The Story of Touching Up Our Roots, Inc. (2002–)

By Dave Hayward and Eric Solomon
Originally Published: October 15, 2021

Origins and “Our Founding Valentines” (2015–2020)

Touching Up Our Roots (TUOR) is an incorporated non-profit in the state of Georgia. In 2002, Atlanta activists, historians, and friends Berl Boykin (1944–2018) and Dave Hayward founded Touching Up Our Roots, Inc., Georgia’s LGBT History Project Initiative. In a 2010 oral history interview with Lola Ibitoye, Hayward acknowledges how Berl Boykin’s decades of activism led to his position as honorary grand marshal of Atlanta Pride 2005.[1] Co-founder and coordinator Hayward has continued the work of TUOR in the aftermath of Boykin’s death in 2018. Like Hayward, Touching Up Our Roots has performed many roles even as its mission of promoting, preserving, and publicizing the contributions LGBTQIA+ Atlantans have made to political freedoms, local culture, and quality of life has been consistent. Hayward remembers the founding of the initiative this way: “There’s a real separation in our generations. There’s not that many people still around like myself who were there in the 1970s. I have hoped TUOR would serve as a means to bring people together and to document some of the queer past for the future.”[2] Hayward’s comments echo what he told Atlanta’s NPR station WABE in 2020: “We have an unusual situation in our community because we basically lost so much of a generation, my generation, the AIDS generation,” Hayward reflected. “There’s a real disconnect in the community, through no one’s fault, it’s just that there’s people that aren’t here anymore to talk about the origins… We try to not speak for anybody, but we try and do the best by getting their stories out.”[3]

Lois Reitzes described TUOR as “an initiative to preserve and remember the LGBTQ community” in Atlanta.[4] As a memory project, TUOR aims to uplift the stories of the community, past and present, to preserve them for the future. After a few years, Hayward understood the goals of TUOR to be less about collecting history in the form of artifacts for archives and more about the preservation of personal story. He made the decision to change the subtitle of Touching Up Our Roots from a “history project” to a “story project,” which in his view better reflects TUOR’s commitment to narrative and orality in the transmission of LGBTQIA+ culture from one generation to the next in Georgia. Although not an official historical archival project in Hayward’s view, TUOR has functioned both to collect stories and as a “go between, an intermediary” to publicize for community members what is available in official Atlanta-area archives.[5] TUOR is a member of the Georgia LGBTQ+ History Project.

SAME-THING-TUOR. Promotional material from the Southeastern Arts, Media and Education Project (SAME) (c. 1991), The Atlanta Lesbian and Gay History Thing (c. 1993), and Touching Up Our Roots, (c. 2017). Visit Hayward’s Touching Up Our Roots website: https://www.touchingupourroots.org/. All materials in Dave Hayward’s personal collection. Scans by Eric Solomon, 2021. Courtesy of Dave Hayward, 2021.

The work of Touching Up Our Roots exists in a rich Atlanta lineage of storytelling and public history initiatives like the Southeastern Arts, Media and Education Project (SAME), a multi-arts organization for the gay and lesbian community (1984–1996), and the Atlanta Lesbian and Gay History Thing (ALGHT), a partnership between local activists and scholars to collect, preserve, and amplify the stories and artifacts of queer Atlanta in the early-mid 1990s. Live Story Tour co-conductor Maria Helena Dolan had been instrumental in the work of what she calls “the Thing.” Further, Hayward credits a person deeply involved with “Thing” for the name Touching Up Our Roots, Liz Throop. Hayward recalls, “We were sitting there wondering what to call this group we wanted to start about Atlanta’s LGBT history. This was sometime in the late 1980s I recall. Liz said to me, what about ‘touching up our roots’? And I said, ‘I love that.’ Of course, it wasn’t used back then, but I told Liz I was going to use it later. She gave me her blessing, and that’s how the name ‘Touching Up Our Roots’ came to be.”[6] As Hayward told me of the name, “It’s campy, light-hearted… I like to approach things in a tongue-in-cheek way. We’ve been criticized for what we wear and how we behave in public. But I say we’re going to do things the way we do them!”[7] The tongue-in-cheek name has not been beloved by all LGBTQIA+ community members. Some have felt the name is not serious enough to serve as representative of the entire community. Hayward reflected on this criticism to Lois Reitzes in 2016, “I’ve gotten different feedback about [the name]. Some people say it’s too frivolous. And it’s like, you know, come on, we need to have some fun. Let’s have some fun here.”[8]

Touching Up Our Roots flyers in Dave Hayward’s personal collection. Scans by Eric Solomon, 2021. Courtesy of Dave Hayward, 2021.

