On the eve of his 93rd birthday, Guy Kinman invites friends to join him for dinner at Imperial Plaza’s Magnolia Room. Earlier that day, President Obama signed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s repeal into law. The table full of LGBT activists, four of them veterans, is buzzing with excitement.
Kinman has a lot to celebrate.
At each setting, a menu says “Guy’s Birthday” – he’s picked his favorites for the group. Kinman recommends the crab cakes.
A natural leader by heart, he knows how to grab the attention of a room. Hear him speak and you know you are listening to wisdom from his personal journey of self-discovery.
It’s Kinman’s work in the 1980′s – during the winter 25 years ago to be exact – that positioned him as an LGBT pioneer for Richmond. Inspired by a project in Roanoke, he led the Richmond-Virginia Gay Alliance to a capital campaign raising over $7,000 to plaster eleven billboards across the city with provoking messages like “Someone you know is gay… someone you love.”
Reading through old issues of the organization’s newsletter, many of the members chose only to be identified by initials – Kinman’s name was always written in full.
“Back then, we were completely inhibited to be ourselves,” Kinman says. “We were a separate society and we knew that there was something inherently better.”
Emblazoned with the message and Kinman’s personal telephone line, the billboards aimed to provide a supportive voice to those in need. The Alliance was concerned about posting a personal phone number on the advertisement, but Kinman was persistent.
“This was our chance to see how other people react,” he says. ”Our hope was that our families would read it.”
Each night, Kinman would listen to the messages left on his answering machine and make his best attempt to reach out. He recalls a few angry messages with religious scripture, but the message that comes to the forefront was from two suicidal youth seeking help. ”They were begging for someone to talk to.”
When Kinman shares this story he mentions his appreciation for organizations like ROSMY that are available today.
After making his mark with the Billboard Project, Kinman says he stepped back from the activist scene during the time many people started to come out. Still, however, people would still seek him out for support and recognize his license plate stamped with the letters “AFFIRM.” That license plate now hangs in the GCCR.
Today, Kinman has been an active voice in establishing a SAGE chapter in Richmond and believes this generation’s heroes are those gays and lesbians that have made friends with their neighbors, ventured and found heterosexual friends, and played an active role living their lives open.
Last October, the Gay Community Center of Richmond honored Kinman with a research fellowship named in his honor provided by a grant to the Virginia Historical Society. The fellowship will fund research on VHS’s collection of LGBT-related manuscripts.
“The 75-percent of Americans that have accepted gays and lesbians, by and large, are not accepting because of the work done by activists,” he says. ”We are changing minds because we are being authentic people. We’re not trying to hide anymore.”
This Christmas, he sent cards with the Richmond Times Dispatch article about his recent honor to many contacts he had never come out to in person. Firmly believing coming out is a lifelong process, he discusses his transition to living at Imperial Plaza, the retirement community in Richmond’s Northside. According to Kinman, fellow residents will confide in him about a gay relative in their family. He’s never felt backlash from other residents.
“They trust me and they will come to me and tell me, but I’m not keeping score… I don’t bring up the subject except on rare occasions. I will say something special happened like I was given an award because I’m gay – I said that to about thirty people,” Kinman proudly remarks on his most recent achievement.
Born into a family with modest backgrounds, he credits his confidence and strong-will to his father, an Army officer.
It wasn’t until 1957 when Kinman became aware of his sexuality while serving as a military chaplain in France, where he had his first experience with another man. After a change in careers, Kinman moved to Richmond and fell in love with a woman.
They married. ”In the midst of planning for the wedding, I realized my desires had not changed. That was an a-ha moment.”
She was from a prominent family. Her brother was on the city council and her father was one of three heads of the foreign mission board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“I talked myself into realizing there was no future in this – I was increasingly aware that I could not realize what most marriages are supposed to be in their full dimensions,” Kinman says. ”I finally decided over those last three or four years that this must end. It was only in the last day when I walked out on my wife that I felt free. I was coming out to who I was.”
He walked out without explanation. ”I did not know the word gay to say I was gay when I left my marriage.”
Today, Kinman believes gays and lesbians can do a better job of explaining who they are. He says in so many ways we are the same as heterosexuals in all the work we do to work to find that one person to love.
“There is this statement I love that I want to share,” he says. ”It’s the essence of this life. You show up, you pay attention, you tell the truth, and you don’t worry about the results.”
Back in the Magnolia Room, as the group finishes up dinner and a celebratory slice of pie, Kinman asks his friends to come up to his apartment. He shows his collection of drawings and artwork and shares photographs of a friend who lived in D.C.
During the half-hour spent visiting Kinman, he receives three phone calls wishing him a happy birthday.
Tomorrow, he already has a full day planned with another lunchtime celebration as well as coffee later in the day. At 93, his friends jest that he has a more active social life than many of them.