Organizing Politically: Fighting for Our Rights

Anita Bryant

Anita Bryant sang and our community organized. To respond to her visit, activists organized the first LGBT rights rally in Richmond. No one mentioned Bryant's name - a tactic still used to good effect in rallies today. Credit ML

While women all over the United States were joining together to make a positive difference in the lives of women, including lesbians, another woman’s impact was also being felt throughout the United States. In June 1977, Anita Bryant successfully campaigned to repeal the gay rights provision within the anti-discrimination human rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida. Bryant formed an organization “Save the Children” that was based on her belief homosexuality was sinful and that homosexuals "recruited" children into their sinful "lifestyle."[1]

The day after the gay rights protection was repealed, Bryant sang in Norfolk. Protesters showed up in Norfolk to take a stand, including people from Richmond and Norfolk. In a recent conversation, the subject of Anita Bryant came up and Neal Parsons stated that there was group of about a dozen people from Richmond in Norfolk and it was the first time many of the had ever stood up in public as gay or lesbian; this was a risky action at the time and some of them were on the news. Parsons stated he wasn't aware, however, of anyone suffering negative consequences from this action. Bryant’s campaign was publicized nationally and her visits to Virginia spurned Richmond citizens to action. Following the June protest, members from several LGBT organizationsbegan to meet under the name Richmond Citizens for Gay and Lesbian Rights for the purpose of organizing a rally when Bryant visited Richmond.[2]

On October 8, 1977, Bryant performed at the Robbins Center at the University of Richmond, sponsored by the University of Richmond and the First Baptist Church. Instead of staging a formal protest, most of the Richmond LGBTQ community chose to respond with a positive self affirming action: the city’s first organized Gay Pride Rally was held at Monroe Park on the campus of VCU. The keynote was given by author and activist Karla Jay. The rally participants capped off the event with a reception at the Pace Memorial United Methodist Church and a dance at the Sheraton.[3] In a conversation with Beth Marschak, she emphasized that the coalition of groups that had come together, including RLF, wanted to focus on a positive message to counter Bryant’s message and not focus on Bryant herself.

Marschak also emphasized that the Rally at Monroe Park was also one of the early examples of the gay and lesbian community reaching out and gaining the support of allied groups, specifically religious groups in the area. The Rally was really a it was a seminal eventfor the LGBTQ community in Richmond and led to later things such as formation of VCLGR and support for the Human Rights Ordinance. The entire series of events surrounding the Bryant concert and the Monroe Park protest sparked increased interest in organizing for gay rights in Richmond. Two weeks after the contest, the Richmond Gay Rights Association was formed. On 25 February 1978, forty-three people representing fourteen LGBT organizations met and formed the Virginia Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights (VCLGR).[4]

The Block

The area around the Richmond Public Library at First and Franklin was known as "The Block." The City of Richmond targeted gay men in this area under its solicitation law. Credit ML

Although the primary response of the community was the rally, several members of the community did attend the performance and confronted Bryant at the UR concert. In a recent conversation, Neal Parsons talked about how he and Bruce Garnett confronted Bryant. The tickets were distributed through the First Baptist Church and Parsons told how the people selling the tickets were very suspicious of him and he was only able to get the tickets by telling them he was getting tickets for his aunt who was a member of the church. Parsons told Bryant how she was hurting gay people and Garnett argued religion and the bible primarily with Bryant's husband. Their words must have made an impression because Bryant was later to mention the incident in an interview with Playboy.[5] In a conversation with Neal, he noted that his response to the comments made by Bryant was also published in Playboy; he had responded with a letter to the editor because Bryant’s recollections of the event twisted what he and Garnett had said. Weeks after the confrontation, October, 22, 1977, Parsons and Garnett, along with Tony Segura, continued their activism, helping to form the Richmond Gay Rights Association (GRA or RGRA).[6]

The Richmond Gay Rights Association formed to “formulate action programs aimed at the repeal, enactment and modification of laws and ordinances affecting the gay and lesbian community and to formulate educational and cultural programs to promote the general community welfare.” Specifically, the group protested actions by the local police departments vice squads on the "block," the perception was that police officers "entrapped" gay men enticing them to suggest sexual acts and then arresting them. The GRA also spoke in support of adding sexual orientation to the Richmond Human Rights Ordinance. Meetings were held at Neal Parson's home, 1406 Floyd Avenue, two times a month.[7]

