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A rally at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on May 13, 2014 (Photo courtesy Equality Virginia)
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Ralph Cole wears a feathered eye mask at the 1988 Gay Pride Festival, themed “unmasking.” (Photo courtesy The Valentine)
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On May 30, 1988, about 200 people march on Grace Street toward the State Capitol in the third annual AIDS candlelight vigil, sponsored by the Fan Free Clinic. (Photo courtesy The Valentine)
On Oct. 28, 1976, a group of Virginia Commonwealth University students obtained the long-sought registration of their campus organization. That didn’t come in a simple letter from the dean; rather, it occurred through a ruling by Virginia’s 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“If you wanted to be a student group, you filled out an application and submitted it. It was all kind of pro forma,” says Walter Foery, a spokesman for the Gay Alliance of Students (GAS) at the time. “We were the first group ever to be denied, the first one that was brought to the Board of Visitors.”
Foery asked the Board of Visitors to reconsider and requested a meeting. “The board replied with, ‘No, we won’t reconsider. No, we won’t meet.’ ” The board’s denial led to a court battle, Gay Alliance of Students v. Matthews, to recognize officially the group formed in September 1974.
October is LGBT History Month, chosen to coincide with National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11 and to commemorate the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October 1979. In Richmond this year, the month also marks the 40th anniversary of the GAS decision. “We were, of course, thrilled and gratified, but also exhausted,” Foery says of the court ruling. “On a list of attendees at an early GAS meeting, at least half the list has only first names,” for fear of repercussions.
One year later, another turning point in gay and lesbian activism took place. On Oct. 8, 1977, around 200 people came to a rally in Monroe Park on a drizzly Saturday afternoon. Prompted by gay-rights opponent Anita Bryant’s appearance at the University of Richmond, the event brought LGBT advocates into a coalition that soon found causes to champion. One was an effort by the Richmond Human Rights Commission to craft an anti-discrimination ordinance.
“The chair of the commission … wanted it to include sexual preferences” along with factors such as ethnicity and religion, says Beth Marschak, 65, one of the rally organizers. “He managed to get it through, and Willie Dell introduced it to City Council. But ‘sexual preferences’ ended up being taken out.” That energy segued into Richmond’s first Pride Festival, in June 1979. Bill Harrison, president of Diversity Richmond, co-chaired the festival. “The theme was ‘birth of freedom, death of denial,’ and we had a mock funeral procession from Azalea Mall to Byrd Park,” he says.
Diversity Richmond program coordinator Rodney Lofton, 48, says AIDS was a call to action for his generation. “I saw a number of my friends who were dying. I was diagnosed in 1993,” he says. “So that was the fire in my belly.”
Advances in recent years include the removal of Virginia’s sodomy ban and the legalization of same-sex marriage. Since October 2014, there have been almost 5,000 same-sex marriages performed in the state. In the city of Richmond, same-sex marriages account for 7.7 percent of those performed since 2014.
The challenges that remain are sometimes subtler to address. In Virginia, it’s still legal to fire or not hire someone based on sexuality or transgender status. AIDS and HIV rates in Richmond remain high.
But Lofton, Harrison and Marschak are encouraged by the progress.
“Bill’s generation paved a better way of life for my generation. Then my generation completely kicked open the door for today’s generation,” says Lofton. “And now they are truly redefining who we are as a community.”
As for Foery, he comes back Oct. 4 as part of a series of events at VCU commemorating the GAS’ victory. Headlining the series is tennis star and equal rights advocate Billie Jean King, who will speak at 6 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Siegel Center (see “Speaker Series & Events” at humanitiescenter.vcu.edu).
Web extra: Beth Marschak and Bill Harrison share memories of what it was like to be gay in Richmond in the 1960s and ’70s.