LGBTQ bus tour takes Atlanta passengers on a historical journey

The Atlanta LGBTQ+ Story Tour dives into the city's queer history and covers over 20 historical locations throughout Atlanta.
Tour guides Julie Thiets and Dave Hayward have a drink and cheers between stops on a LGBTG history bus tour of Atlanta. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Growing up was not always easy for Atlanta resident Dave Hayward.

Despite an overall positive self-image, there was still one thing that made him think that he would never be enough.

“I would look in the mirror, and I would say, ‘Well, you look like such a nice young boy, but you’re not a nice young boy,'” he would tell himself. “You’re gay.”

Tour guide Dave Hayward leads the bus tour sharing the history of Atlanta’s LGBTQ community while visiting sites throughout the city. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Hayward’s experience is similar to many a part of the LGBTQ community.

His desire to celebrate the achievements and historical milestones of Georgia’s queer community led him to become a driving force in creating the Atlanta LGBTQ+ Story Tour.

Developed by Touching Up Our Roots, an LGBTQ story project where Hayward serves as co-founder and coordinator, the tour covers over 20 historical locations throughout the city. The June 23 tour mainly covered Midtown and Virginia-Highland. The June 30 tour had stops in Midtown, downtown and Decatur.

Attendees listen and the see the sights during a four-hour bus tour on the history of the LGBTQ community in the city of Atlanta. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“As people, we all have our strength, we all have our hope, our experience, and we share that,” he said. “And so it’s about sharing stories, sharing our stories with one another.”

Throughout the tour, Hayward shared personal stories of growing up in a society that shamed gay people, navigating identity and community within Atlanta’s LGBTQ scene, and advocating for LGBTQ rights and protections.

Tour guide Julie Thiets cheers with excitement as the bus prepares to depart from MetroFresh in Midtown Atlanta to continue the LGBTQ history tour. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Hayward makes it his mission not only to educate but to entertain and uplift the energy of his passengers. The excited faces onboard revel in the sights they pass outside their window — each with a different story.

One of the most enthusiastic sightseers is Max Semrau, a 24-year-old Atlanta resident visiting the historical spots with his partner.

He believes that the tour is vital in spreading the education of queer history, especially in a social and political climate in which it may still be considered taboo to discuss.

Max Semrau shares with the group about why he feels it’s important to know the history of Atlanta’s LGBTQ community. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“There needs to be more of it,” said Semrau. “If we can’t teach it in schools, we got to teach it in the community.”

He believes that it is important for younger LGBTQ residents such as himself to never lose sight of the sacrifices and hardships experienced by those who came before them.

Beyond Pride

A team of WABE reporters take a deeper look at the issues affecting LGBTQ people in Georgia. Plus, LGBTQ Atlantans in their own words, Pride events calendar, LGBTQ coverage from other NPR stations across the South and more.

“I think if we, you know, forget our history, we forget the strength that we’ve displayed,” he said. “We forget … all the battles that have, you know, been fought.”

Many of the spots highlighted represent that history, with locations ranging from John Howell Memorial Park — named after the gay Atlanta human rights and civic activist who passed away due to HIV complications — to Ansley Mall, which has been popular among the city’s LGBTQ community since the shopping center was built in the 1960s.

The lime green tour bus sets off from Ansley Mall as the bus tour starts on a four-hour journey through Atlanta’s LGBTQ history. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Many of the locations bring up good and bad memories for 81-year old Karen Thornton.

A native of East Tennessee, she says that she and her longtime partner Betsy have been called every name in the book. For years, the couple had to not only worry about taunts or slurs but also their safety.

“We didn’t hold hands. You didn’t dare hold hands,” Thornton said.

Dave Hayward shares about John Howell’s impact and work to advance LGBTQ rights during a stop at John Howell Memorial Park in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“If you turned around [when being ridiculed], they could beat you up right in public. Nobody would [come to our defense]. ‘What, you’re dykes? Yeah, who cares?’ So we learned … you took it on the chin, so to speak.”

Throughout the periods of adversity, one Atlanta activist proved to be a source of strength for her and her friends.

“We really took our cues a lot from the Civil Rights Movement,” Thornton recalled. “We did like Martin Luther King. We didn’t yell back or anything, we just kept going. You just keep going.”

Hayward and Thornton said that during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ’80s, Atlanta’s Civil Rights Movement inspired LGBTQ activists to fight for their rights and inhibit spaces where they could be safe.

Tour participants read the names engraved in bricks placed on AIDS Memorial walking path walk at John Howell Memorial Park in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

One of these spaces for modern LGBTQ Atlanta is MetroFresh, owned by chef Mitchell Anderson.

A former actor who moved to California during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the mid-’80s, Anderson struggled at first to find a sense of identity and community while pursuing his dreams.

Former actor and now-chef Mitchell Anderson, works in the kitchen of MetroFresh in Midtown Atlanta. Anderson opened the restaurant 19 years ago after moving to the city with his husband. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“Landing in Hollywood … where I was trying to be a young leading man actor, I was also trying to come to terms with my own sexuality,” Anderson said.

After moving to Atlanta with his husband in 2005, the two established MetroFresh, which has grown to become a hub for congregation among the city’s queer residents.

“We’re surrounded by all age groups, all sexual orientations, all races. And it’s, you know, one of the things I’m most proud of is that we’ve for 19 years been the hub of the neighborhood.”

As the tour comes to an end, Gloria Gaynor’s 1980s record “I Will Survive” blares through the bus speakers — a song Hayward calls a community anthem.

“We are victors, we are not victims, we are victors.”

This story is part of the ongoing series Beyond Pride, in which WABE reporters take a deeper look at the issues affecting LGBTQ people in Georgia. Plus, hear LGBTQ Atlantans in their own words, check out a Pride events calendar running through the fall, LGBTQ coverage from other NPR stations across the South and more.