Photos Ian Griffin
It was June 30th, 2016, I had just gotten off the plane from Atlanta to NYC, and I just missed LGBTQ+ Pride Weekend by a couple of days.
I stepped out of the subway station onto Christopher Street in Lower Manhattan and gawked at all of the Pride paraphernalia that remained on every building in the area. Among the buildings was The Stonewall Inn—the historic building and bar where The Stonewall Riots happened in 1969. The Riots were the tipping point for LGBTQ+ liberation in the U.S. and around the world.
As an LGBTQ+ person who grew up in North Georgia, I was simultaneously in awe, inspired, and afraid when I thought about the significance of this location and the Pride decorations that remained. There was so much to take in. I was excited at the opportunity to be around droves of people like myself in New York City, but I was also very nervous about how I would be perceived.
Would people think I was ignorant since I was from the South? Would they dismiss my personal journey because I hadn’t grown up in a more liberal environment or didn’t have similar experiences of living openly with my sexuality and gender identity?
Over time, I realized that a lot of these negative feelings about how others might perceive my identity stemmed from my social upbringing in the South. I had a wall of internalized homophobia that had honestly held me back from being my fully authentic self for over 30 years. I came out at 14, but when I did I only told my very close friends.
I struggled with suicidal thoughts and intentions internally, as well as being called slurs and told I was going to hell externally. High school was a secret nightmare for me, and I developed anxiety issues that cut deep for decades and still haunt me today.
It’s not that my family and friends were mean or that they didn’t love me. Coming out and looking for acceptance just meant that it was rare that my friends and family had open conversations about my dating life, my feelings, my attractions, my personal dreams about marriage and family, all because we didn’t want to become social pariahs if someone caught us talking about my life.
And when I was a kid (thinking I was different but not knowing how), I saw the atrocious, horrible murder of Matthew Shepard splayed across the news—tied to a fence and beaten to death—and knew that that could be me if I wasn’t discreet.
Today I know that I am more than LGBTQ+. I am a God-Uncle to my friends’ children. I am a sibling and a child of wonderful parents. I am a Georgia Highlands College graduate. I am an entrepreneur who started and ran his own business. I love exploring nature and making lame “dad jokes.” I am Justin.
When I left New York and came back to the South, the pandemic hit, and I moved in with my friend to start a business in Chattanooga. But my heart was still in Georgia, and I moved back to Rome last September hoping it could be my forever home.
And then, people began asking:
“Justin, when is Pride going to happen?”
“Ooo, Justin, I have an idea for Pride this year!”
For those Romans who may not know, we have actually had three Pride events prior to this year. In 2018, I decided to face my fears of public scrutiny and threw a small, one-night Pride event at the end of June at the Moon Roof Bar downtown. It was met with excitement and we had contests with about 150 people in attendance.
The following year, I partnered with Russell Evans and Terri Morgan and we moved the event to River Dog Outpost (now our beloved Cosmic Dog Outpost). Over 350 people showed up, and we couldn’t believe the support we received. Not only did we have live music, but to my surprise, people from around the tri-state area drove in to celebrate with us.
No events happened in 2020 due to COVID, and then in 2021 while I was still in Chattanooga, Benjamin Gentry, aka Courtney Chanel Stratton, threw a Pride celebration drag show at The RAD Playhouse. It sold out, and people asked when we would have the next event.
When I moved back to Rome, I still had doubts about the possibility of living life fully as an LGBTQ+ person because I felt like I’d never be able to be Justin 100% if I couldn’t build a personal life free from scrutiny.
To my surprise, The Sizzling Sisters of Rome had made their mark and were performing every month at Tortaco on Broad Street. I went to the 2022 New Year’s Eve party and felt wholly welcome in Rome for the first time. “My people are here, in this town,” I thought.
In previous years, Pride in Rome had been small and not highly publicized. We started planning the event by walking on eggshells because we wanted to find the right way to “come out” to the community.
