Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The History of "LGBT Hampton Roads"

June is Pride month and appropriately a friend, Prof. Charles Ford,  has released a book entitled "LGBT Hampton Roads"  that looks at the history of the LGBT community in Hampton Roads over the course of the nation's history, from the colonial period forward. Too often some try to depict the LGBT community as a relatively new phenomenon while the reality is that we have been around throughout all of history - as my June, 2016 VEER column will explore - and LGBT acceptance was largely the norm until the 12th century in Europe and until far more recently in other parts of the world.  The Daily Press looks at  Charles' new book which will be for sale at HR Pride Fest on June 18, 2016, in Norfolk's Town Point Park.  Here are review highlights:
While members of the Hampton Roads' gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community have been active in the region and state at large in recent years, represented in the arts, business and legal arenas, a Norfolk couple at the forefront of the battle to legalize same sex marriage in Virginia played a significant role in the life of the region for many years before that, Charles H. Ford and Jeffrey L. Littlejohn assert in their book "LGBT Hampton Roads," released earlier this spring.
The book by Ford, a professor and coordinator of history at Norfolk State University, and Littlejohn, an associate history professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas who worked at Norfolk State from 2001-2005, provides a historical and pictorial overview of the subject.
The book spans from the colonial era and the early days of the U.S., exploring gender identity in those years, all the way to the social, political and other aspects of LGBT culture over the last 50 or so years — the primary focus of the book. The two have co-authored several other books on topics in 20th-century Virginia history as well.
"Hampton Roads was not a backwater. It was not behind the times in the 1960s and 1970s," said Ford, who came out as openly gay in the 1990s. "It was the powerhouse in Virginia."
The region's mobile, transient population, especially when including sailors into the mix, gave the area a reputation for being one of vice, and in the 1890s, Norfolk was known as "the wickedest city in America," according to Ford and Littlejohn. It was there that the LGBT communities began to emerge and develop into the 20th century.
Those who would be identified as LGBT today also helped shape the cultural identity of the area, Ford said.
Anna Wood, a co-founder of a school for well-to-do girls, also helped start Norfolk's Little Theatre, Norfolk Symphony and the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, while Walter P. Chrysler Jr. helped transform the art museum that bears his name.
Gay people with local ties also gained international attention, Ford and Littlejohn said.
Leonard Matlovich, a Vietnam War veteran from Georgia stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, landed on the Sept. 8, 1975, issue of Time magazine after publicly identifying as gay before being caught in a sexual act or being accused of being gay by someone else.
Part of the challenge came from trying to document the life of a community whose members for a long time didn't want to be out in the open for fear of criminal, social and other repercussions, said Ford.
"It was hard," Ford said. "First people don't want their pictures out there, at a time when people didn't take pictures. Now, people document everything in their life."
More recently, groups like Hampton Roads Business Outreach, which represents LGBT business owners and organizations, and events like Hampton Roads PrideFest, have become more prominent in the public eye.
Changes in state and federal laws in the last decade or so have also made a difference in how LGBT people are perceived in the community at large, Ford said
State sodomy laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003, and the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy ended in 2011.
While progress has been made for LGBT people in the U.S., there is still more that needs to happen according to Ford. Right now, activists are trying to ensure protections for LGBT people in workplaces all over the U.S., and debates about the rights of transgender people are taking place on a daily basis.  "We still have a long way to go," Ford said.

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