Atlanta loses fierce advocate with Sheila Merritt’s death

Sheila Merritt was an Atlanta advocate for equality and LGBTQ rights. Here, she addressed the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Merritt, 58, died suddenly in September.

Credit: Courtesy of Andria Townes

Credit: Courtesy of Andria Townes

Sheila Merritt was an Atlanta advocate for equality and LGBTQ rights. Here, she addressed the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Merritt, 58, died suddenly in September.

Sheila Merritt’s death left a void in the lives of her family and close friends and in Atlanta’s underserved people.

Merritt was a tireless advocate not only for the LGBTQ+ community but also “for any underserved community,” says Suzanne Baugh, her friend and former business partner. “Anyone who needed help, just anyone, she was there. Her death has left a hole in our hearts.”

Born in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to Stanley and Aline Merritt, Sheila Merritt, 58, died on Sunday, Sept.17 after surgery for a sudden illness. She is survived by her wife, Andria “A.T.” Towne, son Max Green, grandson Rowan, her sister Sue Sharp, sister-in-law Cindy Towne and a niece and nephew.

Towne said she and Merritt met in Nashville, where each worked in the music industry in concert production, “and she was just irresistible to me.” Merritt had been a high school valedictorian and “was just brilliant and creative with so much charisma,” Towne said. “I’ve never met anyone like her.”

Sheila Merritt with Rep. John Lewis. Merritt was a long-time advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in Atlanta and elsewhere. Georgia's Rep. John Lewis was a long-time advocate for civil and human rights and attended Atlanta's Pride parade yearly.

Credit: Courtesy of Andria Towne

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Credit: Courtesy of Andria Towne

Merritt was active in the Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (AGLCC), Atlanta Pride and other civil rights organizations. She served as the AGLCC’s president and as the corporate partner relationship manager. A talented public speaker and accomplished storyteller, she once shared a stage with civil rights leader Al Sharpton.

For her contributions to the LGBTQ+ community, she was named the top female activist by the Georgia Voice in 2016, and she was a grand marshal in the 2014 Atlanta Pride parade. At the time of her death, she was working as a marketing manager at the Georgia International Convention Center, but she worked for years in event planning and marketing, including a long stint with Q&A Events.

“We worked for a festival event company, and Sheila was the best at the meet-and-greet with the talent,” said her friend and colleague Tonya Figueroa. “It didn’t matter if you knew her for five minutes or five years, you felt this warmth from her.”

Briana Myers and Amy Graham both met Merritt in a women’s studies class at Georgia State in 2003. “Sheila wanted to a see a movie but couldn’t find it, so I told her I’d lend her mine,” said Myers, Graham’s wife. “The next thing you know, she had me in her house, giving me a tour of her neighborhood. We became friends immediately.”

Graham said that Merritt “could give you the courage and confidence to do things you didn’t think you could do.” Graham had been working as an EMT, but she told Sheila that she had wanted to be a fire fighter since she was a little girl. Soon she was filling out an application, taking a physical and joining the East Point Fire Department. A few years later, she became a nurse.

Merritt’s close friends in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of East Point — where she served as president of the homeowners’ association — say they were hand-picked members of Sheila’s tribe. She drew people to her, introduced them to each other and made everyone feel welcomed. There are Sheila tribes in Michigan, Nashville and West Virginia as well as in Atlanta, friends said.

Both Merritt and Towne loved to cook and have friends over for meals and long conversations about solving the world’s problems. At Thanksgiving, says Suzanne Baugh, the couple would host a dinner “for those who didn’t have a place to go.” Neighborhood friends loved Merritt’s white bean chili, but her signature dish was biscuits and gravy, Towne said. “She used to say that she was from Michigan, but her mom was from the South.”

A celebration of life and a party will be held in Atlanta and another in Michigan later this fall.