OUTstanding Virginians 2019

 

Mayor Levar Stoney

Progressive, Visionary, Leader

Mayor Levar Stoney

When you go to see Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney in his City Hall office, look at the artwork on the walls – it tells a story. First you see a nice piece of seemingly abstract impressionism where multicolored letters start to “come out” from the busy background to spell VIRGINIA PRIDE. Then you see a framed Richmond Magazine cover from last August showing the beaming mayor in front of indie musician Lucy Dacus and Mecca Williams, a fashion trendsetter and mental health counselor. Together, the images present a pleasingly youthful image befitting the office of Richmond’s youngest-ever elected mayor.

It’s only after you listen to Mayor Stoney describe his vision for Richmond’s future that you understand how apt these images are.  Since taking office on the last day of 2016, he has devoted much energy and thought to attract young professionals, entrepreneurs, and artists to Richmond. His success in this area has been noticed on a national scale. Time Magazine recently named Richmond the #2 Top Place Millennials are Moving.

According to Mayor Stoney, the key to success with this demographic is to cultivate an ethos of inclusion throughout the community. “I really believe we must create a place where you can feel welcome no matter how much money you have, who you love, or who you pray to,” he says. Citing his magazine cover-mate’s decision to make her native city the home base for an international music career, he says, “People like Lucy Dacus are attracted by the fact that we are not static—we have a progressive culture.” To Mayor Stoney, boosting the city’s attractiveness does not come down to politics. “Richmond has long voted in a progressive manner,” he points out, “but we need to live in a progressive manner.”

Living in a progressive manner includes at its very center taking care of and celebrating the LGBTQ community.  This has been a core belief since the mayor’s college days at James Madison University, where as student body president he proposed adding protections for sexual orientation to the student Bill of Rights.  “I thought there would be pushback from the administration,” he says, but there was none, and the antidiscrimination language was added to the student handbook.

As Secretary of the Commonwealth in Governor Terry McAuliffe’s cabinet, he made LGBTQ tourism a priority for promoting economic growth. As Richmond’s new top executive, Mayor Stoney saw opportunities to improve the lives of LGBTQ residents and city employees. “I said OK, Richmond, we have to expect more than tolerance,” he says, “we should expect justice for everyone.”  Some of his measures were symbolic, like flying Pride flags at Brown’s Island and the downtown train station. Others were policy enhancements, such as working with City Council to establish a Human Rights Commission and non-discrimination laws, designating a policy advisor to serve as the Mayor’s LGBTQ+ liaison, and offering transgender-inclusive health benefits for city employees.

These efforts did not go unnoticed. Before Mayor Stoney took office, Richmond’s score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index (MEI), which measures a locality’s responsiveness to the LGBTQ+ community, was 46 out of 100.  Mayor Stoney remembers learning about the score in 2017 and feeling challenged to put major changes in place. He told his team, “We’ve got to do better; to be competitive in the New South we must lean into inclusivity.” Within a year Richmond was able to increase its score to 94 – the highest MEI score in Virginia—and was named an MEI All-Star city for “boldly leading the way toward LGBTQ+ equality.”

Mayor Stoney hopes the transformation in Richmond will be used as a model throughout the state. “If not at the capital then where else?” he asks. “Shouldn’t we be taking the lead?” This is one of the reasons why he goes out of his way to celebrate the business, artistic and cultural achievements of the local LGBTQ community. “It’s not about being Top Ten for folks to visit; it’s being Top Ten for those who live here. How welcoming are we to our own residents?”

Mayor Stoney sees opportunities and challenges ahead in the area of intersectionality, where multiple identities react to each other. “I always want to see new faces added to the table, in political leadership as well as our social lives,” he says.

Mayor Stoney’s actions on behalf of LGBTQ Richmonders are often personal and go well beyond the duties of his office. He is a regular participant in Pride Fest and Equality Virginia events. “I love the diversity of community you see in Richmond,” he says, “allies, friends, neighbors all together.” His very first act as mayor—performed at midnight right after being sworn in—was to preside over the marriage of two friends, Johnny Maher and Drew Thomasson. “It was a beautiful ceremony,” Mayor Stoney recalls. “Since then, I’ve done four same-sex weddings, all close friends of mine.”

One of his most treasured moments as mayor took place last November, when he received Diversity Richmond’s inaugural Guy Kinman Jr. Leadership Award for “courageous leadership that’s produced significant, positive change for the LGBTQ  community.” A year earlier, Mayor Stoney had celebrated the gay civil rights icon’s 100th birthday with a mayoral resolution declaring the day Guy Kinman Day. Now it was the mayor’s turn to receive a surprise honor. He didn’t see it coming. “You guys got me,” he said.