OUTstanding Virginians 2011

Mitch Rosa

Man on a Mission

If a young person interested in the history of gay America wanted to know “what was it like…?” he or she could do no better than to sit down with Mitch. The Norfolk resident has helped write every chapter in gay history for the past half-century. He was at the center of the pre-Stonewall gay underground, the Gay Pride movement, the AIDS crisis, and the recent fights for marriage equality and open military service. Along the way, Mitch has launched four regional organizations, mentored and educated young people, comforted the sick, and inspired hundreds by his example.

A conversation with Mitch is an unforgettable experience. You may find yourself laughing with him over some military escapade and just seconds later in tears as he tells of companions loved and lost. His ability to touch others is surely a by-product of a life lived—and felt— with unusual intensity.

Mitch’s story began in desperate circumstances.  His mother, who understood and loved her “different” son, lost a custody dispute and Mitch was put in the care of his abusive father. At the age of six, he was separated from his five beloved brothers and entered a series of foster homes and Catholic institutions in New York City.

He grew up fast, partly because he was big and mature-looking for his age and partly because of the changing times. Mitch was in Greenwich Village in 1969 when the Stonewall riots broke out. He remembers hiding in the bathhouse to avoid being beaten by the police.

In 1972, facing the likelihood of being drafted and sent to Vietnam, Mitch enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Norfolk. By then, he was ready to see the world and was not disappointed when subsequent tours took him to Iceland, the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and Central America. Wherever he went, he discovered a thriving gay scene. Although it was necessary to avoid inquisitive brass and the shore patrol, Mitch found he could be up-front with his fellow sailors. As he describes it, a typical conversation on joining a new unit might go like this:

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Are you queer?”

“No. I’m gay. Got a problem with it?”

That was usually the end of the matter. Just once, on a ship with low morale and poor discipline, did Mitch find it necessary to stay in the closet. It was only when he refused to lie on a reenlistment form that Mitch had to leave the service, in 1981, to the regret of his commanders.

Back in Norfolk, using the skills he had learned as a Navy barber, Mitch opened a hair salon. At that time, the mysterious “AIDS flu” as it was then known began claiming victims, and before long, Mitch says, “my friends were dropping like flies.” Untouched physically, Mitch looked for ways to help. At the suggestion of a local minister, Mitch began cutting the hair of hospitalized AIDS patients. “The nurses demanded that I put on scrubs and rubber gloves,” Mitch recalls, “but I said ‘I ain’t doing any of that stuff.’” What the patients needed was a personal touch, so, for an hour or so, Mitch provided a reminder that they were human and deserving of normal interactions.

Mitch wanted to do more, however, so he took training classes with the Tidewater AIDS Crisis Task Force and soon found himself cleaning the houses of AIDS patients, cooking their meals, buying their groceries, sometimes bathing them and changing their diapers. But even that felt insufficient to Mitch.

The breaking point came when a young man whom Mitch had rescued from the streets and put through high school showed up at his door sick with the disease. Mitch took him in and set him up as a hair stylist’s apprentice, but the boy died five days after turning 21. “I tore my room apart and didn’t come out for three days,” Mitch recalls. But in the intensity of his grieving, Mitch found a new purpose. “I made him a promise to get more involved,” he says.

Mitch’s new involvement took the form of community organizing. Within a few years, he almost single-handedly revitalized the InterPride Coalition and aligned it with area AIDS organizations. “A light went on in my head,” he says; “I could integrate gay pride with the fight against AIDS.” In 1997, the new organization began operating as Hampton Roads Pride with the backing of local churches and corporations.  Creating the organization’s popular annual Out In the Park event remains one of Mitch’s proudest accomplishments.

Educating youth is central in Mitch’s personal mission. With Hampton Roads Pride, he started a scholarship program for LGBT students. He also took a struggling organization, Youth Out United, brought it into the Tidewater AIDS Community Task Force, and relaunched it as Reaching Area Youth Now (RAYN) with a goal to promote safety and safe sex.

Another imperative for Mitch is having fun. Mitch helped build up the Hampton Roads Gay Men’s Softball League, serving as treasurer and coach until a tendency toward heatstroke sidelined him a few years ago. (He calls bingo games now on weekends.)

Despite serving on the boards of many LGBT-related organizations, Mitch shuns formal occasions. “Tuxedos are not me,” he says. In fact, he almost declined the OUTstanding Virginians award, except that his love of a good party got the upper hand. “I remembered what a great time I had at last year’s Commonwealth Dinner,” he says, “and knew I had to come.”