OUTStanding Virginians: Business Owner Robert Roman
Equality Virginia, VA’s leading voice for the LGBT community, holds their annual Commonwealth Dinner every spring. Part of the event includes honoring a number of LGBT Virginians, OUTstanding Virginians, for the work they do in communities around the state. The following is a profile of one of this years honorees.
When Robert Roman was a young noncommissioned officer in the Navy, he won an award for tackling a fugitive AWOL seaman on a street in Norfolk. Decades later, on February 13, 2014, Robert—now co-owner of Decorum, a furniture store chain–again caused a commotion on a Norfolk street. This time his action was peaceful and its impact was worldwide.
Roman and Claus Ihlemann–his husband, business partner and best friend–were attending a press conference about U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen’s ruling that found Virginia’s marriage ban unconstitutional. Caught up in the spirit of the moment , the couple kissed and an Associated Press cameraman captured the moment. The image went viral, and soon, he says, he was getting congratulatory phone calls and messages from “Boston, Austin, and around the world.”
The photograph, showing the two flanked by a sign proclaiming MARRY WHO YOU LOVE, makes this spontaneous gesture look easy. But the happy moment was the end of a period that had had begun anything but happy. To fully understand the emotions captured in the photos, you need to consider the back story.
Ten days earlier, outside the courthouse where Judge Wright Allen heard the case, Robert and Claus were part of a group of about 20 people demonstrating for marriage equality. They were surrounded by over 100 opponents bused in from places like Lynchburg and Mathews. The protestors taunted Robert’s small group and one man called him a pedophile. Patiently, Robert explained that all he wanted was the right to have his California marriage recognized in Virginia.
Robert and Claus returned home unharmed and proud that they had made their presence known, but as soon as Claus left to go to work, Robert fell apart. “I had absorbed so much hate that day, so much negative energy,” he says. Characteristically, though, his thoughts quickly envision a better alternative: “Think what they could accomplish if they could just put their energy into something constructive.”
Harnessing constructive energy is the story of Robert Roman’s life. In sports, in school, in the service, in business, tried to excel at whatever he did. As his material circumstances improved and his relationship with Claus flourished, he became increasingly focused on his community. “Not everyone is as fortunate as we are,” he says; “we have the flexibility to create change.” Robert joined the Civic League, the Ghent Business Association, and neighborhood service groups. For a time, he served on Equality Virginia’s board. He has long been a loyal supporter of Democratic candidates and causes.
Most of all, he has focused his efforts on winning marriage equality. This struggle has taken him from the disappointment of election day 2006, when he and Claus stood outside the polling place asking people to vote no on the marriage amendment, to the famous kiss, and beyond to the party he and Claus recently hosted at Decorum, where 400 people—including the lieutenant governor and the mayor— celebrated Judge Wright Allen’s decision.
But Robert Roman doesn’t just want to “stroke a check and pound the pavement” to create a more just world; he also wants to make people feel comfortable. He takes special pride when young people enter Decorum and say it feels like a safe haven and that he and Claus are an inspiration to them.
Perhaps it’s the baskets.
One day, Robert came home from a trade show with 14 picnic baskets. When Claus asked why, Robert explained that as a child in a rather strict military family, he felt he needed a picnic basket like other families had. His parents never bought one, and it came to symbolize his ideal vision of family life.
“So what are we going to do with 14 picnic baskets?” asked Claus.
“We’re going to have a family picnic,” Robert replied.
Equality Virginia is the leading statewide, non-partisan advocacy, outreach and education organization seeking equality for LGBT Virginians. EV believes in a truly inclusive Commonwealth where all are equally welcomed and valued, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
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