The festival was the culmination of more than a year of planning, as Kelly and the Pride board overcame naysayers who predicted the eastern Georgia city could not support an out gay event.
Facing citizen complaints about the festival earlier this year, Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver responded by seeking a legal opinion confirming his belief that the First Amendment would prevent banning an LGBT event on city streets and property.
Copenhaver also issued a proclamation declaring June 19 as “Augusta Pride Day” and urging “all citizens to recognize and applaud the numerous contributions of the Augusta Pride Committee as well as all gay and transgender community members.”
Thanking Kelly for his leadership from the stage during the festival, Pride fundraising chair David Stepp noted that when word of the event first began to spread, media predicted it may draw 100 attendees.
City officials estimated the crowd at 3,500, Stepp said.
Festivities began in the morning with a parade down Broad Street that brought out a sea of rainbow flags, hundreds of cheering supporters, and a handful of anti-gay religious protesters who regularly picket at gay events in Atlanta and around the region.
Click here for our photo gallery from Augusta Pride
Click here for videos from the festival and parade
After the parade, attendees flocked into the Pride festival at the Augusta Commons. A range of performers, from drag queens to rock bands, kept the stage lively, while some 60 vendors — including LGBT groups from South Carolina, Savannah and Atlanta, along with Augusta — offered everything from HIV tests to rainbow jewelry and stuffed “Pride pets.”
David Thompson, a community outreach specialist with the Medical College of Georgia’s Ryan White program, spent the day overseeing the free, 20-minute HIV tests.
He estimated some 60-70 people were tested at the Pride festival.
“A lot of people had their first test today and we are thrilled that they felt comfortable enough here to be tested,” Thompson said.
There were small gay-owned businesses, but also food vendors including Augusta restaurants and national chains like Subway and Dippin’ Dots.
Craig Oglesby’s Hawaiian Shaved Ice booth was popular in the sweltering heat. Oglesby said he had received an application to be a vendor because he works other events in Augusta, and was pleased with the “steady” business he received.
“I think it has been a pretty good turnout for the first time they have had it here,” he said of the city’s first gay festival. “I would do it again.”
Performers noted the success of the historic first festival as well.
“I lived in the big city — I lived in New York City — where you really don’t have to fight for your pride,” Zoe Vette, backed by her band The Revolvers, said from the stage.
“Thank you for reminding us what it is like.”
The festival included somber moments, as Danny Ingram, an Atlanta resident and national president of the American Veterans for Equal Rights, opened the Pride stage with a call to overturn the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on openly gay soldiers and played taps in honor of all servicemembers.
Speaker Elke Kennedy also drew both tears and cheers for her call to end hate-based violence. Kennedy’s son, Sean Kennedy, was killed in 2007 in nearby Charleston, S.C., by a man who called him a fag, then hit him.
The impact when Kennedy fell to the ground severed his brainstem, but the man who punched him, Stephen Moller, was convicted only of involuntary manslaughter.
Elke Kennedy founded the Sean’s Last Wish Foundation and said she has traveled 100,000 miles and spoken at more than 100 events to raise awareness of the bullying, violence and religious oppression that LGBT people face.
She hopes other parents of gay children can learn from her acceptance of Sean, recalling how when he told her he was gay, he said, “Mom, if you don’t want to love me anymore, I’ll understand.”
“I told him that there is nothing he could ever do to make me stop loving him,” she said.
‘Nothing is impossible’
“American Idol” contestant Frenchie Davis and Thelma Houston were the headliners and final stage acts, drawing the crowd to their feet.
“For our first Pride to be this big and this successful and to have headliners — that’s a miracle,” Kelly said in an interview shortly after Houston left the stage.
Augusta Pride has already set a date for the next festival — June 25, 2011 — and Kelly and the Pride board encouraged other Georgia cities to host their own celebrations.
“A word of advice to anyone starting a new Pride: Nothing is impossible as long as you put your mind and your heart into it,” Kelly said.
Lifelong Augusta resident Juronda Brown echoed the sentiments of many attendees as she marveled at the crowds.
“I am 32 years old and I didn’t think I would get to see this in my lifetime,” she said, noting that she regularly attends Pride in Charlotte and Atlanta Black Gay Pride.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see it in Augusta,” Brown said. “I’m amazed, and it’s great.”
Top photo: Attendees at the inaugural Augusta Pride Festival (by Laura Douglas-Brown)