A Tale of Two Cities

On LGBT issues, Virginia is right and left.

by Julia O’Donoghue

The approval of North Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban last spring upset Dawn Witter. So did the reaction to it from people within her social network; she was most horrified by comments she read on Facebook in reaction to North Carolina’s vote against same-sex marriage. On the news, she saw one man suggest that gay people should be rounded up and forced to live in seclusion.

Enough is enough, Witter thought. The straight sister of two gay siblings, she decided to join a local LGBT advocacy organization near her home in conservative Danville, Va.—but she couldn’t find one within 90 minutes of her house. So in June she started her own local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

Witter thought only a handful of people, mostly her immediate family, would join a PFLAG chapter in Danville; it’s not exactly the type of city where you walk down Main Street waving a rainbow flag.

“I came into this fully expecting to be shout at, spit on and ignored,” she says.

Much to her surprise, the group was received enthusiastically and warmly, at least online. PFLAG of Danville took off when Witter launched a Facebook page for the group last June. Within one week, nearly 100 people had “liked” it online. Two months later, virtual membership was up to 230 people and 20 to 30 members were attending face-to-face meetings held twice a month.

“I really had no idea people would actually listen to me,” Witter says.

It’s no San Francisco, and it’s still decades behind neighboring Greensboro, N.C., but an LGBT-friendly Danville—or at least an LGB-tolerant Danville—doesn’t seem to be so far off in the future. And if this conservative city turns a corner on gay issues, it could signal a change for Virginia. The commonwealth has taken a hardline stance against LGBT rights, with a ban on same-sex marriage and restrictions on same-sex adoption, but a shift in a conservative stronghold like Danville could mean rising support for pro-gay positions in this battleground state.

RED AND BLUE

In times of national upheaval, Virginia tends to take center stage. Virginians like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison helped guide the country to independence through the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. The state also played a key role in the Civil War. A Virginian, Robert E. Lee, was the architect of the Confederacy’s military strategy. The capital city of Richmond also served as the seat of the Southern government during most of the cessation.

Now, after decades of being reliably red and Republican, Virginia is suddenly backing Democrats in crucial national elections. President Barack Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney in Virginia this year, and in 2008, Obama won the state over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The president is the only Democratic presidential candidate to carry Virginia since Lyndon Johnson.

Obama, Gov. Mitt Romney and the two vice presidential candidates have all campaigned hard in the swing state. In August, Romney used the commonwealth as the staging ground to announce Paul Ryan as his vice presidential pick, and Witter’s hometown of Danville is where Vice President Joe Biden made the unfortunate remark that Republicans would put Americans “back in chains.”

Still, Virginia hasn’t so much turned purple as become more of a patchwork of blue and red. In general, as people move north and east, the state shifts not only politically, but also physically and culturally from ruby to navy. In blood red Southside, as the southern part of the state is called, tobacco barns are more common than glass-encased high rises. In midnight blue Northern Virginia, residents likely spend more time commuting to work on Monday than at Sunday church service.

The clash over gay rights in Virginia surfaced after the judicial nomination of an openly gay man to a local Richmond court earlier this year. The Virginia House of Delegates decided that a gay prosecutor was unfit to preside over traffic court. Vote on the nomination didn’t break down along partisan lines, but rather on geographical ones. Nearly every Democratic and Republican delegate from the three most northern cities and counties voted in favor of the gay prosecutor. The delegates present from Southside, all Republicans, universally opposed him.

Yet the “family values” lobby that fights to curtail gay rights in the commonwealth may be losing ground. Virginians may have opposed same-sex marriage by a wide margin back in 2006, but they still voted for Obama in 2012, even after he announced his support for same-sex marriage last spring. Danville may not be LGBT-friendly, but the city, where black residents make up half of the population, still handed the gay-friendly president 61 percent of its vote this month. If Virginians were so concerned about the “gay agenda,” why would they have supported Obama this time around?

In the aftermath of the election, some discussion has surfaced about same-sex marriage coming to Virginia, though much of it is pessimistic. There are several hurdles to removing the current same-sex marriage ban from the state constitution. Many LGBT activists in the state think federal intervention, either through the U.S. Supreme Court or otherwise, is the only way same-sex marriage will come to the Old Dominion. Lucky for them, Virginia just sent Obama, an ally with some influence over the federal government, back to the White House.

