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The LGBTQ+ community and the capital of the Confederacy

RICHMOND – The former capital of the Confederacy has become relatively progressive over the years; it is home to a thriving LGBTQ+ community, but the city is not without violence and discrimination – for some groups more than others.

In the last three months of 2016, three transgenders were killed within a 90-mile radius of Richmond, Stacie Vecchietti, director of the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, said.

“The LGBTQ+ movement has made progress over the past couple of decades,” she said. “People, particularly those with intersexual identities, people of color and trans folks face disproportionate levels of oppression and violence, both individually and systemically,” she said.

Ted Lewis, executive director of Side by Side, emphasized the difficulties of being an individual with multiple underrepresented identities, such as a transgender person of color. One study found that the average life expectancy for a black transgender person is 35 years old, he said.  

“They have difficulty finding jobs, I’ve heard of friends being yelled at on the street, even threatened,” Lewis said. “What often happens is misgendering: being called ‘he’ instead of ‘she.’”

The LGBTQ+ community as a whole also faces many pressing challenges.

“You’re always unsure of where you’ll be accepted. Going to a new place can be nerve-wracking,” Lewis said. “In schools, there is bullying and even violence. Many struggle to find a welcoming religious community.”

Vechhietti’s work with VAVT helps to prevent violent experiences for the LGBTQ+ community, whether that is sexual violence, dating violence or discriminatory violence. She is hopeful about acceptance for LGBTQ+ individuals in Virginia.

“Diversity is an intrinsic part of a healthy community,” James Millner, president of Virginia Pride, said. “LGBTQ+ people have lived in this city since it was founded – as the city grows, we have come to be more accepted.

“But there are many gay people of color, and many transsexual people who still feel marginalized.”

When asked what the most pressing issue was for the LGBTQ+ community, Bill Harrison, executive director of Diversity Richmond, also lamented the mistreatment of transgenders.

“We have seen huge controversies about bathroom laws in North Carolina, and even in Virginia,” he said. “If we all worked together, I’m sure we could begin to understand each other a lot better.”

Yet Millner expressed his pride in Richmond’s openness and warmth. He said that as a gay white man, Richmond had been fairly welcoming. But he emphasized that that was by no means indicative of everybody’s experience.

“It is still legal in Virginia to deny housing or employment on the grounds of sexuality,” Harrison said. “This comes up every year in the General Assembly, and every year Republicans deny that it happens – but we know it does.”

This year, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Leesburg) proposed bills that would make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity illegal for employment and housing purposes, respectively.

Both failed to pass.

“I think that when we talk about disproportionate levels of violence, it is not the nature of these targeted people that leads to violence,” Vecchietti said. “It is the discrimination, whether that is in terms of racism, housing, or employment. Even families, even homes don’t feel safe.”

Still, Millner expressed his hope and trust in the Virginia government.

“Richmond has done a fairly good job, and the state of Virginia and the governor have worked to create a safe space for our community,” he said. “Accepting people for who they love is how we do it.”

Vechhietti encouraged citizens to focus not only on the violence that the LGBTQ+ community faces, but also the hope that it has.

“In December of last year we hosted a transgender inspiration project, where community members gathered to celebrate themselves,” she said. “It is important not to frame our community just as it relates to the violence it faces. There is also a tremendous amount of resilience and hope in our community.”