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Aaron Lee Smith
(Photo by Julian Vankim)
Aaron singles out both a high school friend and an aunt for providing the impetus to help him become more outgoing and confident. ''We would go out and drink and smoke pot, and just try new things, being set free,'' he says about his best friend, Billy. One day, ''he took me to a gay bar'' – and this was well before Aaron was out of the closet, even to himself. ''I was scared to death. I was scared to get out of the car,'' he says. After watching a drag show at Charleston's former Grand Palace, Billy, who was straight, canoodled with a girl while Aaron ''got a little drunk on some draft beer and kissed a guy'' – his first same-sex kiss. ''Billy opened up my mind. God knows, I'd probably still be in the closet if it weren't for him.'' Sadly, Billy died about eight years ago of an overdose.
Meanwhile, Aunt Barb was the first family member Aaron came out to. ''She's my biggest advocate,'' he says. ''She doesn't let anybody say anything about me. She's just a beautiful woman. [Growing up] I wanted to be just like her.''