A nationwide campaign to end bullying of gay and lesbian teens landed on the front steps of an Augusta church Monday night.
More than 80 gay and straight Augustans gathered on National Coming Out Day to light candles, pray and sing outside the Metropolitan Community Church of Our Redeemer. Augusta Pride, which organized the city's first gay pride parade this summer, co-sponsored the event.
Vigils were held across the country last night in response to a spate of teen suicides. In recent months, suicides of gay teens who were bullied have been reported in New York, California, Texas, New Jersey, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
"The headlines are unbelievable," said Issac Kelly, the president of Augusta Pride. "When there's bullying like this, there's got to be a response. We're pushing the issue all together as a nation tonight."
Candles were lit for the suicide victims, whose names were read. John Lennon's Imagine was sung.
"To gay and lesbian youth everywhere we say, 'You are valued,' " said the Rev. Jeff Pullium, the pastor of Metropolitan Community Church, which has ministries for gays and lesbians.
The vigil was inspired by the grass-roots campaign that has built since writer Dan Savage launched the It Gets Better project last month.
The campaign features You Tube videos with celebrities, including Tim Gunn, Cyndi Lauper and Ke$ha, offering encouragement to gay and lesbian teens facing bullies.
Efforts to raise awareness about the bullying will continue Oct. 20, when the color purple will be worn to show support for gay and lesbian teens.
Few teens feel they have anywhere to turn, which makes suicide feel like the only acceptable option, Kelly said.
"They don't know where to turn," he said. "We need to show them there are safe places."
On average, teens hear anti-gay slurs 26 times a day, according to Mental Health America, formerly the National Mental Health Association.
The organization reports that gay students are more likely to skip school because of fear and threats. Twenty-eight percent drop out, more than three times the average for straight students.
It takes a toll on school, relationships and health, said Alvin Rivers, an 18-year-old Augusta State University student who is gay.
"You're bullied by gay people who are in the closet because they want you to keep quiet," he said. "You're bullied by straight people. They think you've got a choice. It's got to stop."