The City of Richmond passed a solicitation law in 1975. According to the 1975 law, “police can arrest anyone for soliciting sex by ‘word, sign or gesture’ or through any lewd, lascivious and indecent act.” An article in Our Own reported Richmond citizens harassed for solicitation on “The Block,” the gay male cruising area. The law was designed to reign in local massage parlors, but by 1978 was increasingly used by the police to arrest gay men for solicitation, following an increase in vice squad patrols. The GRA wanted to specifically to protest the perceived entrapment of gays by the local police vice squads.[8]

The GRA protested the way the officers who were arresting men were approaching the men and acting suggestively. An editorial in the GRA Newsletter reported that "... if necessary the officer will take the lead and try to maneuver the prospective victim into some 'word, sign or gesture' that could be construed as 'lewd, lascivious, or indecent.' "[9]

In addition to the GRA another group formed partially in response to Bryant and the atmosphere of fear and hate that Bryant’s campaign engendered, the Virginia Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights formed in February 1978. The board consisted for 8 men and 8 women from across the state, involved with existing LGBTQ rights groups; Richmond’s own Barbara “Bobbi” Weinstock serving as the temporary chair.[10] The group was a loose coaltion of existing groups and the plan was to coordinate the political and educational activities around the state and create a state-wide communications network. Specifically, politically the group discussed coordinating efforts to lobby both local and state officials and assembling a list of lawyers who could provide advice to lesbians and gay men on their issues.[11]

Willie Dell

Richmond City Councilwoman Willie Dell. Credit ML

In the April 1978 meeting a the Political Action Committee of the VCLGR was formed and 2 priorities were set: 1) removal of the word “homosexual” from ABC regulations which forbid serving alcohol beverages to or hiring “known homosexuals;” and 2) to repeal the state sodomy law. An education committee was also formed to provide support to campus groups and promote understanding of homosexuality in the “non-gay” community.[12]

Another stated goal of the GRA was to add sexual orientation to the Richmond Human Rights Ordinance and members of the Virginia Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights also worked to support this goal. In 1978, the Richmond Human Rights Commission began forming the text for a new human rights ordinance to amend the City Code of 1975. In March, 11 Richmond clergy signed a letter supporting the inclusion of sexual orientation in the human rights ordinance, stating that it was not the "morality of a person's sexual orientation, but rather a person's rights and protections under the law" that was a consideration. The proposed ordinance also elicited opposition including other clergy quoting the bilble as their justification, the City Attorney Cornan Mattox who said the ordinance would be illegal in Virginia and the local evening paper which urged citizens to "communicate their displeasure with individuals on the commission" and to strongly consider this ordinance when electing city council members in the fall election.[13]

At the June 6 meeting of the Human Rights Commission a number of people spoke for inclusion of sexual orientation in the language. Some of the speakers for the inclusion were: Beth Marschak of the Third District Women’s Political Caucus, Bruce Garnett of the Richmond Gay Rights Association (GRA), Barbara Weinstock of the Virginia Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights and Reverend Ed Meeks “Pope” Gregory.[14]In a conversation with Beth Marshak, she emphasized that members of RLF chose to step up and speak for the ordinance as members of other groups they were involved with in order to indicate the widespread organizational support for the ordinance. The Richmond Human Rights Commission endorsed the inclusive language.

City Councilwoman, Willie Dell, introduced the ordinance to city council, and three public hearings were held, where members of the GRA and VCLGR spoke up. On May 29, 1979, Richmond City Council approved the ordinance with “sexual orientation” and “ancestry” removed from the list of protected classes.[15] Over 30 years later, there is still no inclusive human rights ordinance in place in Richmond or in the state of Virginia.

References

  1. Marschak and Lorch; Beth Marschak and Alex Lorch, Lesian and Gay Richmond, Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008, p. 51
  2. Marschak and Lorch, p. 52
  3. Marschak and Lorch, p. 53
  4. Marschak and Lorch, p. 53
  5. Marschak and Lorch, p. 53
  6. Marschak and Lorch, pp 51 - 52
  7. Marschak and Lorch, p. 56
  8. "Citizens Harassed," Our Own Community Press, April 1978, N.B. Our Own Community Press did not start publishing bylines for most articles until the mid 1980s
  9. "Citizens Harassed," Our Own Community Press, April 1978
  10. Marshak and Lorch, p. 53
  11. "State-wide Group Created" Our Own Community Press, March 1978
  12. "Virginia Lesbians and Gay Men Set To Meet" Our Own Community Press, May 1978
  13. "Human Rights Law Examined" Our Own Community Press, May 1978
  14. Marschak and Lorch, pp 59 - 61
  15. Marschak and Lorch, p. 59