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Beyond the Rainbow

The fight for LGBT equality in Virginia reached a milestone last week. But a younger generation of activists continues to ask tough questions.

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Each story is told in a matter of seconds and marked by the lighting of a candle, but the weight of the words floats to the back of the room with the scent of burning wicks. They are brutal dispatches describing unimaginable acts that reach from Brazil to Richmond. Two stories involve decapitation and a mob that tortured and then burned its victim. There's mention of suicide and the unknown fate of Sage Smith, a Charlottesville resident who vanished in 2012.

Some 300 people have gathered in St. Paul's Episcopal Church to hear these 21 stories, part of the eighth annual international Transgender Day of Remembrance in November.

Just days before, Amari Hill, a 22-year-old trans woman, was gunned down in South Side. Her story and candle come last.

The crowd files outside to light more candles while it faces the State Capitol. Two police uniforms appear in the group's midst to present a proclamation honoring the event: Richmond Police Chief Ray Tarasovic and Maj. Odetta Johnson, the department's first liaison to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

At the Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20, attendees gather around Richmond Police Chief Ray Tarasovic while he reads a proclamation honoring the event, held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. - TOM NASH
  • Tom Nash
  • At the Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20, attendees gather around Richmond Police Chief Ray Tarasovic while he reads a proclamation honoring the event, held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Local LGBT activists say they never would have thought such a scene possible a decade ago. For those in positions of power here, Johnson's presence is a significant capstone to a year of successes that included City Council's signal of support for same-sex marriage and the election of a governor who could help make it a reality.

Buoyed by those successes and national momentum favoring gay marriage, members of Richmond's LGBT community say they believe Virginia could become the first Southern state to legalize same-sex marriage. Last week, Virginia's new attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, announced his office would seek an end to the state's gay marriage ban, something his predecessor, Republican Ken Cuccinelli, actively sought to protect.

"Richmond is coming into the 21st century kicking and screaming," Richmond Business Alliance President Justin Ayars says. "But not as much so as people may have expected."

The majority of 2013's successes were symbolic. No question about that. The City Council resolution, which would grant benefits to same-sex partners of city employees, has no teeth without a change in state law. The relationship between Johnson, appointed by the police chief in December, and Richmond's LGBT community, has yet to be tested. Gov. Terry McAuliffe's support of gay rights already has run headfirst into a General Assembly decidedly less enthusiastic.

But symbols have meaning. They are the markers of a culture changing — too fast for some, too slow for others.

That change also is happening in the LGBT community itself. In Richmond, it's expanding, adapting and reaching beyond the core of gay white men and women who have long defined it.

The state capital includes many of Virginia's most ardent activists and organizers, some of whom have been in the trenches for decades. But there's also a rising younger generation in the fight — people of color, transgender, queer — asking about what acceptance means and where it's most needed. They often see the world much differently than the activists who came before them.

 

There were few resources for gay youth in the ’70s, recalls Bill Harrison, executive director of the Gay Community Center of Richmond: “We didn’t have organizations like Rosmy when I was a teenager. A beer joint is a bad place to get in touch with who you are.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • There were few resources for gay youth in the ’70s, recalls Bill Harrison, executive director of the Gay Community Center of Richmond: “We didn’t have organizations like Rosmy when I was a teenager. A beer joint is a bad place to get in touch with who you are.”

Bill Harrison grew up in Emporia, a farming community that in 1970 had about 5,000 residents. When he was 19, he arrived at his apprenticeship at a nearby funeral home to find his parents waiting for him. The director had heard that Harrison frequented gay bars.

"He called my parents and told them he was firing me because of my morals," Harrison says. "That's how they found out I was gay."

Two years later, Harrison got married after therapy persuaded him he was heterosexual enough to make it work. "I married a wonderful woman," Harrison says. "The marriage lasted two years."

Harrison went to Richmond and took a job with the city's Social Services Department before studying at Virginia Commonwealth University. Having grown up as a Southern Baptist, he wanted a faith home in his new city. He tried St. Paul's Episcopal. In 1979, the Episcopal Church was beginning to encounter gay priests who were coming out. Harrison still recalls the title of the sermon from his first Sunday there: "Different, But No Less Decent."

"I sat there frozen, thinking, 'When he's done talking, people are going to turn pews over.' He stopped, and people were fine," he says.

Harrison, 59, tells the story in a conference room at the Gay Community Center of Richmond, which he's overseen for two years. The center's 10-year-old warehouse, its outer walls painted in the broad bands of rainbow colors, is a familiar sight among commuters along the intersection of interstates 95 and 64.

