Augusta Pride draws thousands for historic festival

As Augusta Pride organizers took the microphone to thank attendees and celebrate the success of the city’s first-ever gay Pride, a faint rainbow arched across the sky.

“That was like a sign from God,” August Pride President Isaac Kelly said.

Today’s festival was the culmination of more than a year of planning, as Kelly and the Prideboard overcame naysayers who predicted the eastern Georgia city could not support an out gay event.

Thanking Kelly for his leadership from the Pride stage, board member David Stepp noted that when word of the festival first began to spread, media predicted it may draw 100 attendees.

City officials estimated today’s crowd at 3,500, Stepp said.

Festivities began Saturday 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. 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.”

“American Idol” contestant Frenchie Davis and Thelma Houston were the headliners and final stage acts, drawing the crowd to their feet to dance and sing along.

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.”