I don’t know about you, but I don’t reside in an environment such that a party, or even a party spirit, is likely to envelop me as I rest peacefully on the sofa on any given night, especially not after sleep has already claimed me for its own. Indeed, lacking even a dog whose well-placed kisses while I’m snoozing might lead my dreams in interesting directions, a “party spirit” might consist merely of gratefulness that the canine upstairs is quiet, the neighbors overhead aren’t wearing particularly hard-soled shoes on their nude hardwood floors, and cigarette smoke from the neighbor below isn’t filtering into my allocation of air.
And so it had been on Thursday night, Valentine’s Day Eve 2014.
I couldn’t tell you what Food TV cooking program, HGTV home improvement show with impossibly hunky stars and guests, or YouTube video might’ve helped lull me into a brief slumber that would carry me a few minutes closer to Friday and the weekend, but at some point approaching 10 p.m., I awoke from what had been a blissfully nice nap. Naturally, I consulted Facebook to take stock of any pertinent changes to my environment, but saw nothing wildly memorable.
Not too many minutes later, though, with my browser still pointed at Facebook, I hit the “refresh” button, because, really, what else can one do that requires the expenditure of such little physical effort. And it was then that my lab-rat-like nipping at the bottle of chemical-infused water began to be rewarded as I caught sight of a sparse post by the American Foundation for Equal Rights that claimed that Federal judge Arenda Wright Allen had ruled, in the case of Bostic v. Rainey, that Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
Could such momentous news really be breaking after 10 p.m.?
Moments later, I saw a Facebook friend repost the AFER announcement, and clearly she, too, wasn’t quite convinced it was real. Her suspicion stoked my own, and I scrambled to visit a variety of reputable news outlets, seeking confirmation that would help me to suspend my disbelief, but none of them, at that time, were reporting on the story.
Meanwhile, I saw another Facebook friend post about the news.
At about the same time, Equality on Trial shared the news via Facebook. I trusted them, bolstered by their reference to a Twitter post by VA Attorney General Mark Herring (which I double-checked at the source) and a link to a copy of the ruling. By that point, I felt confident enough to share the news myself, and soon after, one could see the awareness rolling across Facebook like a wave, as a number of individuals and equality-related organizations also shared the news.
Watching people discover the news and become excited about it was joyful, and It became a virtual celebration. Finally, at last, those of us in Virginia had some equality-related news of our own to stoke our spirits, rather than experiencing the blend of gratefulness and perhaps a touch of envy that has come with learning of favorable decisions in places beyond our own borders.
I stayed up until midnight, and then didn’t fall asleep right away, so I was in somewhat of a haze at work the next day. All I wanted to do on Friday was have conversations about the victory and celebrate, but, ironically, the only gay employee of the company (i.e., me, at least to my knowledge) was also the only person in the office that day. Thoughts of Cinderella and the ball came to mind, though the ball was actually scheduled for that evening and I was largely biding time until that moment arrived.
As it were, a sizable group of people -- LGBT folks and straight allies -- had been laying the foundation for an event called, “Virginia Is For ALL Lovers: A Celebration in Solidarity” to “celebrate and to demonstrate our unwavering commitment to marriage equality for all Virginians.” Though it was hoped that it would be a celebration, my understanding is that it was going to be held regardless of the ruling in Bostic v. Rainey. Given that no one knew when the judge’s decision would be released, exactly when and where the event would transpire had been an unknown, though Valentine’s Day had been used as a tentative placeholder, which proved to be prescient.
Eventually, it became apparent that a massive amount of effort had gone into ensuring the event could take place on short notice, and the lengthy list of people who volunteered time, space, money, and materials was a testament not only to considerable generosity, but also to the amount of coordination required to bring all the elements together and to fruition.
Ultimately, the number of Facebook yeses for the event exceeded 500 and the location was set for Decorum on 21st Street in Norfolk.
Over the years, life has dressed me in many layers. As with the attire required to remain warm in this, Hampton Roads’ most brutal winter in ages, at least two layers of garments must be removed before there can be even the consideration of exposing some skin. Friday’s Valentine’s Day event, at least temporarily, peeled back a layer or two and was the most connected I’d felt to a group of people in quite some time.
Amongst the crowd, there was certainly no cockiness that I detected, no unseemly celebrations of a touchdown. Instead, an atmosphere of gratefulness and happiness pervaded the room. Indeed, it was time that we experienced a victory worthy of celebration after years of being targeted by a variety of Virginia legislators who failed to evolve, as well as those who make a business of demonizing LGBT people in the course of selling a narrowly-drawn vision of “family values” that caters to the fearful and those who are something other than open-minded.
Apart from the people one almost always sees at these types of events in Hampton Roads, there were many one seldom sees or perhaps have never been seen at such an event. Everyone was there for the cause, and there was a convivial spirit amongst people regardless of sexual orientation. Indeed, I was especially delighted by the number of straight people who attended, a few of whom approached to offer congratulations.
