A couple wearing a pride flag and an equality flag hold hands. Athens PRIDE hosted its 20th annual street festival on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2019, in Athens, Georgia. Attendees were able to peruse food and art stalls, listen to live music and watch a live drag show. (Photo/Ryan Cameron rcameron@randb.com)

Queer pride is easy to celebrate in 2019.  With pop culture favorites such as Netflix’s “Queer Eye” to Taylor Swift’s music video for “You Need to Calm Down,” queerness is a national celebration. Its reach in society extends to social justice, with gay marriage becoming federally legal in 2015. 

The community has seen unabashed pride in Athens, too. Since 2006, the official Athens PRIDE festival has lined downtown with hundreds of visitors. At the first PRIDE, coordinators approximated 150 people would attend the festival. 

Atlanta and Monroe-based Lacie Bruce has watched Athens PRIDE grow as she’s performed in drag at the festival “on and off” since its beginning. Bruce — known offstage as Michael White — has performed in drag for 24 years, and remembers bar hopping in Athens from 1997 through the late 2000s with other drag queens. She recalls Athens as being “very accepting and open” ideologically. 

While there were only “a few times” Bruce and her friends ran into some problems, she said she mostly experienced  “warm and accepting attitudes.”

Creating safe spaces

When Bruce began performing in the late 2000s, drag communities, nightlife and on-campus resources — such as GLOBES, the LGBTQ faculty & staff organization — were safe spaces where queer people didn’t otherwise have any. 

Still, people in the community were afraid of being fired from their day jobs because they were gay. In a 1992 article published in The Red & Black, one student studying to be a teacher was afraid of being outed. At the time, if LGBTQ employees made their sexual orientations known, there weren’t any legal protections from discrimination for them. 

People who have this fear can rest a bit easier now. In the 2015-16 Georgia House session, a House Bill from 1978 was amended to provide public workplace protections for those who are not heterosexual. 

Equality on campus

Years before the House Bill, faculty and staff at the University of Georgia were also working at attaining the same rights as their straight colleagues. 

Janet Frick, who started working at UGA in 2001, said she has witnessed students’ shifting attitudes towards queerness since then.

“When I came here in 2001, I had students who had never had a class that talked about homosexuality,” Frick said. “They had never heard that word uttered in a classroom.”

Frick, a professor in developmental psychology, tried to introduce the idea that sexual orientation isn’t a choice. Frick was on the frontline of the battle to secure benefits for UGA’s domestic partners in 2002 and 2005, working outside the classroom as the chair of the faculty benefits committee. 

Before the Supreme Court recognized marriage equality in 2015, same-sex partners of UGA employees couldn’t receive full benefits. Same-sex partners — because they weren’t legally married — were also excluded from receiving benefits such as university-provided healthcare or a UGA card which allowed access to on-campus facilities. The faculty benefits committee was charged with overseeing issues related to securing benefits for all faculty. 

Frick said the committee saw the issue of obtaining health insurance for an employee’s same-sex partner as “a basic fairness and justice issue.” So, the committee decided to make a proposal to the University Council. The 2002 proposal urged UGA’s former president, Michael Adams, to ask the Board of Regents to address the issue of benefits and approve a provision of healthcare for domestic partners.

Though it was approved by Adams, the 2002 proposal didn’t bring healthcare benefits to domestic couples because the USG decided not to allocate those funds. 

A jarring reminder

In 2004, Georgia Amendment 1 was on the ballot which questioned whether or not same-sex marriage should be banned. In Georgia, 76% of citizens voted in favor of a ban. As a result, same-sex couples were denied the same benefits as a married, straight couple. This law stayed in effect until “Obergefell v. Hodges” instituted marriage equality on the federal level in 2015. 

A small step toward equality in faculty benefits came sooner to UGA when, in 2005, the faculty benefits committee re-approached the University Council and former president Adams. The committee asked for UGA to institute benefits for same-sex partners and the children of those partners — such as a UGA card.  These benefits would not be administered by the Board of Regents. Soon after these requests reached Adams’ desk, the benefits went into effect. 

“We saw this as a victory. It took some work,” Frick said. 

A separate victory for LGBTQ groups on campus was made in 2002 when Adrien Childs worked with GLOBES to bring visibility to UGA’s non-discrimination policy. Childs is the associate director for research and graduate studies in Hugh Hodgson School of Music and a self-identifying gay man. Considerable work toward adding “sexual orientation” to UGA’s nondiscrimination policy in the late 1990s was made by Annette Hatton, the now-retired founding president of GLOBES. 

“I think that, now, people who identify within the LGBTQ community feel less of a need to only look to that community for support,” Childs said. “We feel like we belong more to the campus and the community.”

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