Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the June 2017 edition of OutLife757 Magazine.
Celebrating gay and then eventually LGBT cultures in June is a relatively new phenomenon.
It stemmed from the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots of 1969 when activists held parades in New York City and other major cities on June 28, 1970. From those serious demonstrations of gay liberation against entrenched official oppression came less serious and more playful festivals displaying the wide array of different peoples and organizations under the rainbow umbrella.
These events took root much later in the states of the old Confederacy, including in our own Virginia. In June 1985, for example, Mark Hiers, the editor of Our Own Community Press, our region’s leading LGBT newspaper, lamented that the Old Dominion hosted no gay pride festivals at all, except for a handful of private and isolated parties. In his complaint, he was so insistent that Norfolk do something that he invited anyone to meet him at the College Cue Club at 8 pm on June 28, 1985 to show some gay pride.
He would be wearing a gay pride pin, and all refreshments were to be “Dutch treats.” Out of this modest gathering he hoped that an Ad Hoc Gay Pride Committee would be formed, but there is no record of follow-through. Indeed, in Norfolk, only bar owners Tony and Shirley Pritchard (Tony owned the Cue since 1971) held an annual commemorative picnic for the staff at their establishments from at least 1981 onward.
But, unlike in New York City, Washington, DC, Baltimore, Maryland, or Houston, Texas, there were no such public observances or events scheduled in Hampton Roads until the middle and late 1980s.
In June 1986, the Mandamus Society, a local organization concerned with civil liberties and gay rights, organized what Our Own billed as “a potluck picnic and Tidewater’s version of the Gay Games” to coincide with Gay Pride Month. It was to feature competitions in everything from volleyball to horseshoes. The Society invited the participants to bring their family members, including their parents and children.
The venue was one not usually associated with gay cultures: Northwest Park in Chesapeake. The Society provided grills, charcoal, paper plates, utensils, and basic condiments under a reserved shelter in the park. Beverages and food had to be brought in by the attendees, who were urged to donate at least $2 toward supplies.
Apparently, people had a good time, but nothing was made permanent. Instead, in June 1988, the Society sponsored a $50 per person trip to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
But not until the establishment of the Hampton Roads Gay and Lesbian Alliance or, a little later, the Pride Coalition in 1988 would there be the first explicitly Gay Pride Festival in June 1989. The impetus for the Alliance was at first very political and legal – fighting the harassment and arrests of gay men in public parks. But to change that image and end that repression required a more sustained, open celebration of our own communities.
Accordingly, on July 15, 1989, the first official Gay Pride Picnic in Hampton Roads occurred at Norfolk’s Northside Park. The relatively venerable Mandamus Society was the main sponsor, but other vehicles of local activism such as the Alliance, Our Own Press, Unitarian Church, and New Life Metropolitan Community Church were also on board.
Diversity of attendees was a goal from day one with the National Organization for Women – Lesbian Taskforce and the Tidewater Chapter of the National Coalition for Black Gays and Lesbians. There was never a separate celebration for women as in Richmond, or for African Americans as in Washington. But respectability was always key – the first official picnic banned all alcoholic beverages.
The sponsors offered soft drinks, grills, and condiments, while the attendees would bring their own hamburgers, hot dogs, and side dishes. Children were welcome, and inclusive games such as volleyball, kickball, and a scavenger hunt were the primary activities. Around 200 people attended, “from the flamboyantly-out designer to the semi-closeted health worker,” as correspondent Ravigo Zamora noted in the August 1989 issue of Our Own.
The next Pride events in Hampton Roads grew slightly in size, and they moved from one location to another. For instance, the second annual Pride picnic was still held in Norfolk’s Northside Park, which also happened to be a notorious cruising spot for men seeking sex with other men.
The following year, it moved to the Old Dominion campus. Yet again to counter what contemporaries considered negative publicity, the organizers emphasized the normality of the activities – frequent volleyball games, kites, frisbees, and communal eating. Park rules banned alcoholic beverages, but the sponsors did allow for one less than hetero-normative activity – drag races with men attempting to don women’s clothing and cross a finish line before the competition.
Two political speakers kicked off the event: former Republican politician and legal consultant Samuel Garrison from Roanoke; and Robert Bray, the director of public information for the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce. Folk music was provided by guitarists Sandy Law and Martin Swinger, and a dessert contest was held by the Mandamus Society. The winner of this bake-off was to receive two tickets for the Society’s annual cruise on the Elizabeth River on the Carrie B. (which now hosts the Knight Hawks’ annual cruise) on August 18, 1990.
For the first time, local bars got involved to underwrite specific supplies and resources: “hot dogs and rolls from the Anvil, hamburgers and rolls from Julius, and baked beans from Offshore Drilling Company,” as mentioned in the June 1990 issue of Our Own.
Pride celebrations in Hampton Roads tended to be small, down-home affairs without corporate sponsorship or municipal support until 2011’s move to Norfolk’s Town Point Park. From Old Dominion University’s Webb Center to Virginia Beach’s Mount Trashmore to Norfolk’s Lakewood Park and then back to a park in Chesapeake, attendance and interest fluctuated in relation to the current events of the day.
Marches against the military ban in 1991 and 1992 increased participation, but the demise of Our Own and the fragmentation of local AIDS service organizations at the turn of the century contributed to a fall-off of communal solidarity and Pride growth. It would not be until the Renaissance of the local LGBT Hampton Roads community, beginning with the founding of the Hampton Roads Business Outreach (HRBOR) in June 2007, would there be the making of the large, diverse, and well-resourced organization and Pridefest that we enjoy today.
Dr. Ford is professor and coordinator of history at Norfolk State University. He co-authored the definitive “LGBT Hampton Roads (Images of Modern America).”