alxndr said she will take time this year to reconnect with the community she’s missed.
“The Saturday of Atlanta Pride, I’m planning to go to the park out of drag and just exist and see people,” she said. “When you’re performing, you’re always working. You do one show, touch up the makeup and go on to the next gig. Gotta do this, gotta do that. So I’m really looking forward to, for the first time in years, spending a Saturday just walking through the park.”
Also eager to return is David Cowan, the sign language interpreter whose full-bodied, emphatic interpretations of Gov. Brian Kemp’s pandemic press conferences and past Pride performances have become viral videos.
“It will be a sigh of relief to be around our loving friends and families,” said Cowan, the festival’s sign language coordinator and its first deaf Grand Marshal in 2017. “It’s time to celebrate that we survived through the pandemic and honor those who didn’t make it through.”
He noted that the pandemic caused added strain to members of the community who lived through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
“Some of us have been through that epidemic and understand the feelings,” he stated via email.
If all goes well, the pandemic will be the last thing on festival-goers minds. They’ll be too busy reconnecting with old friends and making new ones.
“One of the best things for me is that I see a lot of friends from different parts of my life that I haven’t seen for a long time,” said Fergerson. “Particularly as I’ve gotten older, as we all work and have families and different responsibilities, Pride feels like a reunion. I love that.”
Atlanta Pride. Official Kick Off Party: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, $50, Atlanta Contemporary, 535 Mean St., Atlanta. Festival: Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 8-9, free, VIP tickets $75-$175, Piedmont Park, corner of 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue, Atlanta. Parade: noon-3:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9, along Peachtree and 10th streets. 404-382-7588, www.atlantapride.com.
Gray Television Stage: Beginning at 9 a.m. with Kashi Atlanta Yoga, Out Front Theatre, Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus, Block Spoken Word, MOKSHA, Exquisite Gender, Sophia Dashing, Shooting Star Cabaret, Queer Gender Dance Party
Coca-Cola Stage: Beginning at 2 p.m. with DJ Babey Drew, Nouri, Neriah, Chrissy Chlapecka, Trinidad Cardona, Brooke Eden, Jax, Big Freedia, Flo Rida
Gray Television Stage: Beginning at 3:30 p.m. with The Candybox Revue, Sweet Tea: A Queer Variety Show
Coca-Cola Stage: Beginning at 3:45 p.m. with Michel Jons Band, Betty Who, Starlight Cabaret