What Works in Richmond’s LGBTQ Community – By Bill Harrison
The following story was published in our 2013 issue of G Magazine – GayRVA’s print publication. Check out the entire magazine here.
When Lisa Cumbey had lived in her Westover Hills community for about three years, she called a neighbor with a question about the neighborhood association. The neighbor’s husband answered the phone – a gruff, older war veteran. He barked, “Are you that woman who lives with the other woman?” After a slight pause, she answered, “Ha, yeah, I guess that’s me.” Not sure how he was going to respond, she waited for the next growl. “You’ve done a good job with your yard. It’s looking real good,” was the response. “Color me surprised,” said Lisa, pleasantly surprised by this unexpected conclusion to the conversation.
Who is not surprised at the progress we have made, especially in the last few years? Ten years ago, who would have guessed we would be able to legally marry in 11 states? Many of us continue to be amazed when, without us even asking, our supportive Richmond City Council introduces legislation in an effort to bring about equality. Even with the sometimes overwhelming challenges we have faced, success is ours.
While many Virginians bemoan our lack of recognize same-sex marriage, others rejoice, believing the recent successes at the federal level have brought us one step closer to complete victory. Even the Boy Scouts of America and the Pope himself have extended olive branches. Who would have guessed? As the Rev. Gene Robinson, who rocked the Episcopal Church’s foundation when he became the first openly gay bishop, said, “Those against us are on the losing side and they know it.”
A critical factor for organizations wishing to remain relevant is keeping in touch with their communities. A nonprofit cannot survive, much less thrive, without community trust and support. If folks don’t trust you, they are not going to write you a check, and for good reason. Donors are savvy. They want to know where their money is going, how it’s being spent, and what they are getting for their investment. An additional dilemma for local LGBTQ organizations is we are often going after the same pot at the end of the rainbow.
Nonprofits must tell our stories in such heartfelt ways; appealing to prospective donors so they can’t say no. This task is easier for some than it is for others. For example, it’s easier to raise money for animal-related causes than it is for homeless people. Go figure. So while our public is hopefully enjoying the services we provide, responsible nonprofit managers are constantly looking at how we can improve.
I am proud my organization, the Richmond Gay Community Foundation, strives to hear what our community thinks. Last fall, we contracted with VCU to conduct a community-wide needs assessment to better determine what it is you all want from us. Our focus groups and strategic planning meetings are now underway. Self-examination cannot be a one-time thing. It needs to be an ongoing continuum.
Ask ten LGBTQ Richmonders what makes us tick and you’ll receive ten different answers. The Richmond Business Alliance is a great example of what works. A program of the Richmond Gay Community Foundation, energetic leadership has produced substantial goals caused by this chamber of commerce to begin maturing into a model of best practices. “LGBT-friendly,” is how the group describes itself. “Much of our membership is heterosexual allies who believe the local economy at a grass roots level is more important than assigning sexual orientation or gender identity labels,” says Justin Ayars, Alliance president. The group will soon become an affiliate of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber, bringing outstanding benefits to local members. Not bad.
Collaboration is the key element for the Central Virginia Rainbow Partnership. Chaired by Brad Kutner, the group represents about 25 local organizations. Recent undertakings include conversations with Richmond City Police Chief Tarasovic about the creation of an LGBT Community Police Liaison. Some of the CVRP’s requests for this liaison would include a booth and speaker at the Pride Festival, as well as availability for speaking engagements throughout the year.
For over 38 years, Richmond Lesbian-Feminist has been a mainstay in keeping Central Virginia feminists informed and organized. An all-volunteer, grassroots organization, the group sponsors social events. It’s difficult to locate a local LGBT event with which RL-F members are not involved, according to longtime member Beth Marschak. Along with an active social media presence, the RL-F maintains their long-standing tradition of regularly mailing a paper newsletter to members.
With all the progress we’ve made, there is still much work to do, and the leaders of ROSMY know that. If ever there was an LGBTQ organization who tugged at the community’s heart, it’s ROSMY. The much-loved institute, which has worked with LGBTQ youth and their families for over 20 years, is now buying their own home in Richmond’s West End. The organization’s executive director, Beth Panilaitis, sees miracles happen every day. “Our youth center is the only space where [LGBTQ youth] feel free to completely be themselves. Many of the youth who walk through our doors have attempted suicide, felt isolated and alone, or were constantly bullied. At ROSMY, they build authentic, healthy and caring friendships. They finally feel what it means to be part of a community and have others support you.” ROSMY was recently awarded a $97,000 grant by The Richmond Memorial Health Foundation to fund suicide prevention programming.
Many of us remember when Metropolitan Community Church came to Richmond and met at the Quaker Friends Meeting House. After a joyful service, coffee was served in the basement. Now the congregation worships in a beautiful historic church in the Fan District. Their bold signage is there for all to see. God loves everybody. Why can’t you?
Bob Jones smiles as he talks about Primetimers. “If you have friends, you are rich, and that is the main focus of Primetimers,” he says. One of the original founders of the Richmond chapter, Jones and his crew strive to reach gay men who are interested in community, socialization, and remaining active. “We’ve had opera and bridge groups, and occasionally cooking classes. We cook it and then eat it,” he explains, laughing.
Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Elders (SAGE) is celebrating its second anniversary. Addressing the needs of the fifty-plus crowd in our community, the organization offers social and educational events. Recent programs included a community conversation with FBI representatives about how the agency investigates LGBT hate crimes. Social outings are bi-monthly. “We offer art journaling, regular programs that address health and wellness, politics, and do-it-yourself projects,” said co-chair Shannon Marling.
According to Quillin Drew Musgrave of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, partnerships enabled seven local nonprofits to establish an assault and partner abuse helpline, a toll-free means of assisting LGBTQ people who may have nowhere else to turn. (1-866-356-6998) The group is also working with LGBTQ youth to expand visions of healthy sexuality, as well as developing training opportunities for service providers. Involved in the creation of these innovative projects are the Fan Free Clinic, ROSMY, Southerners on New Ground, Richmond Gay Community Foundation, SAGE, and the Virginia Domestic Violence Action Alliance.
Richmond Triangle Players is a wonderful example of turning a dream into a reality. Once again, who would have guessed little old Richmond, Virginia could be the home of a nationally recognized LGBT theatre community? Hats-off to CCCC and other pioneers who looked the challenge in the eye, and who now fill the theater on a regular basis. Applause to Phil Crosby and his dedicated board, not to mention the talented actors who make us laugh at ourselves, cry for others, and think about life through their performances. Bravo.
So what works in Richmond? A little bit of lots of stuff, but one ingredient all of these efforts have in common is a deep desire to make a difference. Some do it quietly, while others boldly toot their own horns and cry for the credit. Together, they add up to us–a strong, vibrant and caring community which has already moved mountains. We can do anything and we have the proof.
“Times and culture have shifted and the organization has expanded over the course of 25 years toward building communities with LGBTQ+ youth, families, schools, and faith communities.”September 12, 2016
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- A ‘Simpsons’ episode becomes mythic legend in a post apocalyptic world in TheatreLAB’s ‘Mr.Burns: A Post-Electric Play’, July 13, 2016
- Diversity Richmond President Bill Harrison shares stories of early gay Richmond’s bar scene with local NPR, June 17, 2016
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