Virginia's new Republican governor has been called out over a Pride celebration his administration is organizing. LGBTQ+ groups in the state say Gov. Glenn Youngkin is trying to use LGBTQ+ people during Pride Month as pawns in his political game.
Critics say that a last-minute Pride Month reception hosted by Youngkin, to be held Wednesday evening and only announced 48 hours prior, is offensive and opportunistic, and people ought to boycott it.
Monday afternoon, Erik Conyers, an assistant in Youngkin's office, sent an email to 33 recipients.
"You are invited to join Governor Youngkin on Wednesday, June 8th from 5–6 pm at the Virginia State Capitol Rotunda to celebrate our LGBTQ+ residents during Pride month," Conyers wrote.
The email concludes with a request for RSVP, instructions on security procedures, and a note that the invitation is nontransferable.
As Equality Virginia notes, he does not support same-sex marriage, despite it being legal nationwide since 2015. Instead, he supported "license to discriminate" laws. In addition, he opposes transgender kids competing in school sports on the teams that best fit their gender identity, saying that it wasn't fair.
Last year on the first day of Pride Month, Youngkin sided with a teacher who had been suspended after refusing to use a student's correct pronouns. The future governor said he was looking out for the students in the school district.
James Millner is the program director for Virginia Pride. He has invested years of advocacy into attracting LGBTQ-affirming businesses and leaders to Virginia and shepherding the commonwealth into embracing the community.
Millner was invited to Youngkin's reception but refused to attend.
"What's the point, given his positions that he took during the campaign and his demonization of transgender people for political gains and his support for educators who refuse to acknowledge and support transgender students when they tell them who they are," he tells The Advocate.
Millner believes that Youngkin is trying to co-opt a celebration for a cause for which he has done nothing.
"There seems to be a disconnect between celebrating Pride Month, which is a time when we celebrate the hard-won rights that we have fought for in this country over the last half-century, and what the governor seems to be supporting, which is a rollback of those rights," Millner says. "It's bewildering to me."
However, he says that while he's suspicious of Youngkin's motives, he'd be willing to engage with the Republican if Youngkin made sincere overtures toward the community.
He said if he could address Youngkin directly, he'd have a few things to say.
"If you are genuinely interested in working with our community and those of us who have done so much to make Virginia one of the most inclusive and LGBTQ-supportive states in the country and certainly in the South, I'll listen," he says. "If you are interested in protecting that progress and if you are interested in working with us to advance that progress, I will stand next to you. I will work with you, and I will absolutely support you in that.
"But I have not heard that message from the governor. I have not seen anything that indicates that this is something he is trying to do, and in fact, the things that he has said and done on the record belie that commitment."
Narissa Rahaman, executive director of Equality Virginia, who did not receive an invitation, says Youngkin's performative allyship is hypocritical.
"The governor spent months campaigning on a platform of homophobia and transphobia, attacking some of the most marginalized members of our community — transgender and nonbinary youth," she says. "Unfortunately, his Pride event does not erase his words and only gaslights our community. We encourage the governor to meet with us, hear our stories, learn about our lives, and make a commitment to fight for our lived equality."
Henry Graff, a reporter for WWBT, Richmond's NBC station, added in a tweet that Youngkin's staff noted that the governor attended a Pride event last week and would be attending three more Pride events this month.
It's unclear, however, to which events the governor's office is referring.
"Community partners, including Equality Virginia, are being left in the dark about what those events are," Rahaman says.
"Are they events with the community, the general public, and LGBTQ+ Virginians who want to share with the governor issues they are facing at home and in their community?" she asks.
Rahaman's frustration, she says, stems from the lack of transparency from Youngkin on what he's doing for Pride in the name of LGBTQ+ equality.
Lisa Turner, appointed as the chairperson of the governor's LGBTQ+ Advisory Board last July, when Democrat Ralph Northam held the office, says the entire event was a last-minute surprise.
"I was told in April don't count on any proclamation, celebration, or even acknowledgment [of Pride Month], and now suddenly this," Turner says.
She believes that Youngkin and Republicans will use Wednesday's event to tout him as the first Republican governor of Virginia to celebrate Pride.
"I would like it not to be characterized that way," she says, "but the facts are the facts."
Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter tells The Advocate in an email that the Virginia Republican is there for all the people in his state.
“The governor is committed to leading on behalf of all Virginians,” Porter writes. “We are one Virginia and events like this help strengthen our communities and the spirit of Virginia. The governor looks forward to meeting with the community this evening.”