As one early Touching Up Our Roots flyer proudly proclaims: “Despite what you may have heard, LGBT people have made major contributions to Georgia… Help Spread the True Story!” With TUOR, Hayward and his collaborators have highlighted some of these “major contributions” through recorded documentaries or oral history interviews with Dr. Jesse Peel, Reverend Erin Swenson, Berl Boykin, Judy Colbs, Winston Johnson, Willis Bivins, Gus Kaufman, Lorraine Fontana, Franklin Abbott, Charles Stephens, Gil Robison, Richard Rhodes, and more. Straight-ally and activist Goldy Criscuolo was the first of Hayward’s interviews (2006).[9] Hayward also partnered with Story Corps to record audio interviews at the 2008 Pride festival. The bulk of these materials can be found at Georgia State University’s Special Collections and Archives.[10]

“Our Founding Valentines” promotional brochure, 2019. Scan by Eric Solomon, 2021. Courtesy of Dave Hayward, 2021.

In addition to the documentation of oral histories, TUOR has hosted numerous social and community events over the years. In 2011, the initiative held two talkback conversations, an “LGBT Youth and Elders Debate,” a “dialogue on what it means to be young and LGBT or older and LGBT in Atlanta and in the South Today,” and “An LGBT Look at Same Sex Marriage: How to Determine Priorities in the LGBT Movement,” both at the Ponce de Leon Library, renamed in honor of Atlanta LGBTQIA+ pioneer Joan P. Garner.[11]

Often in coordination with Atlanta Pride, TUOR has hosted the annual “Our Founding Valentines,” such as the 2015 event at No Mas! Cantina, the 2016 event at Bantam and Biddy, and the 2019 event at Out Front Theater. The event celebrates LGBTQIA+ Atlanta pioneers.[12] Thus far, the event has been held from 2015 to 2020. Hayward recalled the inspiration behind “Our Founding Valentines” in a 2020 conversation with WABE’s Summer Evans: “Laura Barton [former events manager for Atlanta Pride] and I would brainstorm all the time about different things we wanted to do, and I said, ‘I saw this article in the New York Times about how they’re having a big brunch for the people who were at Stonewall, who were probably all seventy years old now.’ And I said, ‘we should do something here too.’ We tried to figure out what holiday we could tie it to. We were shooting originally for Thanksgiving, but we didn’t get it done enough in time, and we said, no way we’re doing Christmas. So, the next major holiday is Valentines. So, we came up with the concept, ‘Our Founding Valentines’” to honor “pioneers, trailblazers, pathfinders in the LGBTQ community.” Originally, the pioneers selected moved chronologically through modern LGBTQIA+ Atlanta from the 1960s to the present, but in more recent years those honored have been chosen around certain themes, such as the 2019 honorees who were pioneers in the fight against AIDS in Atlanta and the 2020 honorees who were pioneers in the arts.[13] As a social event, “Our Founding Valentines” invites community members to mingle with and learn more about the work of those honored. Some years have featured panel discussion and performances from honorees.

In 2022, Touching Up Our Roots will celebrate twenty years of service to the LGBTQIA+ community in Atlanta. Hayward celebrated his seventy-second birthday in August 2021. In his tireless continuing work with TUOR, Hayward notes that it remains important “to tell those stories” of “how we got to where we are now because a lot of people don’t know [that story]. We have a mission to reach out and mentor to anyone, but especially young people. There are so many gaps” in our knowledge of our community.[14]

We hope you’ll read more about the Touching Up Our Roots Digital Story Tour, The #TUOR Project, here.

