OUTstanding Virginians 2015

Mothers & Others – Allies, Richmond

logo ideas2Mothers & Others of Virginia is an alliance of mothers, fathers, friends, and fair-minded citizens who support equality for LGBT Virginians. Joyce Scher and Ellen Shelton founded the Richmond-based nonprofit late in 2006 in response to the passage of the “marriage amendment” to the state constitution. Nine years later, with broad public acceptance of same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court’s decision to let stand the lower courts’ rulings striking down Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban, the question comes to mind: is the organization needed anymore?

To Joyce, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’: “There are still far too many families being fractured by hatred and misunderstanding, too many mothers and fathers in need of support, and far too many sons and daughters who need to know that they are loved.”

It was the offensiveness of the impulse behind the ballot proposal that drove the founding mothers to political activism. Joyce describes the indignation she felt when she realized that “some people would change the constitution to deprive my son of his rights.”  Joyce felt a visceral need to counter that hatred publicly, and she realized that the symbolic power of motherhood could help. “If I could get a group of mothers together, people would listen to us,” she told her son Jon, an editor for ESPN.com in New York. He agreed, as did her husband, Norm, who encouraged her to take action but also cautioned her not to underestimate the ill will she would encounter.

Joyce, Ellen, and several other women began meeting regularly to plan a campaign of speaking out for their LGBT children. At the time, many parents weren’t comfortable admitting they had a gay or lesbian child. “Parents were in the closet too,” says Joyce. Nonetheless, a core group formed and their numbers grew. Like Joyce, many of the women were already skilled organizers for educational or religious causes. Fathers began to join too, and Mothers & Others was born.
The members’ central tactic was to talk about their sons and daughters to opponents of marriage equality and fence-sitters. This accomplished two things: it established a personal bond with the listeners – “We are all proud of our kids,” says Joyce – and it brought home the point that the children of the person they were talking to were being hurt by the policies they advocated. Says Joyce, “You could see the eyes of people change when they heard us ask, ‘Do you really wish to take away the rights of my son?”

To bring the point home, Joyce would tell the story of her two sons, Jon, who is gay, and Charley, who isn’t. Same parents, same schools, she would say; both brought up the same way; both into sports; both proud Virginians. “Both had the same rights,” Joyce would say, “until my older son spoke up about who he loved and instantly lost some of the rights he was born with.” Most of her listeners had never thought of the issue that way, and some realized they could no longer hold onto their previous beliefs.

Mothers & Others took their message to the streets, setting up booths at popular events such as Richmond’s Watermelon Festival. They participated in diversity events at large corporations. On Equality Virginia’s Lobby Day, they passed out pink and white buttons in the General Assembly, generating a lot of curiosity. They also used personal, family, and school connections to grab the attention of lawmakers. As Joyce describes it, once she had the lawmaker’s attention, she would speak frankly, “not as a well-oiled lobbying machine but as a mother.” They also met with candidates for state and national office. Joyce describes the thrilling experience of meeting Barack Obama when he was first running for president. Joyce wore her Mothers & Others button and told him her story. Obama put his hand on hers and said, “I am with you, I have always been with you, and I will not let you down.”

Despite their success changing attitudes and despite recent successes in the courts, Mothers & Others is not declaring victory. “Actually, we’re fighting as hard as ever,” says Joyce, citing recent instances of discrimination by business owners and scare-mongering by far-right politicians.

Still, Joyce remains optimistic about the outcome and energized by the struggle. “I have never been as happy as I am now being the outspoken parent for my son and LGBT children of all ages in Virginia,” she says. “It’s been the fight of my life.”

Celebrate the freedom to marry and honor the 2015 OUTstanding Virginians by joining us at this year’s Commonwealth Dinner!