OUTstanding Virginians 2019

Bill Harrison

Activist, Local Legend

Bill Harrison

Like Diversity Richmond, the organization he leads, Bill Harrison is legendary in Central Virginia. He has left his mark after almost 40 years in areas from public relations to philanthropy, changing minds and bettering lives with every role he’s held. He was one of the first to challenge homophobia in the Richmond media and was on the front lines in the community’s response to the AIDS crisis and the broader fight for visibility. He built the region’s only LGBTQ community center into one of the state’s leading support systems. In the process, he has received many accolades, including the Virginia Center of Inclusive Communities’ Humanitarian of the Year recognition and the ROSMY Catalyst Award.

Given his track record of courage and leadership, it’s a surprise to hear him describe his journey as “pretty typical for an older white gay man in Virginia.” Yet in one sense the journey is all too typical: it begins in shame and isolation.  When he was 19, his boss figured out Bill’s homosexuality and fired him on the grounds of his “morals” after first informing Bill’s parents. After an attempt at psychiatric “conversion,” Bill followed the pattern of many young gay men at the time: “put your sexual orientation in the back of your mind and hope to live out your life that way.” He got married, but the marriage dissolved after two years. The reason why got back to his hometown of Emporia. “People literally turned their backs when they saw me.”

Looking back on how alone he felt, he can’t help wishing he had had the resources available to youth today. “I am such a great fan of Side by Side,” he says. “If I had had their toll-free number back then, I would have been at a pay phone three nights a week, holding onto that light at the end of the tunnel.”

Things got better after he was out. Bill started to return to Emporia more often. “I decided they’re not going to take my family from me,” he says. His straight friends from childhood began to stand by him, and over time he realized he was not the only gay or lesbian person ever to come out of his hometown.

Soon Bill set about trying to influence the world around him. He wrote letters to the editor of the Richmond News Leader, which took strong anti-gay positions. Fortunately, one thing he didn’t have to worry about this time was alienating his family. “My parents never left my side,” says Bill, “even when all the neighbors read the op-eds.”

Seeking fellowship and acceptance, Bill joined Dignity Integrity, a Catholic and Episcopal organization for gay and lesbian people. It was one of the few friendly spaces in Richmond in the 1970s. “Other than that, the bar was it,” says Bill. The group met at a Catholic church with Bill as president until, as he puts it, “we were kicked out when word of our good works got around.”

Bill was building his career in public relations when the AIDS epidemic hit. When the newly formed Richmond AIDS Information Network (now Health Brigade) posted an opening in marketing and media, Bill saw a chance to combine his professional life with his activism. “I had to get the job,” he recalls. Bill got the job and found the organized grass-roots response to the crisis inspiring. “What a privilege it was to be there and watch our community respond,” he says. “We became family with complete strangers, building programs and creating services for ourselves even when other institutions turned their backs.”

The tactic that Bill used to ensure the broadest support possible for LGBTQ rights was to make LGBTQ people familiar and visible, as exemplified by the late Guy Kinman’s billboard proclaiming “Someone You Love Is Gay.” Bill regards this tactic as so successful that it has permanently changed Virginia’s political climate. “Now we regularly see elected officials advocating for us even when they don’t have to,” he says. In recognition of the power of being out and visible, Bill established Diversity Richmond’s annual Guy Kinman Award in 2018.

Bill also recognizes areas where the movement has fallen short. “We need to work on justice for both transgender people and people of color. With transgender justice, this must be a top priority. Gay men, lesbians and bisexual people enjoy privileges transgender people do not. Racial bias and white privilege are issues that demand serious, intentional conversations.” Diversity’s strategic plan calls for action on both fronts.

Bill recognizes that representation is a fraught issue that requires a degree of humility on the part of established institutions such as Diversity Richmond. Bill describes the need to “be quiet and listen; to ask, ‘As a white person, what do I really know?’” Bill reflects, “I am a work-in-progress with a long way to go.”