OUTstanding Virginians 2014

Donnie Conner – Therapist, Richmond

Donnie Conner

Fittingly, given his profession, psychotherapist Donnie Conner begins his story back in his 1950s childhood.  Like most gay men, he knew he was different by age five or six. Young Donnie, with his good grades and advanced social skills, connected best with the “shy” boys. In his teens, he knew he had to leave his small Halifax County hometown so he could discover other young men like himself. He came out while a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University, fell in love, and helped build the community he had long been looking for. Half a century later, Donnie, now Dr. Conner, has never stopped discovering, connecting, and building.

In the mid-1980s, Conner made the daring decision to use his credentials in marriage and family counseling and his experience as a case worker with troubled youth to meet the mental health needs of Richmond’s gay community. He and two partners formed Commonwealth Professional Services as a self-identified “gay practice,” and furthermore one that specialized in serving HIV-positive clients. Friends predicted disaster. They could not have been more wrong: in three weeks the practice was fully booked.  Around the same time, Dr. Conner helped launch the Richmond AIDS Information Network and began seeing patients at the fledgling Fan Free Clinic.

These were challenging, distressing times. Many of Dr. Conner’s first private clients were Richmonders who had come back from larger cities to die at home. The four young men he counseled in his first group session at the Fan Free Clinic were addressing the question of when they would die, not if. The toll on the families was staggering, for most of the men had not come out to their parents until they were dying. “Thank God for my post-masters study in family therapy,” he says recalling the time. “I was ready.”

The practice began to attract positive attention in the profession. In 1989, Dr. Conner and his professional partner Stephen Lenton were nominated for the American Counseling Association’s Humanitarian Award. They almost skipped the convention, so sure were they that no gay-oriented clinicians would be honored by an establishment still internally conflicted about homosexuality. They won. Says Dr. Conner, “We were shocked. Here we were, two out gay men receiving the Association’s highest award.”

More honors followed, from the American Mental Health Counselors’ Association, VCU and other institutions. They edited a special edition of the Virginia Counselors’ Journal.  At one point, the two therapists collaborated on a training video with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the eminent Swiss expert on the psychology of death and dying.

As HIV infection slowly became a manageable condition, the practice’s focus shifted to issues such as helping physicians deliver the diagnosis to patients in a less alarming way.  Dr. Conner became expert in the needs of drug-addicted HIV patients.  He was also a pioneer in the counseling of gay youth coming out. The first meeting of the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth (ROSMY) took place in his practice’s group room. He later served on ROSMY’s board alongside his nephew, Frosty Owen. In 2004 and 2008, Dr. Conner was appointed by Governors Warner and Kaine to serve on the Virginia Board of Professional Counseling, becoming the Board’s first openly gay member.

Alongside his extraordinary commitment to the healing arts, Donnie Conner has managed to enjoy a rich and rewarding personal life.  “I have a wonderful extended biological family and an enormous network of chosen family,” he says. He and Eric, his partner of 21 years, will have been married three years this June. He calls the D.C. wedding the “biggest surprise of my life”—surprising because it could happen at all. “That day, we met five other couples waiting to get married. Four of them were same-gender,” he reports.

For Donnie Conner, the times have changed his counseling work for the better as well.  He describes with amusement and pride a typical contemporary scenario: “Now parents call me and say, ‘We want an appointment because our 16-year-old son is gay and we want to know the best way to show him that everything will be OK.’”

When asked how many miles he has marched for equality, “Dr. Donnie,” as he is referred to by many of his clients, declines to give a tally, except to say he’s still standing, still marching, and still dreaming.