The organization has grown rapidly since its founding in 1999, Harrison says. In addition to its thrift store, which takes up most of the warehouse space, the building includes an art gallery and meeting rooms. The center's charitable foundation donated almost $44,000 to other LGBT organizations last year.

Harrison recalls when openly gay people couldn't work for the city of Richmond. Center board member Beth Marschak, who helped found Richmond Lesbian-Feminists in 1975 and co-wrote a book about the city's lesbian and gay history, says that in 1978, the City Council stripped language about sexual orientation from a human rights act passed by its Human Rights Commission.

Thirty-five years later, in October, City Council approved a resolution to allow same-sex partners of city employees the same access to insurance benefits as other married couples. Some things change. Some don't. At the packed public hearing, opponents spent 28 minutes condemning the resolution, the council, gays and lesbians. Critics declared homosexuality to be a mental illness, a sin, and, in one memorable moment, a woman who identified herself as Dr. Angela R. Jones said hypnotism accounted for "most of them that you call gay."

Charles Evans Hughes issued a torrent of fire and brimstone from beneath his cowboy hat. "I've lived long enough to see when people are wicked and do the wrong things, they die," Hughes said. "The devil has got to be in you. The devil is in you."

"Your time is up," responded City Council president Charles Samuels, one of the ordinance's sponsors.

Richmond police Maj. Odetta Johnson says her role as the force’s first LGBT liaison sends a simple message: “We are an inclusive city. We are moving forward and we want you to move forward with us.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Richmond police Maj. Odetta Johnson says her role as the force’s first LGBT liaison sends a simple message: “We are an inclusive city. We are moving forward and we want you to move forward with us.”

Another sponsor, Councilman Parker Agelasto, said that unlike the days when Virginia resisted school integration, "Richmond will not stand in the way if at some point in the future [same-sex marriage] becomes law in Virginia."

Marschak says it's the first time to her knowledge that City Council has tackled a substantive policy issue on LGBT rights.

It was, Harrison says, "a wonderful night."

Virginians passed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage by referendum in 2006. And City Council's measure won't apply unless state law on the ban is thrown out. But that could happen sooner than most predicted, given Herring's announcement. Virginia's prohibition faces two court challenges, one of which was filed by a Richmond couple. And activists took heart in McAuliffe's first act in office: an executive order protecting LGBT state employees from employment discrimination. "We'll have marriage in the state before the General Assembly is ready for marriage," says Equality Virginia Executive Director James Parrish.

Momentum is building elsewhere. The Richmond Business Alliance, founded as an LGBT-friendly chamber of commerce in 2010, grew from three members in 2012 to 100 in 2013, says Ayars, co-owner of 2113 Bistro.

"I think people's attitudes have changed," he says. "They're less concerned about what you do in the bedroom and more concerned about who you are as a person."

Ayars, Harrison and others cite changes within the Richmond Police Department as one of last year's surprise successes. A group of area nonprofits called the Central Virginia Rainbow Partnership spent months drafting a letter to ask police chief Tarasovic for an LGBT liaison. He responded by asking why they didn't just pick up the phone, Harrison says: "I looked up and said, 'Where the hell am I?'"

 

Kenna Hertsch attends a vigil Nov. 15 in memory of her cousin Amari Hill, a trans woman who was murdered near her Gordon Avenue home where the vigil was held. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Kenna Hertsch attends a vigil Nov. 15 in memory of her cousin Amari Hill, a trans woman who was murdered near her Gordon Avenue home where the vigil was held.

Odetta Johnson says she has no words for how she felt standing on the steps of St. Paul's during the Transgender Day of Remembrance. She responded with deep emotion, she says, as a fellow human being — "just as a person."

But Johnson was there in uniform. And while Harrison, also in the crowd, watched with pride, others were demonstrably less comfortable. One person, hoodie drawn, gradually turned from Tarasovic, and soon gave the chief a view of his or her back.

Johnson, who serves as the department's chief of staff, sees her new liaison role as a natural step for a department seeking relationships with multiple communities. "We're being progressive," she says. "We are moving forward and we want you to move forward with us."

Johnson says her role is built on the idea of community policing, where the department has grown accustomed to building trust with neighborhoods and other groups.

"You may have challenges every now and again," she says. "But there's investment, there's buy-in. When something comes up and there's an emotional stir or a problem with an officer's behavior, we have a solid foundation."

But that work has just begun, and the police presence at the vigil sparked criticism.

"The police don't have a good record with the trans community," says Wes McWillen, the event's lead organizer who identifies as a gay trans man. "I myself am cautiously polite in the presence of police. I never really know how they read me."

Community organizer Aaron Kemmerer, who identifies as a trans man, says working with police is "a conflict of interest in a way. While being told we have a liaison to help us, that doesn't make up for all the officers who could be targeting trans people for the things we're doing to survive."