In the early months of 2022, I met Lynn Green, who started PFLAG Rome Georgia. PFLAG Rome Georgia is a part of the larger PFLAG organization, and as their mission states, “PFLAG envisions a world where diversity is celebrated and all people are respected, valued, and affirmed inclusive of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Our mission is to build on a foundation of loving families united with LGBTQ people and allies who support one another, and to educate ourselves and our communities to speak up as advocates until all hearts and minds respect, value and affirm LGBTQ people.” As a result of my meeting with Lynn and our collaborative efforts, PFLAG Rome Georgia is our host for Rome Pride 2022. With our backgrounds and interests in event planning, it was a perfect fit.
After our initial discussions, everything began falling into place.
What was supposed to be a one-day small event at the end of June is now an entire weekend of celebration and love. Within two months, we surpassed our original fundraising goal, and we now have over 1,300 followers on Facebook. Downtown businesses, local individuals, and large organizations are supporting us. We have been on three podcasts and will be featured in various Rome, Atlanta, and Chattanooga magazines, newspapers, and other media outlets. Publicity aside, we expect anywhere from 500 to 5,000 people to show up for our summer event weekend.
We are Romans first and wanted to make sure that Rome Pride 2022 wasn’t some copycat event from Atlanta or NYC. We wanted it to be specifically centered around Rome’s identity and the surrounding areas. Our winning slogan from our online community slogan contest is “Seven Hills. Three Rivers. One Love.”
Rome Pride 2022 is organized by a board of eight local leaders—myself, Lynn Green, Hal Floyd, Hillery Sawyer, Benjamin Gentry/Courtney Chanel Stratton, Raven Williams, Michael/Camilla Carter, and Terri Morgan. Together, we represent many points on the LGBTQ+ spectrum as well as allies who support our mission: to celebrate community, diversity, and inclusion in North Georgia as we remember the Stonewall Riots and others who have fought to help us get to this point.
Over the course of June 24-26, 2022, we will host a variety of events for the community to enjoy. Our opening comedy and drag show is at The Vogue on Broad Street on Friday, June 24th at 7 pm. Saturday the 25th is an all-day festival at Heritage Park, which will be named Pride Plaza for the day, including a 40+ vendor market, food trucks, a stage with seven hours of entertainment from the best performers around, a kid’s area with a DJ, face painting, and more. Be sure to also get your tickets for the Riverboat Cruise we will have before our blowout show at Tortaco that evening.
Because we know faith is integral to Rome, we have partnered with faith leaders and will host a non-denominational Pride-focused church service at First United Methodist on Sunday morning, June 26th at 10 AM.
You may ask yourself, why does Rome, GA, need a Pride Celebration weekend?
It’s simple. It’s for the people who, like me, have seen and witnessed the horrible deaths and murders of people like us simply for living our truths. It’s for those who cannot access adequate healthcare due to social stigmas and bigotry. It’s for the community: because when hatred and anger prevail, communities cannot thrive. And we as Romans are always looking toward the horizon for a better society.
We, as a community, don’t want riots. We don’t want our lives to be political. We just want to go about our lives authentically every day. That goal is inherent in the spirit of every human. Rome Pride 2022 is a step closer to fulfilling that goal for your LGBTQ+ neighbors, friends, and children. We love this city and this area, and we are excited to show people that Rome is welcoming to everyone.
The LGBTQ+ diversity is here in this beautiful gem of a city—your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers, your community and business leaders. We are here. We are queer. And we are here to stay. This is our home, too. And Rome’s seven hills are big enough for us all.
Check out our website at www.romegapride.com to find information on events, ways to volunteer, and sponsorship opportunities. You can follow us on Facebook by searching for Rome Georgia Pride 2022, or find us on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok with the handle @romegapride. If you’re a parent, sibling, friend, or member of the LGBTQ+ community and are seeking support about how to navigate LGBTQ+ issues, you can find more information and support via PFLAG Rome Georgia at www.pflagromega.org.