OUT IN THE SOUTH

Bumping right up against the North Carolina border, Danville is about as southern as Virginia gets, and it’s also the type of city Obama and Romney tended to talk up on the campaign trail. Danville hasn’t recovered since one of the city’s largest employers, textile firm Dan River Mills, shipped its jobs to India a few years ago. Indeed, one of Danville’s biggest and most visible buildings, a gargantuan industrial complex called the White Mill, has been sitting empty in the heart of the city for more than a decade.

The Dan River splits this small city of 43,000 people right down the middle. Tobacco put Danville on the map in the late 18th century, so much so that the city was deemed an appropriate place to relocate the capital of the Confederacy toward the end of the Civil War. Jefferson Davis and his cabinet fled to Danville after the Union army overran Richmond in 1865, and even as many other parts of Virginia struggled with reconstruction in the late 19th century, Danville prospered.

Historically, Danville has always backed away from progressive politics and, in many ways, has been downright hostile to LGBT people. Todd Haley, 41, grew up in the Danville area and was forced out of the closet by his mother when he was a freshman in college. She read through his diary, discovered he was gay and promptly called everyone Haley knew to tell them. Then she threw him out of her house.

“I was shunned. Everyone would refuse to return my phone calls,” says Haley, now living in Greensboro. “I lost every single friend I had.”

Maggie Prete, 21, had almost as many problems when people discovered she was gay. Prete, who now attends Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, lost nearly all her friends when she was outed by another student at the end of seventh grade. Her family tried to help her escape the ridicule, shuffling her around to three local high schools in four years, but the situation was downright miserable. She tried to kill herself twice, says her mother, Jaynie Prete.

“Maggie has had a real hard life so far. [Danville] is a small town and they all shunned her. It was just awful,” Jaynie Prete says. “None of her friends would have anything to do with her.”

Thankfully, that was not Addison Dalton’s experience. At 19, Dalton is only two years younger than Maggie Prete. He grew up just outside Danville and now goes to Averett University, a small Baptist college in the city.  For primary and secondary school, he attended a small, conservative Christian institution, which required all of its students to attend church every Sunday.

“During high school, I struggled with Christianity and myself,” Dalton says. “They were very upfront about it. If you were a homosexual, you were going to hell.”

Nevertheless, Dalton had a relatively easy experience when he came out last year. His family and most of his friends accepted his sexuality. His high school buddies have uninvited him to their regular paintball games, but all of his close friends and family have stood by him.

“Younger people are just more accepting. My friends who have remained Christian don’t have an issue with it,” he says. “The attitude toward the issue is getting better here.

Still, being young and gay in Danville can get sort of lonely, even with friends and family who are supportive. Dalton is only one of two or three younger people who attend the local PFLAG meetings, and his college’s LGBT rights group has a handful of members. In Danville, there are no LGBT bars, restaurants or other gathering spots where he can meet other gay people easily.

“It can get a little frustrating. I meet a lot of people through the internet,” he says.

Despite PFLAG’s success, Danville is historically not a place where many people feel comfortable being openly gay. Back in 2006, nearly 74 percent of Danville voters supported a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Witter has kept the local PFLAG Facebook group private so people can keep their political views and sexuality a secret if they choose. Many same-sex couples who live in the area, even they are out to their neighbors, still don’t feel comfortable holding hands in public.

Yet if people leave Danville and Southside Virginia altogether; if they get on Interstate 95 and head north for five hours; if they drive through the tobacco fields, past the Richmond-area Phillip Morris factory designed to look like a pack of cigarettes, and beyond Quantico’s National Museum of the Marine Corps building shaped like the Iwo Jima memorial; they’ll find a different Virginia.

They’ll find Alexandria, a city where 70 percent of voters opposed the same ban on same-sex marriage six years ago. Alexandria takes the state’s tourism slogan, “Virginia is for lovers,” to heart. In one of the most romantic cities in America, it’s OK for anyone to hold hands.

THE OTHER SIDE

If Danville is as far south as you can get in Virginia, then Alexandria is just about as far north. Situated along the south bank of the Potomac River, this city of approximately 144,000 residents is so close to Washington that it was part of the capital city’s Southwest quadrant during the first half of the 19th century.