During the evening, WTKR’s Blaine Stewart emceed and introduced a variety of speakers that included Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, Tony London and Tim Bostic -- the latter being the namesake of Bostic v. Rainey, Laurel Quarberg on behalf of Hampton Roads Pride, Don King with HRBOR, hosts for the evening and longtime supporters of the LGBTQ community Claus Ihlemann and Robert Roman, and James Parrish with Equality Virginia. U.S. Senator Mark Warner had also sent a statement of support, and while Norfolk’s Mayor Fraim arrived after the remarks had concluded, the group reassembled to hear a few supportive words from him, as well.
Tony London and Tim Bostic
Mayor of Norfolk, Paul Fraim
Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam
Considering that we’ve so recently left behind the era of Governor Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, from whom anything short of open animosity had been the best for which the LGBTQ community could hope, having Lt. Governor Northam present as such a strong supporter was wonderfully cheering, just as Governor Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring’s support has represented a refreshing sea-change.
I must admit that I’ve never been much of a romantic when it came to the matter of pursuing equality -- possibly even veering toward the pragmatic practicality of a curmudgeon. It was always much more certain that I would need to be employed than it was that I would find myself in a relationship that I wanted to honor and protect through a legal marriage. Given that, I’ve tended to be more vocal in support of employment protections than marriage rights, and having won neither the lottery nor the dating bonanza, thus far, my personal priorities have not been shown to be out of balance. However, there are certainly plenty of guys and gals who’ve had a different experience with respect to their dating fortunes.
Indeed, at the celebration, I was approached by a woman who remembered me from my earliest days of LGBT activism. Neither she nor her partner could recall exactly when it was we’d all worked together as volunteers on behalf of Equality Virginia, but one of the two of them referenced their children, and it took me back to a time, before Facebook’s popularity, when working for equality in Virginia meant meeting at various people’s homes to organize, make signs, and plan to get the word out at various festivals and community activities. These were women who’d spoken all those years ago of the very real protections afforded by marriage that they felt they needed to help ensure their children’s well-being. To them, it was a very personal and relevant issue and not at all abstract. And in reality, amongst the gay men I know personally in Hampton Roads, the majority of them are in relationships.
Really, I’m not sure that anyone actually wanted to leave the celebration at Decorum on Valentine’s Day, but eventually I did, and I headed to the next phase of the festivities, at Granby Theater. While I had more good conversations, I was particularly grateful that I ran into Tony London and Tim Bostic and had an opportunity to thank them for what they’ve done and tell them that I’m generally more impressed by civil rights pioneers than rock stars, and that I certainly now consider them to be amongst those pioneers.
Granby Theater, Downtown Norfolk, VA, February 14, 2014
When I got home, though, I was still thinking of having run into the lesbian couple at Decorum, and was wondering if it would be possible to locate the photos of the first rally I’d ever attended that was not a pep-rally. At Decorum, Suzanne, her partner, and I had talked about the rally at Waterside because it’d been such a momentous occasion. However, having looked for the images the night before and not having found them, I had my doubts that I could surface them. After all, I’d shot them on film and wasn’t entirely sure there’d ever been digital scans of them. However, the second time around, I did manage to find them, and in combination with having run into Suzanne, it was like a time machine that reconnected me to that moment -- both the hope I felt and also the fear.
The rally at Waterside had been to protest “HB 751,” which was about to go into effect and prohibited same-sex civil unions in Virginia, and preceded the constitutional amendment that came a couple of years later. I remembered how nervous I’d been heading over to Waterside after work that evening, fearing that conflict could break out and worrying that it felt like placing a target on myself. I was also concerned that the turnout would be tepid. Instead, though, I found myself proud of Hampton Roads that the turnout at the rally was, in my opinion, quite considerable, filling a large amount of what is a sizable space.
When I found the photos, though, I was shocked by the date: 2004. It was disconcerting on multiple levels. First, it’s jarring to see the ten-years-younger versions of a variety of people I knew then, or who I’ve met since and had also been present there, because it vividly illustrates how much time has had to be devoted to the battle for equality. Indeed, it’s disconcerting to think that still the battle for equality has not been won definitively, and to consider how much more wonderful it would’ve been to have been able to simply live our lives with a full set of rights and protections in place, rather than having had to periodically fight for our rights over the past decade. (And indeed, I’m cognizant that many have been pursuing justice for far longer than a decade, which is a mere blip in time relative to the course of the LGBTQ civil rights movement as a whole.)
GLBT civil rights rally at Waterside in Norfolk, VA, 2004
However, we stand much closer to victory in 2014 than we did in 2004, and as with that evening behind Waterside nearly a decade ago, on Valentine’s Day this year, I was proud of Hampton Roads and all who have helped, and are helping, to move Virginia toward being a fairer place for all of its citizens. We will have perhaps arrived at our destination when life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all no longer require regularly appealing to the better angels of our legislators’ natures, or, failing that, turning to the judicial system to seek what lawmakers refused to grant.
A version of this piece was originally published by AltDaily.com on February 18, 2014.