LGBT Lessons Taught To Richmond Police & Fire Personnel
The Equity and Diversity Conference was held at the Greater Richmond Convention Center this Wednesday. Put on by the Richmond Fire and Emergency Services, this is the event’s 20th year. The conference plays host to a number of panels and workshops that hope to educate the participants on the importance of inclusion and acceptance within their work.
This year, one of the panels was put on by Bill Harrison, Executive Director of the Richmond Gay Community Foundation, entitled “LGBT: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know, But Were Afraid to Ask.”
“The participants in the conference are first responders: firefighters, police officers, EMTs,” said Harrison. “The Purpose of my workshop is to better connect firefighters with the LGBT community. It will consist of a panel of about eight people sharing their own stories briefly, any thoughts they want to share: religion, politics, being out at work, coming out to your family, what their personal journey was like. And the other half of the period will be a question and answer with the participants.”
The panel discussion started with Harrison giving an opening monologue where he managed to connect with his audience. He talked about his time volunteering after 9/11, and about the one time he has had to personally call the Richmond Police Department for a stranger in his home.
The audience was a diverse collection of firefighters and police personnel. Richmond’s Chief of Police even found a spot in the front row.
Nothing too groundbreaking came from the short discourse that was offered by the panel members. They all gave sincere accounts of the struggles, or the pride that they have as LGBTQ individuals. Malinda Collier talked on her life as an ally in the Episcopal Church; Keri Abrams and Ted Heck talked about the life of a trans individual; Rodney Lofton talked about the struggle of being a gay man in the African American community. However the real learning opportunity came with the Q&A that was offered at the end of the session.
During the Q&A the audience seemed to be genuinely interested in the subject matter, and wanted to get the best answers possible for their questions. A lot of the questions were very basic: “What’s it called when a transsexual person hasn’t fully transformed?” “What bathroom do trans people use?”
But the question that allowed for possibly the most honest conversation of the day was: “Why are firefighters more accepting of lesbians than gays?” One audience member talked about someone at his station who came out and how it changed his work life, he said he is no longer allowed in the “good old boys club.” Another firefighter chimed in from the other side of the room saying he has met a gay woman before, but never a gay man. A panel member quickly pointed out that a personal relationship with a LGBT individual is the quickest path to acceptance. The Richmond Chief of Police may have put it most bluntly when he said it really all comes back to stereotypes. “The stereotype of a lesbian was always butch and more manly, so they can do the job, and the stereotype of gay men was fairy and less manly, so they can’t do the job.” He ended by saying the Richmond Police Department needs to work hard to “beat down those stereotypes.”
Antoinette Archer, HR Division Chief for the Richmond Police Department, said afterwards, “I really want to ensure that all of the things that I learned today are taken back to the department to ensure that all of our barriers are decreased and we make an environment that’s inclusive of everyone in the community. I don’t care if you’re black, white, your gender, we don’t care, and we want our department to reflect the community.”
“It gives a broader spectrum from their side of the story,” said David B. a firefighter who attended the panel. “Rather than a bunch of hearsay, or rumors, you’re hearing it from them exactly how they feel and how they would want to be treated.”
Bill Harrison said he was surprised by how well the event went. “The program today went better than expected,” he said. “We had more people here than I feared we might have, I had feared the attendance might be low because this is a male dominated profession – firefighters and police officers – and not all men feel comfortable coming into a workshop like this. I thought the questions were great, I thought we created a comfortable environment for people to talk. I thought the question were quite candid: transgender issues, what bathroom do you use, tell me about your surgery, do you want to be called lesbian or gay.”
Overall it was exciting to see people out in our community who are being proactive about educating themselves on LGBTQ issues. The discussion barely scratched the surface, but the interest is there, and that is a very important first step.
A special thanks to everyone who was a member of yesterdays panel, thank you for helping to better educate our community:
Ayana Obiko Clayborne
I am originally from a small town in North Carolina and have recently moved to Richmond. Meaning I am a novice to the ways of Richmond life, but from what I have seen it is a culturally rich environment that I look forward to diving into. My daily hustle consists of playing bass, reading, and hunting for new music. This summer I will be interning with RVA Magazine and GayRVA.com. In the fall I will be transferring to Virginia Commonwealth University where I will major in journalism.
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