Thousands of revelers will fill Piedmont Park this weekend for Atlanta’s 49th Annual Pride Festival.
There will be three marches at the park on Saturday, each celebrating a different part of the LGBTQ community. The festival culminates with the annual Pride parade down Peachtree Street on Sunday at noon. The event has long been a draw for the LGBTQ community from around the South. Because of that, it has also been the target of anti-gay protesters. They hold signs denouncing gay people and often scream homophobic slurs through megaphones at festival participants near the entrances of the park and along the parade route.
It’s likely this year will be no different. But this time anti-gay protesters will face a group of counter-protesters who plan to use performance art to block not only homophobic signage but also verbal epithets.
With grants from the Fulton County Arts and Culture Department and the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Atlanta writer and artist, Matthew Terrell has created “hate shields,” four, 4-foot by 8-foot, sound-muffling panels. The four, 20-lb panels, built by local actor George Faughnan, use harnesses that allow a wearer to lift the shields at least 20 feet in the air. Anti-gay activists sometimes hoist their megaphones on poles so they can broadcast above the crowd.
“My goal is to diffuse the hate as much as possible,” Terrell said earlier this week as he and Faughnan put the finishing touches on the last panel. “We’re not doing anything to make it where they can’t speak.”
According to Atlanta Police Department spokesman Carlos Campos, neither the hate shield group nor their opponents need permits to gather as long as they don’t block sidewalks, pedestrian traffic or the street. Though he would not reveal exact numbers, Campos said there will be enough officers “to properly secure the event.” In the past, some festival-goers and protesters have clashed.
Does Terrell see his work as a provocation?
“It is,” he said. “But you have to match force with force.”
Terrell said he came up with the idea about three years ago after watching members of “The Pansy Patrol” try to face opponents gathered outside the park. The Pansy Patrol is a group of volunteers who use giant, colorful flowers made of cardboard, to peacefully block those yelling slurs on megaphones. The cutouts, however, don’t diminish sound.
“Watching those poor pansy people stand up there with their flower cutouts, that can’t stand up to 120 decibels of sound,” Terrell said. “They don’t have ear protection, and I thought, ‘We can solve that.’”
Terrell applied for grants from both the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and the Fulton County Arts and Culture Department. He said he got just under $6,000 combined from the agencies. The cultural affairs office confirmed it awarded Terrell a grant for the hate shields this year, though did not confirm the amount. Fulton County also confirmed the grant but not dollar amount. Both agencies are credited with small logos on the front of each panel.
Earlier this week, Terrell demonstrated how the shields work. They are made from foam-core boards, sound-proofing fabric used in automobiles, and plastic. Paint rollers and extension poles can be attached to lift them up. Harnesses used by flag bearers in parades allow wearers to keep the signs aloft for extended periods of time. There is a stylized version of the rainbow Pride flag on one side of the panels and on the other, silver, reflective Mylar. Terrell said he wanted the Mylar to serve as a mirror so people would be forced to watch themselves as they yell epithets.
Picking up a megaphone with one hand and holding a panel with the other, Faughnan began reciting the opening monologue to Prince’s classic, “Let’s Go Crazy.” Terrell used his phone to record the decibel level. Without the shield, Faughnan’s voice registered, 94 decibels. Behind it, the level dropped to 72.
“That’s a success to me,” Terrell said.
The panels stand in a long tradition of art as a form of LGBTQ resistance. One of the most notable has been “Angel Action,” begun as a response to Westboro Baptist Church’s protest of Matthew Shepard’s funeral. Shepard was a University of Wyoming student who was tortured, beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in a remote area near Laramie. One of the two men convicted and sentenced to life for his murder suggested Shepard made a pass at one of them in a bar, which angered the man because Shepard was gay. Seeing the protest outside Shepard’s funeral, one of his friends, Romaine Patterson, later developed white angel costumes with wingspans of 20 feet that block anyone standing behind them. Now they are used at protests across the country.
“In our community, drag and all kinds of performance art have been a tool of resilience and resistance to people who’d do harm to the community,” said Jamie Fergerson, executive director of Atlanta Pride. She said the hate shields are “a similar disrupter.”
Terrell said he’d like to refine the panels and make them more soundproof and lightweight. He said knows that for the foreseeable future, there will likely be a need for them.
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