Touching Up Our Roots Live Story Tour (2016–2019)

The event that has been most central to TUOR’s public work in recent years has been the LGBTQIA+ Story Tour, an event held every June or October since 2016 in association with Atlanta Pride. Hayward recalls, “I worked closely with Laura Barton to help create this event. We got the idea from LGBT walking tours in New York. We were like, why don’t we have something like that here? I was immensely proud of it when it ran for four years before COVID hit. Having my sister Maria Helena Dolan on board, literally, for the last three years of those tours reflects how TUOR began, with me and Berl, as a collaborative experience. Maria and I are both amateur historians, what some call public historians because we’re not academics. But we’ve also lived it. We’re primary sources.” [15] (For more on Maria Helena Dolan see her portrait here). Hayward states, “I came up with an itinerary of different places that are important to our story, but the tour is limited by time and space. You can only keep so many people on a bus for so long.”[16] Original tour documents reveal the corridors and sites chosen for the two tours Hayward and Dolan would conduct. Hayward notes that the sites evolved and shifted over the years. The first largely consisted of sites in the Downtown and Little Five Points neighborhoods as well as along the Ponce de Leon Avenue corridor. The second route focused on destinations around Piedmont Park, traveling up Monroe Drive, across Cheshire Bridge Road, and back down Piedmont Road and Peachtree Street. The maps for each route on the live Story Tour illustrate a central objective of Touching Up Our Roots, as Hayward told WABE in 2016, “to have some sort of frame of reference… to have a sense of the arc of how far we have come and where we’ve come from, and that gives you a more of an appreciation of where we are today.”[17] Hayward is aware that the “arc” of his live Story Tour only provides a “sense” or a “glimpse” into the complicated and diffuse history of queer sites and the people who have moved through them in Atlanta across the latter half of the twentieth century and into the present. The tour is far from complete, and the arc continues. However, Hayward understands the tour’s purpose first as educational, second as an invitation for further conversation and narration, and finally as entertaining.  As promotion for the 2017 and 2018 iterations of the tour described it, the tour offers attendees “a glimpse into the past while enjoying an afternoon of fun.”[18]

Original map and destination list for LIVE TUOR Story Tour, Route One (left) and Route Two (right). Scans by Eric Solomon, 2021. Courtesy Dave Hayward, 2021.

“Touching Up Our Roots Trolley Tour 2019,” September 7, 2019. Courtesy of Dave Hayward and Touching Up Our Roots, 2021.

[1] Dave Hayward, interviewed by Lola Ibitoye, December 4, 2010, Touching Up Our Roots, Archives for Research on Women and Gender. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University.

[2] Dave Hayward in discussion with the author, September 14, 2020.

[3] Summer Evans, “Atlanta Pride and Touching Up Our Roots Honors LGBTQ Pioneers In the Arts,” WABE, February 11, 2020, https://www.wabe.org/atlanta-pride-and-touching-up-our-roots-honors-lgbtq-pioneers-in-the-arts/.

[4] See Gabbie Watts, “Pride Parade Grand Marshal Preserves Atlanta’s LGBTQ History,” WABE, October 7, 2016, https://www.wabe.org/pride-parade-grand-marshal-preserves-atlantas-lgbtq-history/.

[5] Watts, “Pride Parade Grand Marshal Preserves Atlanta’s LGBTQ History.”

[6] Dave Hayward in discussion with the author, September 14, 2020.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Watts, “Pride Parade Grand Marshal Preserves Atlanta’s LGBTQ History.”

[9] Dave Hayward, interviewed by Lola Ibitoye.

[10] “Touching Up Our Roots: About Touching Up Our Roots,” Georgia State University Library, accessed August 29, 2021, https://research.library.gsu.edu/touching_up_our_roots.

[11] Patrick Saunders, “Fulton library renamed for LGBTQ pioneer Joan Garner,” Project Q, August 31, 2021, https://www.projectq.us/fulton-library-renamed-for-lgbtq-pioneer-joan-garner/.

[12] Evans.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Dave Hayward in discussion with the author, September 14, 2020.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Watts, “Pride Parade Grand Marshal Preserves Atlanta’s LGBTQ History.”

[18] National Center for Civil and Human Rights, LGBTQ Institute, “2017 Touching Up Your Roots Pride Tour,” https://www.lgbtqinstitute.org/history-tour. Centennial Park District, “Touching Up Our Roots Pride Tour,” https://www.centennialparkdistrict.com/do/touching-up-your-roots-pride-tour1.