OUTstanding Virginians 2014

Virginia Organizing – Statewide

logo, VA organizing

This is the second year that the OUTStanding Virginian awards have included allies who are “out” in their support of LGBT equality. The ally being honored this year is not a person but an organization. Virginia Organizing’s Executive Director Joe Szakos says the group is in the unusual position of recruiting large numbers of supporters for LGBT equality from the vast pool of people who have never been active in a cause before.

Rather than view LGBT Virginians or any other group as a “base” to grow, Virginia Organizing brings unrelated people in a community together and asks them, “What’s your passion? What’s important to you?” Their answers become the mainspring of local and statewide initiatives. Often someone brings up LGBT concerns, and those concerns eventually are woven into the community’s plan for action. Szakos describes how the agenda-setting process works:

“We’ll meet with a chapter that’s fighting hard on a particular topic, say predatory lending or racial profiling, and we’ll bring up issues facing sexual minorities. At first, many people will say ‘I don’t know much about that’ and ’I’ve never dealt with that myself,’ but they’re in a safe space to listen to each other’s stories. From there, they begin to learn about each other and before long to work together, when the other wasn’t even on their radar screen two weeks ago.”

Commonalities of experience and aspiration come quickly to the fore. An impressive example came at the group’s very first meeting in 1994. As Szakos tells the story: “There were about ten people in the room—people of different backgrounds from across the state. The second person to speak was a Washington and Lee law student, who said, ‘I’m from Danville and am gay and can’t even tell my father. If I go into a hotel I can be refused a room. I can be fired from my job just because of who I am.’ Hearing this, a 62-year-old black woman slammed her hand on the table and said, ‘I thought we’d taken care of that in the sixties!’” At that moment, Szakos knew that it would be possible to form a coalition based on a common hunger for social justice, despite the extremely diverse backgrounds of the participants. He likens the organization to Noah’s Ark.

Nineteen years later, Virginia Organizing has 17 chapters in every region of the state. It has been a prime mover in many local and statewide campaigns, with notable successes such as strengthening anti-bullying policies in Charlottesville and Albemarle county schools and improving access to loans from the Virginia Housing Development Authority housing. The LGBT perspective has been integral to every campaign. In fact, that perspective is part of all of the training that Virginia Organizing provides for its chapters.  In its governance and operations, the organization ensures that LGBT individuals serve on the board and staff. According to Szakos, this inclusiveness is a natural consequence of the organization’s bedrock principle that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.

In an age when it is presumed that policymakers only listen to the rich and powerful, Virginia Organizing has had considerable success winning legislative and political support through old-fashioned moral persuasion. The secret, says Szakos, is to make the issue personal for the decision maker. For instance, Virginia Organizing members visiting a legislator whose mind they are hoping to change may bring with them a childhood friend of the legislator or the legislator’s pastor.  The group also tries to counter fixed ideological stances by focusing on real people and their stories. For instance, during the Charlottesville anti-bullying campaign, Virginia Organizing interns made an audio recording of five minutes in a high-school hallway. Hearing the offensive, homophobic slurs captured on the recording, a board member who had until then been complacent about the issue declared “this is wrong” and supported the proposed policy even though a fundamentalist group had threatened to sue.

Confronting stereotypes with real-life examples and personal connections helps take the fear out of supporting progressive causes in less than progressive parts of the state. Thus, both policymakers and first-time activists find new courage to bring about change.  Reflecting on the two decades since the young student from Danville described his fears and frustrations, Szakos says, “Thanks in part to the work we did, holiday meal conversations are different now.”