Gays find support in parade

Click here to watch the "Gay Pride Preview" video

There was an aching in Justin Smith's heart this time last year.

It came from a secret he couldn't share and the weight he felt from keeping it inside.

He sat in front of his television last June and turned on the news to watch Augusta's first gay pride parade and the crowd of people who had already revealed what he couldn't.

Growing up in Aiken County in a Pentecostal family, Smith, now 18, had learned how to keep his homosexuality a secret.

When his brother-in-law read e-mails between Smith and his boyfriend the day after Christmas, though, Smith felt the wrath he had been avoiding since seventh grade.

"My dad started yelling; he threw things, nearly broke his hand from punching the wall," Smith said. "It was hell."

A student at the University of South Carolina Aiken, Smith soon moved out of his parents' house and had to wait to see if they would accept his lifestyle.

It was a lonely time until he found support in Augusta Pride.

"Down here in the South, for a closeted gay man, you're not going to have a lot of resources," Smith said. "The whole Southern mindset that people have is that we're all wrong and don't deserve a place in society."

Meeting new friends brought a sense of hope after his old friends had abandoned him.

He gained new confidence and rented a room in a house with other gay people who became the support system he never had.

Now, six months later, the struggle isn't over, but the changes have started a healing process with his family and a better understanding of himself.

"When you're going through it, you don't want to believe it gets better, but I can honestly say it does get better," Smith said.

The unity and comfort that Augusta Pride's support brings is what President Isaac Kelly said has been his goal since the group formed in 2009.

Now with 20 board members and more than 1,400 members on Facebook, Augusta Pride has reached out to gay and straight people across the Southeast.

With the second annual parade Saturday, Kelly said, it is a step toward bringing more people together on an issue that has been historically divisive, particularly in the South.

"It's part of our progression," Kelly said. "It's a symbol that our city can house many different types of people and many different types of lifestyles and a mixture of likes and dislikes and still exist in the same spot.

"It means we can have an event that's all about feeling good about yourself and sharing the true definition of love and spreading it to everybody."

For 21-year-old Tanya Blackstone, convincing her hometown has not always been easy.

Blackstone and Ashley Miller, met online in 2009 and got engaged later that year.

When Miller moved to Augusta from Boston, lifelong friends left Blackstone's life. One said she couldn't associate with people with her "disease."

"It's draining emotionally," Blackstone said. "It just drains you because then you think, 'Well, am I doing the wrong thing, am I wrong for being this way?' You feel unwanted."

The love between Blackstone and Miller is stronger, and that's what they focus on.

They soak in everyday joys like playing Go Fish on the front porch while drinking sweet tea on a summer night.

"I call (Miller) my wife because this is my life, this is my best friend, this is my soul," Blackstone said.

When they march in the parade downtown Saturday, she will be confident in saying that to the world.

"Last year, I felt I could finally be myself," Blackstone said of the first gay pride parade. "I could hold her hand and kiss her on the cheek. ... (Saturday's parade) is going to be another day of feeling proud."

If you go

WHAT: Augusta Pride 2011 parade and festival

WHEN: Saturday; parade starts at 10 a.m.; festival starts at 11 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m.

WHERE: Augusta Common downtown

LEARN MORE: www.prideaugusta.org/index.shtml