The heartfelt proposal and declaration of love captured the spirit of the third annual Augusta Pride. The June 23 festival drew an estimated crowd of 10,500, according to organizers, setting a new attendance record while still maintaining a close-knit community atmosphere.
The morning began with a parade through downtown Augusta that featured everything from waving drag queens to golf carts decorated with rainbow flags. A few religious protesters were easily drowned out by cheers from Pride supporters who lined both sides of the street to watch the floats and marchers.
After the parade, onlookers filed into the Augusta Commons to enjoy vendors, food, speakers and entertainers, including headliners Tom Goss, Dee Hemingway, She N She and Josh Zuckerman.
“I think it was phenomenal,” said Augusta Pride President Travis Jenkins in an interview as the festival ended. “Our attendance went up by a third, our sales went up by a third, and I think everyone had a great time.”
Among the throngs who celebrated in sweltering heat were people from all walks of life, including more LGBT young people and more straight allies than in previous years.
“I’m here to support my brother,” said Lindsey Kelley, 21, who clapped when a stage emcee asked for all of the straight people in the crowd to identify themselves. “There are more [supporters] here this year than last year.”
Her brother, Kyle Kelley, age 18, came to the festival with his boyfriend of almost a year, Jamin Summers, 16.
“I’ve been coming since the first one. It’s really cool to see the whole city engaged in it. It is really nice,” Kelley said.
Added Summers, who was attending his first Augusta Pride: “I didn’t know there are this many [LGBT people] in Augusta. I like it.”
Gay youth weren’t just well-represented in the crowd.
With his supportive family in the audience, Sam Wilson, founder and president of the gay-straight alliance at Augusta’s Greenbrier High School, took to the stage to rally Pride attendees to work together to end discrimination.
“Homosexuality is not an adult issue. It is not an issue at all,” Wilson said.
After the 1969 Stonewall Riots, “the gay community went from the community that wasn’t talked about to the group that won’t shut up, and I proudly wear that badge,” he said, calling on LGBT young people to now lead the way.
“This is our generation’s fight and we are a force to be reckoned with,” Wilson said to extended cheers.
‘Biggest crowd I have ever seen’
Festival vendors ranged from LGBT businesses and nonprofits to more general vendors who turned out to sell drinks and food to the jubilant crowd.
At the booth for OUTlandish, billed as Augusta’s gay social network, volunteers gave out temporary tattoos of the group’s logo as fast as they could apply them.
“A lot of people have come out today, so I think we got a great response,” said Calli D’Andria of nearby Aiken, S.C.
Margaret Woodard, executive director of Augusta’s Downtown Development Authority, welcomed attendees from the Augusta Pride stage.
“On behalf of the Downtown Development Authority, the city of Augusta and our entire community, we are honored to have you here,” she said. “This is the biggest crowd I have ever seen. This is awesome.”
The theme of the 2012 festival was “It’s Time,” with a list that included “for a cure, marriage equality, equal rights, love & unity, stop bullying, stand proud.”
It could also represent how this year was the time for Augusta Pride to mature and come into its own.
“This year compared to the first year — total 180,” said Isaac Kelly, founder and now past president of Augusta Pride. “The size of the crowd is still growing, and not only that, but we also have less resistance from the city. The first year, our mayor asked [the legal department] if it was ok. This year, he said, ‘This is a great event for the city.’
“I almost cried when I heard that,” Kelly said. “It is a huge difference. We have got that momentum and it is still going.”
The growth in Augusta’s LGBT community mirrors the growth of the city’s Pride festival, Kelly said.
“There are more people coming out in Augusta, there are more people out in their employment, they are out at home… We have heard so many success stories,” he said. “I can safely say that we have actually saved lives.”
Top photo: Attendees carry a banner at the 2012 Augusta Pride Parade (by Laura Douglas-Brown)