Above: James Millner (center) Director of Virginia Pride, with Richmond Mayor; Levar Stoney, Black Pride RVA co-Founder Luise "Cheezi" Farmer (left); and Zakia McKensey, founder of Nationz Foundation at the Pride Flag-raising ceremony at Richmond City Hall on June 1, 2022.
"Virginia is for lovers," goes the saying. The slogan has been used by the state since 1969 to promote itself as a tourism destination. But it wasn't until recently that the commonwealth became for all lovers.
Virginia is the most LGBTQ-affirming state in the South, according to recently released data. Now leaders who have fought for and succeeded in bringing change to Virginia hope the new Republican governor won't undo the progress they've made.
Until recently, the "lovers" that Virginia was beckoning didn't include LGBTQ+ people. But James Millner, in partnership with elected officials and advocates, is advancing the cause of inclusion and acceptance in the commonwealth. His goal was to attract lovers of all kinds to enjoy living out loud, and, in time, his efforts have seemed to have paid off.
Millner is the program director at Virginia Pride. After recently spending his 50th birthday in Washington, D.C., on a trip that included a stay at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, a dinner cruise, and an over-the-top Pride weekend, the activist is continuing to make history.
"I'm so proud of the work everyone in Virginia has done to bring us to this point," Millner says. "And I hope that although he hasn't shown himself to be a friend to the LGBTQ+ community, Gov. [Glenn] Youngkin will reach out to us in earnest and genuinely listen to the concerns of this community and make positive moves to support us."
In a new report, Virginia ranks far ahead of states in the South regarding favorable climates for LGBTQ+ citizens.
In the Out Leadership 2022 State LGBTQ+ Business Climate Index report, Virginia earned 81.9 out of 100 points, indicating strong support for the LGBTQ+ community. That score ranks Virginia 16th nationally but first in the South -- by a long shot.
North Carolina comes second in the South and 29th nationally, scoring 55.48. Florida and Georgia come in at 53.43 and 52.73 points, respectively, making them third and fourth in the South or 31 and 33 out of 50. They are followed by Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and then Arkansas, Tennessee, and South Carolina as the region's bottom three. (The report puts Texas and Oklahoma in another region, the Southwest.)
In 2016, before Richmond's Democratic mayor, Levar Stoney, took office, the Human Rights Campaign gave the city of Richmond a dismal Municipal Equality Index score of 46 out of 100. The score informs the understanding of how well cities across the nation embody LGBTQ+ inclusion in their laws, policies, and services. Richmond earned a 100 out of 100 when HRC last rated cities in 2021.
"I firmly believe that government has to be the example for the community, for the private sector, for everyone, and my governing philosophy is that we are a more competitive community when we rare more inclusive and more equitable," Stoney tells The Advocate.
Regardless of the color of a person's skin, how much they make, how they identify, or who they love, everyone has the right to have access to opportunities "to live out your God-given talents here within the city limits," he says.
Stoney recalls that in 2004, after he graduated from James Madison University, he felt something about Richmond was not what it should be concerning inclusivity.
"I always like to say this isn't your grandmother or grandfather's Richmond any longer," the mayor says.
Throughout his tenure as mayor of Richmond, Stoney has kept many of his campaign promises to develop Richmond as a progressive city.
After the murder of George Floyd, Stoney gained national attention when he ordered Confederate monuments removed from Richmond's public areas. On July 1, 2020, Stoney ordered the removal of all Confederate monuments along a major thoroughfare of the city called Monument Avenue, beginning with Stonewall Jackson's statue.
In the aftermath of protests resulting from Richmond's police force using unnecessarily harsh tactics to disperse protesters, Stoney explained his reaction in a New York Times essay, and he echoed this sentiment in his conversation with The Advocate.
"The only thing I could think to do, with the protesters on the steps of City Hall, was to march with them," he wrote, "if they'll have me."
Stoney similarly asked Richmond LGBTQ+ residents to have him, and they have embraced him with open arms. In 2017, shortly after he took office, Stoney became the first Richmond mayor to attend a Pride event. Stoney is also the first mayor to raise an LGBTQ+ Pride flag at City Hall, which he did again June 1.
Virginia and Richmond have several Pride events. The fifth annual Black Pride RVA will occur from July 13-17 in Richmond, and Program Director Cheezi Farmer expects several thousand people to attend.
She and others founded Black Pride RVA when seven like-minded queer Richmonders discussed the need for a platform to celebrate Black LGBTQ+ experiences, and at the time, Virginia Pride hadn't fully addressed that need, she says.
Millner, meanwhile, expects tens of thousands of attendees at this year's PrideFest, which takes place September 24 on Brown Island in Richmond.
Virginia and its capital city have made great strides since 2015, Farmer notes, with the establishment of marriage equality and the support of Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who left office this year.
Under Northam's leadership, the legislature passed the Virginia Values Act in 2020, and he signed it into law. It outlaws anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in the state.
Leaders who spoke with The Advocate for this story shared the concern Youngkin would undo progress and was not an honest broker.
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"We are all afraid that the things that we have succeeded at and the laws that have been passed to protect us, for us to be more inclusive, and for Virginia to be the 'go-to' state for LGBTQ+ people, will be seriously in jeopardy right now," Farmer says.
The governor's recent last-minute invitation to the state capitol for a few dozen LGBTQ+ leaders is an example of his unserious nature, she says. "He needs to talk to us and show us and not put on a performance," Farmer says. "He won't even say 'LGBTQ.'"
Youngkin, who won his election last year based mainly on the lie that public schools in Virginia were teaching students concepts of critical race theory, an academic school of thought not taught outside of higher education.
Youngkin has also expressed opposition to same-sex marriage and supported a Virginia teacher who had refused to call a student by their preferred pronouns.
The Advocate made several requests for an interview with Gov. Youngkin but received no response to multiple inquiries.
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