The first time the LGBTQ+ community celebrated Pride in Athens, Georgia, was in 1998. Athens Pride + Queer Collective was created to pioneer queer visibility in the town, and organizers put together a potluck picnic under the pavilion at Lake Herrick.
President Emeritus of APQC Cameron Harrelson tells GayCities the location for Athens Pride changed over the years with an increase in the number of attendees, and by 2019, it was happening across two blocks in downtown Athens.
That’s when Harrelson says the idea for the Athens Rainbow Crosswalk was born. “I remember seeing how many people we had there, and I looked at my partner at the time, and I said, ‘We need like something to showcase what we had here today, all year round.’”
A few days later, Harrelson began petitioning for the installation. By the end, he totaled about 8,000 signatures, 6,000 of which were from Athens Clarke County zip codes.
“It was one of the largest petitions that the county government had ever been handed,” says Harrelson.
He says his petition coincidentally occurred in alignment with a non-discrimination ordinance that was being heavily debated by the mayor and commission. “It was one thing to ask for art, but it was another thing to actually pass policy that helps queer people, right?”
The city was at a crossroads of potentially granting performative visibility without advancing equal rights. Harrelson says the 6,000 signatures asking for a Rainbow Crosswalk were seen as “6,000 potential queer individuals or allies that could potentially face discrimination based on those protected classes, so it became like an art piece paired with advocacy.”
The Athens Non-Discrimination Ordinance was passed to protect individuals from discrimination in 2021, prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation, and race. It might not sound groundbreaking, but in a swing state like Georgia, it could help steer a revolutionary future of inclusion for queer people.
Naturally, Harrelson worried about funding an art project when people were without food and shelter. “We actually dug into the Athens Clarke County budget and found a set of money that had never been utilized years ago, that was set aside for art, and had to be used for that purpose.”
The APQC president said he was surprised when the city didn’t just give them a crosswalk but an entire intersection; it was unveiled during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in October 2022.
“I always say Stonewall and this movement started with throwing bricks. We are in a time when people need to pick up their bricks,” says Harrelson. “And for some people, their brick is a megaphone, marching. For others, their brick is political advocacy or behind-the-scenes to affect policy change. For other people, you know, leading an organization, a protest, or a lay-in at the capitol. All of our advocacies are valid and important.”