That could include sex work or dealing drugs, activities that Kemmerer says a trans person is more likely to be targeted for than a nontrans person.

Justin Ayars, co-owner of 2113 Bistro in Shockoe Bottom, serves as president of the Richmond Business Alliance, an LGBT-friendly chamber of commerce. He says recent advances in the community — and the backlash that’s followed — demonstrate Richmond is coming into the 21st century “kicking and screaming.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Justin Ayars, co-owner of 2113 Bistro in Shockoe Bottom, serves as president of the Richmond Business Alliance, an LGBT-friendly chamber of commerce. He says recent advances in the community — and the backlash that’s followed — demonstrate Richmond is coming into the 21st century “kicking and screaming.”

McWillen says he understands the complaint. "But at the same time, it's important that the trans community get acknowledgment from mainstream institutions," he says. "That way you don't have to explain to people what trans means when they meet you; they just already know. As our community becomes more visible and more acknowledged we can do less educating and more existing."

Still, for other activists, such as VCU medical student and Collective X member Vanessa Coleman, working to build relationships with the police only gives legitimacy to a broken criminal justice system.

"Are you going to try to build up relationships with police and work in that system," Coleman asks, "or say, 'Hey, the criminal justice system is deeply flawed and I don't want to legitimize it by working with the police?'"

Harrison bristles at the latter kind of thinking. He says he understands the legacy of police violence in the United States, but that much has changed in 40 years. "I'm not aware of anything that's happened in the city of Richmond that means we should distrust the Police Department," he says. "Quite the opposite."

At last year's Pride Over Richmond parade, Harrison notes, Tarasovic addressed the crowd from the stage with a drag queen by his side. "He did something a lot of gay men would not feel comfortable doing," Harrison says.

 

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, center, waving to the crowd at his swearing-in, made his support for the LGBT community clear during his campaign. “Not only were there people willing to support LGBT issues, they actually campaigned on them,” Equality Virginia Executive Director James Parrish says. “That shows people how far we’ve come.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Gov. Terry McAuliffe, center, waving to the crowd at his swearing-in, made his support for the LGBT community clear during his campaign. “Not only were there people willing to support LGBT issues, they actually campaigned on them,” Equality Virginia Executive Director James Parrish says. “That shows people how far we’ve come.”

In any activist community, there's tension between those who want to work through the channels of power and those who would rather dismantle them.

The people who question the liaison position — and the direction of the mainstream LGBT movement, for that matter — use a much different lexicon than Harrison does. They embrace the word "queer" as a term that should be added to the LGBT acronym — LGBTQ — or used to encompass all groups.

The differences reveal themselves in what the queer community defines as its priorities. And despite the attention given to same-sex marriage, not everyone sees it at the top of the agenda. Take such issues as homelessness and mass incarceration, says Kemmerer, the community organizer.

"I think the right to marry someone and spend your life with someone you love is a natural human right," he says. "My work is about solutions to real issues that I feel are more pressing. If you study queer history it becomes a lot clearer that these problems have been going on for a long time and haven't been addressed."

Shaina Kohl, a VCU student who identifies as a transgender person of color, says the marriage equality agenda is an attempt to mirror the straight, white world. "The focus of the LGBT community seems to be totally assimilation based," Kohl says. "As long as people from any type of community remain oppressed, that's affecting our community."

The differences also reveal themselves in generational views of the role of HIV and AIDS in the community. Recent numbers from the Virginia Department of Health state 2,325 people in Richmond are living with HIV or AIDS.

Given those numbers, Harrison is quick to note that AIDS isn't history, but he recalls the first days of the epidemic in Richmond. He remembers the stigma and the silence. He remembers twirling the nurse around the room when his own test came back negative.

"We started to take care of each other, when families were disowning their sons and brothers," he says. "We took to the streets and we marched and demanded. I look at that and say, 'Marriage? We can do marriage. We did AIDS.'"

But Kemmerer, 23, and Kohl, 18, live in a world where the beginning of AIDS is in history books. The numbers of new infections they're confronted by every year may not represent the widespread devastation of Harrison's time, but to Kemmerer and Kohl, they still demand ongoing attention and action. Both believe AIDS and HIV are being minimized while an older, established LGBT community has focused on marriage equality.

Wes McWillen, lead organizer of last year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, says the hatred displayed during City Council’s October discussion of same-sex partner benefits showed “there are a lot of people in the city who would want to see me not live here.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Wes McWillen, lead organizer of last year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, says the hatred displayed during City Council’s October discussion of same-sex partner benefits showed “there are a lot of people in the city who would want to see me not live here.”

