OUTstanding Virginians 2016


Charles Ford

Educator, Historian, Trustee

Charles FordA student of the past, Norfolk State Professor Charles Ford puts his selection as OUTstanding Virginian in a geographical and historical context. “Hampton Roads and Norfolk in particular have a surprising history at the forefront of LGBT advocacy in Virginia going back to the 1970s,” he points out. With admiration, he names two illustrious predecessors from Norfolk. The first is Jim Spivey, one of Equality Virginia’s first OUTstanding Virginians, a radiologist involved in HIV/AIDS activism, and “my mentor, who taught me taught me leadership and logistics and helped me become an activist.” The second is Mitch Rosa, another OUTstanding Virginian, “who helped me to coordinate community projects and to orchestrate public engagement.”

Though Charles hails from Pittsburgh and holds degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt, many of the most significant experiences in his life have taken place in and around Norfolk. “Since I came to Virginia in 1992 to take a position at Norfolk State, I have changed,” he says. “I have become much more interested diversity and civil rights. I came out here, and I learned to live on my own here, as my own person.” He met his partner – executive secretary Kevin Girard – in July 1993, and they have been together ever since.

Charles arrived in Virginia in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, which had hit Norfolk especially hard. He started volunteering in the Tidewater AIDS Crisis Task Force and, at age 29, joined the board, which was soon under Jim Spivey’s leadership. “Board service was not ceremonial then,” Charles recalls; “I found myself doing a lot of different things, including research, fundraising, and public relations.” He served as president in 1997-98 and again in 2003. He would go on to serve as a trustee of the Norfolk Public Library system after February 2013, drawing upon his earlier experience with the oldest AIDS service organization in the area.

For a while, however, Charles’ activism took place mainly off-campus, as Norfolk State in the nineties was not friendly to pro-gay organizations. Nevertheless, things started to change in the new century, and by the 2003-2004 academic year, students had succeeded in launching an official club—Leading the Education of Gay and Straight Individuals (LEGASI) — with Charles as their faculty advisor. “This was a big step in 2004,” says Charles, “and the staff person behind the effort, Housing’s Faith Fitzgerald, was almost fired.” Charles was surprised by the uproar, which was happening at a time when such organizations were already common on Virginia campuses. “But the students were making up for lost time and they pushed us ahead,” he says. Eventually, LEGASI became one of the most active organizations on campus, even sending student delegates to President Obama’s Black Gay Summit at the White House in 2012.

Marking how far the university has come since then, the club has become a recognized learning community in which Charles will teach Modern World History to 25-30 self-selected LGBT students in the fall of 2016. This cohort of students will take this general education core curriculum requirement plus a speech class tailored to focus on the LGBT global legacy culminating in a public presentation. Students must interview for the slots: “We want to make sure that what they want to do is supported by the curriculum,” says Charles. Readings include early scientific literature on sexuality from the early 20th century plus writers like James Baldwin.

As the campus was becoming a more welcoming place, Charles sought to make change in academia on a national level. He became chair of the American Association of University Professors “Committee Q” (Committee on Sexual Diversity and Gender Identity) and worked to get funding for research on the impact of grants for nondiscrimination. With $100,000 from the Gill and Argus Foundations, he and his AAUP Committee hired experts to give oral interviews on campuses all over. The final report by noted social worker Dr. Lori Messinger, “Creating LGBT Friendly Campuses,” was published in 2009 in the journal Academe. “It had an important effect,” he says, “because it provided credibility for efforts to gain human rights on campus.” Around the same time, he co-founded an organization called Network Virginia, which sponsored big conferences at the University of Virginia in 2007 and at VCU in 2011 and organized pro-LGBT constituencies at institutions of higher learning across the state. Finally, he joined the Old Dominion Gay Cultural Studies Endowment campaign in 2010 as events chair, hoping to bring a full-time position in LGBT studies to Tidewater.

In 2011, Charles was forced to address political strife over LGBT rights in Virginia when Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli began attacking nondiscrimination policies at public universities. Charles’ public stance put his career at risk. As he describes it: “I was associate dean by then and didn’t have as much freedom of speech as I had had when I was just a professor.” After he criticized the Attorney General in an interview with an alternative Richmond newspaper, the school administration tried to prevent him from saying anything else about the controversy. It was, in his words, “a very harsh time,” but his ties with academics at other institutions helped sustain him.

As it turned out, Charles’ activism benefited his scholarship. Through his fight for nondiscrimination in the universities, he met Dr. Ted Delaney, chair of History at Washington and Lee University. At that time, Charles’ scholarship had moved into local history, with respect to desegregation and the Civil Rights movement going up to the present, and he was looking for a university press to publish his research. “After Ted selected me for a panel at the Southern Historical Association’s convention, my work got noticed,” says Charles. A contract from the University of Virginia Press followed, and, since its publication in 2012, the book Elusive Equality: Desegregation and Resegregation in Norfolk Schools has won much acclaim.

A spin-off of his recent research is a pictorial history of LGBT life in Hampton Roads — written with his research partner, Dr. Jeffrey Littlejohn of Sam Houston State University, in Texas, and published in March 2016. It features images of local people and early public events. “It just scratches the surface of available pictures from local archives,” says Charles. Charles used some of these images, blown up to poster size, to celebrate local LGBT history in an exhibition for last year’s Norfolk Pride event, which also featured some panels from the AIDS quilt. As part of the exhibition, Charles led a tour of LGBT history sites in downtown Norfolk. “Most of the actual buildings are gone,” he says, “but it’s interesting to imagine LGBT life in Norfolk in the middle and late twentieth century when Norfolk lived to its long-standing reputation as the ‘wickedest city in America.’”

Charles was pleased to discover that his LGBT students are remarkably interested in the past. “They are in search of an identity,” he says, “and want to know gay people didn’t just ‘pop out of the woodwork’ in the 1980s.” They are particularly interested in the stories of people who have had a harder time than they did. As docents at the exhibit, students took down oral histories from some of the veterans of past struggles. “This generation is much better with older people than mine,” he says. “They want to capture the personal stories before it all goes away.”



Celebrate our victories this year and honor the 2016 OUTstanding Virginians by joining us at this year’s Commonwealth Dinner!