On Tuesday morning, the entrance to College Square looked a little more colorful. That morning, a construction crew began the installation of rainbow crosswalks on College Avenue and Clayton Street.
The crosswalks, decorated with the LGBTQ pride flag, represent the culmination of three years of work by LGBTQ rights organizations and local government officials. After receiving public art funding from Athens-Clarke County in 2020, the Athens Rainbow Crosswalk Initiative will officially dedicate the crosswalks on Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day.
Three years of work
The Athens Rainbow Crosswalk Initiative is the brainchild of APQC president Cameron Jay Harrelson. After witnessing a historic turnout at Athens Pride in 2019, Harrelson felt moved at the festival's conclusion.
"As I was watching everyone leave and head to their cars, I really just in my heart was like, 'wow, we need something, some sort of art or something visual.'"
Rainbow crosswalks had been in vogue for several years at that point. The first LGBT pride crosswalk was painted in West Hollywood, Calif. in 2012. In 2017, then-Mayor of Atlanta Kasim Reed installed rainbow crosswalks on Piedmont Avenue to commemorate the victims of the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Fla.
Harrelson figured: if Atlanta could have one, why not Athens?
"Visibility and art have been integral parts of every major movement in our country's history," he said. "I went home. I looked at my partner at the time. And I was like, 'You know what, we need a rainbow crosswalk. We can do it.'"
Harrelson had no expectations for the petition - but in time, it grew. And as signatures began numbering in the thousands, he got in touch with county commissioner Allison Wright. Wright supported the idea, but wanted to discuss the best way to fund the project.
"[She wanted to know] how it can be cost effective, how we can make sure that we're not taking money that could be used to actually affect change in people's lives and spending it on art," Harrelson said.
Together with Commissioner Melissa Link, they identified some T-SPLOST funding from 2017 set aside specifically for public art. They decided to ask the ACC Board of Commissioners to add the rainbow crosswalks project to a list of proposed renovations to College Square.
At this point, the petition exceeded 8,000 signatures, with 6,000 signers listing Athens zip codes. Amidst overwhelming public support, the motion passed on June 25, 2020. The rainbow crosswalks were officially funded.
"I'm really proud of Athens Clarke County," said Harrelson. "I feel like we are a paragon for the rest of the state."
After extensive renovations throughout 2021 and 2022, the crosswalks will be dedicated on National Coming Out Day, a holiday celebrating queer and trans visibility on Oct. 11. Athens Pride and Queer Collective will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony that morning. It's making Harrelson think about the role of visibility in LGBT rights.
"Pairing this with National Coming Out Day was certainly appropriate because what we have found is that by increasing visibility, and by showing the acceptance that can be found in Athens-Clarke County, we do encourage people on that journey to come out and to embrace themselves," he said.
The crosswalk was just one of the many changes activists have pushed for in Athens. In 2021, the commission passed a non-discrimination ordinance protecting, among other things, sexuality and gender identity. Athens Pride has grown from a day-long gathering to a week-long festival celebrated throughout the city.
Harrelson says it's far from the most significant project supporting LGBTQ rights in Athens. But its installation still marks a turning point for him.
"No one can tell me visibility doesn't matter," he said. "It certainly does."
This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: College Square's new rainbow crosswalks represent LGBTQ pride