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Richmond Courts Gays, Snubs Confederates?



Gay travel writers adore Richmond. Confederate conventioneers won’t come here.

Wait. When did this happen?

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization founded in Richmond in 1896, hasn’t held its July national convention here for more than a decade. Richmond already has lost two bids to serve as host to the group during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

“I don’t think the city really welcomes the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” says Brag Bowling, chairman of the Stephen D. Lee Institute and a past commander of the Virginia division of the organization. The national reunions draw between 1,200 and 1,500 people.

Bowling blames Richmond’s “anti-Confederate policies” — meaning the emphasis on emancipation and the exclusion of the SCV from sesquicentennial planning.

“I absolutely disagree with that,” says Jack Berry, president and chief executive of the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. Richmond welcomes every group, Berry says.

Richmond bid for the 2012 Sons of Confederate Veterans’ convention 18 months ago, Berry says, but lost because the group felt the city “was not engaged in the bid.” Six months ago, Berry tried again — and tried harder.

He went to Tennessee to pitch Richmond in person. He assured the SCV he would help it get the needed permits for its planned parade down Monument Avenue. And Mitch Bowman, executive director of Virginia Civil War Trails, gave the SCV committee some battlefield relics.

But Charleston, S.C., won the 2014 bid by offering a better hotel package, Berry says. Richmond will try again to get the convention in July 2015, when the sesquicentennial officially will be over.

The convention and visitors’ bureau had more luck with its first-ever press tour for lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual travel writers three weeks ago. The writers thought Richmond was “a really cool place, with a lot going on,” says Erin Bagnell, public relations manager for the bureau.

The itinerary included “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Firehouse Theatre; dinner at the Empress; a tour of Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens; a shopping expedition in Carytown; the Fabergé exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; and the Virginia Pride Festival.

“I enjoyed the trip tremendously,” travel writer Troy Petenbrink says. Although Petenbrink lives in Washington, he’d never visited Richmond as a tourist. He confesses he was “guilty of lumping the city with the state.”

Bowling says it’s “downright insulting” that the city is courting gay and lesbian travelers and snubbing Confederates. Does the SCV accept gay members? “Yes!” Bowling says.

When told that the SCV didn’t feel welcome in Richmond, Petenbrink quips, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” But seriously, he says, “a good, welcoming city is welcoming to everybody.”

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