The differences also reveal themselves in how the community's priorities are addressed. For activist group Collective X, that means using direct action in the tradition of past nonviolent civil rights protests to call attention to such issues. Collective X organized the March Against Mass Incarceration in November.

"If people aren't going to listen to us there's no reason to work within that system," group member Coleman says. "We're going to have to make our voices heard whatever way we can."

Jasper Gunn picked up a guitar and formed a band: Queer Rocket.

Borrowing a page from the Dead Kennedys, the band takes on many of the issues surrounding the queer community in short, thrashy bursts. The song "Bash Back" from its debut EP pays homage to a group of the same name. The verse: "Play keep away with marriage on one hand / While queers in prison suffer / Let us die on your battlefields and kill us in the streets" is met with the chorus: "You have taught us how to fight / We're coming for more than civil rights / Try to stop us with all your might / But we're overcoming you."

Harrison raises an eyebrow at the lyrics. "Every generation has its way of doing stuff," he says. "In this, I hear a lot of anger. I don't have that anger."

And there's the label, "queer."

"That is one word that just makes my flesh crawl," Harrison says. "It's not a word I use to refer to myself, it's not a word that I use to refer to my community. When you say queer community, you're not talking about me. I'm not queer, but I understand the political aspects of this."

So does Equality Virginia. When presenting to student groups, such as ROSMY, a community center aimed at supporting LGBTQ youth ages 11 to 20, Parrish adds Q to LGBT. Beth Panilaitis, executive director at Rosmy, says more children are using the word to describe themselves.

"I make sure they understand that to a majority of LGBT people, when they grew up, queer was a hateful word," Parrish says. "For people over 30, they heard queer walking down the hallways."

A queer activist may be more likely to spend time writing letters to Richmond City Jail and LGBTQ prisoners through VCU's department of gender, sexuality and women's studies than writing letters to state senators.

"Luxury is the wrong word, but they see marriage equality around the corner," Parrish says. "They're already like, 'What's the next step?' when we're trying to finish up this core movement."

 

Shaina Kohl, an economics and gender studies student at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the LGBTQ community cannot “achieve true equality and liberation” through the legalization of same-sex marriage alone. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Shaina Kohl, an economics and gender studies student at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the LGBTQ community cannot “achieve true equality and liberation” through the legalization of same-sex marriage alone.

Parrish, Harrison and longtime LGBT activist Roland Winston reflected upon that question last Thursday at the attorney general's news conference declaring Virginia's gay marriage ban unconstitutional. Winston and Parrish worked the room, giving interviews to television reporters and shaking hands. As Harrison sat in the back row, tears welled in his eyes.

"I don't know if I've ever been more proud to be a Virginian than I am right now," he said. "It was emotional, sitting there listening to it when your community has been listed as second class citizens from day one."

A favorable ruling on same-sex marraige, which is likely, isn't the end of the road. An appeal could take months, and some Republicans are now seeking to impeach Herring.

Winston, however, is already turning his focus elsewhere.

After the conference, he rattled off some of the 64 bills he's watching at the General Assembly. One would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in housing.  With a firm handshake and a friendly drawl, his role as a de facto LGBT lobbyist is clear. So is his view of the implications of imminent victory for same-sex marriage. Keeping the large numbers of white gay men who have given money to the marriage fight interested in shoring up rights for the trans community may be difficult.

Parrish sees the same challenge. After marriage equality, he wants Equality Virginia to focus more on the trans community and other issues younger activists are tackling.

"After the freedom to marry, it's (about) nondiscrimination. "It's when you get back from your honeymoon and don't get fired for showing pictures and someone saying, 'I didn't know you were gay.'"

He also wonders if the enthusiasm from donors, however, will fade. "Will we get a thousand people at a dinner?"

Mark Herring takes the oath of office in early January as attorney general, in front of former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton. Less than two weeks later, Herring announced his decision to not defend Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Mark Herring takes the oath of office in early January as attorney general, in front of former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton. Less than two weeks later, Herring announced his decision to not defend Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban.

The Gay Community Center is looking ahead, too. A re-branding effort is underway.

"In many people's minds when they hear 'gay' they think of gay men," Marschak says. "The re-branding will be so that all people in our community feel welcome and connected to what we're doing."

One thing that likely won't change: the Gay Community Center's rainbow-clad exterior.

"When I first moved to Richmond and I saw that big ass rainbow building," Kemmerer says, "I thought, 'This is great.'"

The rainbow appeared just two years before Virginia voted to ban same-sex marriage in 2006. For 10 years, it's served as a symbol that regardless of the way the ballot box goes, change is underway in Richmond. S

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