While in this political climate it can seem as if every day brings some new horrible news for the LGBTQ community, sometimes there is a small light amidst all of the dark. Equality Virginia is doing their part to shine that light as they honor people who have done extraordinary work for the LGBTQ community this year with their annual OUTstanding Virginians awards, which will be presented at their 15th Annual Commonwealth Dinner this Saturday.
Equality Virginia Communications Director Joseph Papa has a big role to play in the event. In order to help the evening run as smoothly stress-free as possible, he works with a team to produce videos celebrating the honorees. Rather than having each of the honorees come up in front of everyone and make a speech, the videos Papa and his team create showcase the reasons each of these honorees have been selected, and thank them for the work that they do for our community.
“It allows them to be honored in a way that is sort of low maintenance for them. We go to their home or their place of work, or wherever they choose, and we sit down and interview them,” Papa said. “We really want them to have a great time that night, so they don’t have to worry about getting up and making a speech. The video sort of serves as their acceptance speech, but it’s much more than that. It really is a way to showcase the work that they do. ”
Honorees are selected from nominations solicited through such as email and social media outlets over the course of two months. After that time a committee on the board goes through and decides who ultimately will be honored for their work. The phrase OUTstanding Virginian can lead down a myriad of different paths, and the nominees often cover a wide spectrum. There are seven honorees this year, including Equality Stafford founder Amy Adams, former Hampton Roads Pride president Michael Berlucchi, Rev. Emma Chatin of the Metropolitan Community Church of Northern Virginia, Iridian Gallery steering committee chair Lisa Cumbey, Nationz Foundation founder Zakia McKensey, Equality Prince William President Jim O’Connor, and the entire Richmond Triangle Players organization.
Papa notes the wide variety of accomplishments for the LGBTQ community that this year’s honorees have been responsible for, whether through activism, creating art reflecting our community’s lives and experiences, or just asking what needs to be done and dedicating time to doing it. Ultimately, he sees the common factor between them all as “this selfless work that has gone into improving the lives of LGBTQ Virginians.”
One important thing Papa noted about all the honorees was the common surprise at being nominated; all asked some variation of the question, “Why me?” One person who remains surprised at her own nomination is Lisa Cumbey. From doing extensive pro bono work to produce HIV/AIDS educational material to helping put on some of Richmond’s earliest Pride parades on Cary StreetCumbey has been dedicating her time and talents to the LGBTQ community since the 1980s.
While Cumbey never expected to receive this honor from Equality Virginia, she is glad the organization continues to give out the awards each year. “As an effort EV does, I think it’s important for the public to have people who are out in the LGBTQ community, who are maybe people they know, from all walks of life,” Cumbey said.
She notes the importance of community representation, how we’re all, at the end of the day, in this together. While she acknowledges that her work with, and love for, Diversity Richmond’s Iridian Gallery is likely a factor that got her nominated, she still feels that it’s a community effort. “I don’t have a single friend here in Richmond who isn’t doing every bit as much in the community as I’m doing, especially related to the Iridian Gallery,” she said. “The committee at Iridian is all volunteer, and they’re a really active and gifted committee.”
While all of this year’s slate of nominees stand out in their own way, the inclusion of Michael Berlucchi on the list may seem curious to some. During his tenure as president of Hampton Roads Pride, Berlucchi caused many a raised eyebrow when he announced that Hampton Roads Pride would be allowing Gays for Trump to have a booth at the 2017 Hampton Roads Pride Festival. Understandably, many people were confused and upset at the inclusion of the organization, which not only supported a president with a terribly anti-LGBTQ record but also has local ties to anti-Muslim hate groups, at a festival that is supposed to uplift and support the LGBTQ community.
“Hampton Roads Pride has a longstanding practice of welcoming many different political and community organizations to PrideFest,” Berlucchi told GayRVA at the time. “We value our nation’s freedoms and tradition of protecting speech and the rights of individuals and organizations to express ideas.” He was also quick to note that just because HR Pride approves a vendor does not mean that that is an endorsement.
As a non-partisan organization, Equality Virginia ensures to look at both sides of the fence. When looking at Berlucchi’s nomination, they examined his work and dedication to Hampton Roads Pride over the years, and his work with the police community and LGBTQ liaisons.
“The board who … looks at the work of all the nominees, was looking at [his] work,” Papa said. “They were looking at all of the time he’s put into Hampton Roads Pride for many years, his work with liaison offers, and the cities and counties of Virginia Beach area. That really is what the honor is for. It’s not looking at anything else.”
Support from political leadership is important to Equality Virginia; as Papa notes, having people in power making the effort to listen to your issues makes a big difference. The Equality Dinners of the past few years have shown that support is growing.
“[For] last year’s elected leader picture, we almost couldn’t fit them all on stage. We had about 30, and this is everything from governor down to town and city council members,” Papa said. “[The fact] that they’re there and publicly showing their support for gay and transgender Virginians means so much. Five or ten more years ago, we didn’t have that support. So I think that’s something that really hits home for people. We still have a lot of work to do but we have good people on our side.”
Equality Virginia’s 15th Annual Commonwealth Dinner takes place this Saturday, April 14th at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, beginning at 5:30 PM. Further information can be found on the Equality Virignia website.