In the 1790s, President George Washington struck some backroom deals to get his hometown, Alexandria, included in D.C.’s brand new city boundaries. It remained a part of Washington until 1846, when fears reportedly arose about D.C. outlawing the slave trade within its borders. The buying and selling of slaves was big business in Alexandria, and by retreating back into Virginia, the city ensured this industry would continue to operate unfettered for a longer period of time. By 1850, the District of Columbia had banned the slave trade locally.

Even today, Alexandria is still largely defined by its proximity to Washington. Sitting within seven miles of the Pentagon, Alexandria relies heavily on the federal government, particularly the Department of Defense, for jobs. The city’s unemployment rate, buoyed by the stability of the federal workforce, is significantly below the national average and less than half of Danville’s rate of 11.1 percent.

Alexandria may be a small city, but it has an outsized amount of political sway in Virginia. Four of the last eight Virginia governors either grew up or live in the Alexandria area. Both U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D) and his predecessor John Warner (R), who aren’t related, live in the city now. Former U.S. Sen. George Allen (R), who just lost the Virginia U.S. Senate election to former Gov. Tim Kaine (D), resides just outside Alexandria’s limits.

Mainstream politicians in Alexandria have been championing LGBT people’s rights within Virginia for the better part of a decade. Since 2003, the Alexandria City Council has had an openly gay member, Paul Smedberg, and the first and only openly gay member of the Virginia General Assembly, Sen. Adam Ebbin, represents part of the city. When Virginia was preparing to vote on the statewide same-sex marriage ban in 2006, the Alexandria City Council passed a resolution opposing the measure they called discriminatory.

While LGBT Alexandrians don’t face a lot of discrimination from their straight neighbors, they do get questions from Washington’s wider LGBT community about why they live in Virginia at all when D.C. and Maryland, two gay-friendly options, are so close by.

D.C. already allows same-sex marriage, and the Chesapeake Bay state will start issuing marriage certificates to same-sex couples on Jan. 1. Maryland made equal rights history when it became one of the first states in the country to approve same-sex marriage through a popular vote on Election Day. Alexandria is right across the river from D.C. and Maryland anyway, so why not just move?

“We sense that there are couples moving out of Virginia or choosing not to move over here when they might because of the legal rights,” says Tom Osborne, 63, who lives and owns an antique shop in Alexandria with his partner of 39 years.

When Virginia banned civil unions in 2004, gay activists from outside the state pushed for an economic boycott of the commonwealth, but some areas close to D.C. in northern Virginia—Alexandria, Arlington County and Fairfax County—opposed the same-sex marriage ban in 2006 by a large margin.

“Most of the dollars those people would have been spending would have been in northern Virginia, so you would be punishing the most liberal part of the state for what was done by the most conservative part,” Osborne says. “The main damage would be done to those like us, who are living here in Northern Virginia trying to change Virginia.”

When hostile politicians and policies drive LGBT people out of Virginia, he says, it’s like letting the bad guys win. Conservatives want LGBT people to move to another state; that’s why they pass the legislation in the first place. It does more good to stay and fight, Osborne says. Besides, he has lived all over Virginia, and he knows that not every LGBT person can move to a friendlier state next door.

For same-sex couples in Danville, for instance, relocating to North Carolina wouldn’t solve much.

KEEP ON KEEPING ON

Danville’s new PFLAG chapter may have gotten a warm reception from some corners of the community, but it also sparked a backlash. After an article about the group ran in a local newspaper, several letters to the editor condemning homosexuality appeared in the publication’s editorial pages. Many people even took issue with the fact that the group’s founder Dawn Witter, as an LGBT advocate, called herself a Christian.

Her mother, who also lives in Danville, worries about Witter’s safety, and Witter herself has done some reading on federal hate crime laws to make sure she would be protected if someone attacked her. One of her neighbors has also been warned to report any suspicious people they might find lingering around Witter’s home.

Though her fears have subsided with time, when she began the PFLAG chapter she felt she had to look over her shoulder when she left the house.

These concerns don’t mean Witter will stop what she’s doing. Danville needs an organization like PFLAG to help change some hearts and minds, she says. And she reasons that cities like hers will prove pivotal as Virginia becomes a safer place for LGBT young people like those she meets at PFLAG meetings, from south to north.

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© 2012 Medill Equal Media Project
Medill School of Journalism | Northwestern University
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