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|Augusta Pride draws thousands to second annual fest|
|by Laura Douglas-Brown|
|June 25, 2011 20:01|
Last night's victory for gay marriage in New York was on the minds of many who packed the Augusta Commons today for the second annual Augusta Pride festival. But amid the repeated calls for marriage equality here in Georgia, it was the personal stories of love and commitment that sent the loudest message.
Under sweltering early afternoon sun, more than two dozen gay and lesbian couples filled the Augusta Pride stage for the festival's first public commitment ceremony. Many were in tears as they said their vows, declaring that "love not law has the final authority."
"This year our theme is 'Love Wins,' and with our particular relationship, love has been exactly what's won," said Dan Leonard, who serves on the Augusta Pride board and wed his partner of five years, Terry Ledford, during the ceremony.
"I found out three weeks after we met that I was [HIV] positive and Terry stood by me through it all," said Ledford, as both men broke down in tears. "I found out six months after that that I had renal cancer. He's been there through that. And just recently I've fought my way through anal cancer, and he's been there through that."
The two men have also weathered the deaths of several of Ledford's family members, and "we've made it through it with just the love that we have," Leonard said.
Leonard said the couple suggested that Augusta Pride include a commitment ceremony, and they were thrilled to see their hope become reality.
"This commitment ceremony was our idea, and it has meant the world to us that all of these other wonderful people have joined us today," he said. "This has been a dream and everyone is really making it come true today."
The festival began at 10 a.m. Saturday morning with a lively parade down Broad Street, featuring marchers from local organizations, floats and cars representing gay and gay-friendly businesses, decorated golf carts and even a fire truck. Onlookers lined the streets to wave rainbow flags and cheer on parade participants.
Tia Johnson serves as president of the Lambda Alliance at Augusta State University, where she is a senior majoring in communications. The alliance had a large contingent in the Pride parade, and Johnson said the campus — like the city of Augusta itself — is more diverse than many might think.
"I'm really happy that we are having our own Pride. We are the second largest city in Georgia and we have such a large gay, lesbian and bi community here that we shouldn't have to travel to other cities just to celebrate diversity," Johnson said.
After the parade, the crowd filled the Augusta Commons for a full day of vendors, speakers, music — including headliners Niki Harris and Kristine W — and even impromptu line dancing in the crowd.
Brandy Thompson spent the afternoon under shade umbrellas with her daughter, Laken, age 7; her friends, a female couple with two children; as well as two more children they were babysitting.
As the five kids, who ranged in age from a few months to 11 years, played in the grass, Thompson reflected on why the women feel it is important to attend Pride celebrations with their children.
"Every day we have to live at home, at work, and outside of home and work, we have to live secret lives and we have to hide everything we are because society won't accept us… so we come out hear every year, and even in Atlanta and Columbia, to show our support so people will understand we're not a disease," Thompson said. "We were actually born this way. … We want everyone to embrace who they are."
'Love Wins' in NY and Augusta
From "I love NY" t-shirts along the parade route to repeated references from the stage, Friday night's historic vote to legalize gay marriage in New York was a common topic.
"Are you excited about New York? I mean, are you WAY excited about New York?" speaker Christine Johnson, executive director of Equality South Carolina, asked the crowd, before rallying them to get involved in the fight for LGBT rights here at home.
"We cannot rule ourselves out as hopeless in the South. I want marriage equality in South Carolina. I want it in Georgia, and one day we'll have it," Johnson said. "But until that day there is a lot of work that has to happen on issues like hate crimes and bullying. We have so many things that we can work for."
Augusta Mayor Joe Bowles also focused on love as he welcomed attendees to the festival.
"As a government official I believe in the freedoms of our country and the diversity of our country. As the great grandson of an Irish immigrant who escaped religious persecutions, my Catholic upbringing… taught me to love thy neighbor. And you are my neighbor, and I love each and every one of you," Bowles said.
An ecstatic Isaac Kelly, president of Augusta Pride, took the stage after Bowles to praise the festival's second year and let the crowd know that they were sending an important message.
"We did it again," Kelly told the crowd. "We did it! This is proving that love wins."
Later in the afternoon, Kelly again took the microphone to recount the progress in Augusta just since the 2010 festival. A chapter of PFLAG began meeting in January, and Kelly pledged the city would have a group for LGBT youth before next year's Augusta Pride. Plans for an LGBT business guild and even a gay community center are underway.
In an interview as the festival closed, Kelly said Augusta Pride organizers do not have an official crowd estimate, but they believe this year's event topped the 4,000 who attended in 2010.
"We were excited when we saw the parade line up this morning, when we saw the attendance, the amounts of people that came into the Commons, we looked over at each other and we were like, 'Oh my god, we did it again, and it looks bigger, it looks better,'" he said.
Kelly, who is passing the reigns to Vice President Travis Jenkins for next year's Pride, said he plans to continue to advise the festival while working on other projects to build the LGBT community in Augusta.
"The journey between last year's event and this year's event was epic," he said. "The momentum that we have now in Augusta for the gay community is amazing."
Top photo: Kristine W. performs at Augusta Pride (by Laura Douglas-Brown)
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