Metro Weekly

Educating Virginia

Equality Virginia executive director James Parrish on why marriage equality can't be the endgame for LGBT rights in the Old Dominion

James Parrish of Equality Virginia Photo by Todd Franson
James Parrish of Equality Virginia
Photo by Todd Franson

If you knew James Parrish more than two decades ago, the thought of him helming Equality Virginia, the commonwealth’s top LGBT rights organization, would be ludicrous — he didn’t officially come out of the closet until 2002.

Parrish stayed in the closet throughout his 20s, dating women and pursuing a career in scientific research. Even when he had opportunities to explore the D.C. gay club scene as an adult, he avoided acknowledging his attraction to men.

Fast forward, and the 43-year-old Richmond resident is now leading the charge when it comes to ensuring LGBT rights aren’t trampled upon in Virginia. Over the past few years, he’s helped rebuild a depleted organization and navigate it through financial hardship and legislative defeats. At last year’s Commonwealth Dinner, celebrating Equality Virginia’s 25th anniversary, Parrish reflected on the progress made over the past two-and-a-half decades, through turbulent times and, often, fighting tooth-and-nail against a General Assembly and statewide officeholders who brought new meaning to the word “hostile.”

“At the EV dinner last spring,” Parrish recalls, “I closed by saying, ‘I grew up in a town of 1,000 people, and I could never have imagined, when I was that person, in 1989, that I’d be standing in front of more people than lived in my town who are LGBT or LGBT-supportive.'”

After celebrating the victories of 2013, which saw — for the first time in Virginia history — the election of three statewide candidates who publicly embraced and actively campaigned upon support for LGBT rights, Parrish has set his organization’s sights on the 140-member General Assembly. Here, he hopes to see an employment nondiscrimination bill gain enough traction to be signed, permanently, into law. He also hopes to work with Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s office, making use of a limited amount of time to push through LGBT-friendly policies, such as expanding access for transgender people to Virginia’s health systems, working with schools to ensure their policies for transgender students are compliant with Title IX, and including the LGBT community in various studies or tracking to ensure its needs are being both acknowledged and addressed.

But Parrish’s job is not simply political. Part of his role as executive director involves changing hearts and minds on LGBT-related issues. Most importantly, Parrish wants to ensure that people know Equality Virginia is in this fight for the long-term. Unlike some other states, where equality organizations imploded after failed campaigns to stop the approval of constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, Equality Virginia has continued to thrive because it diversified its approach to LGBT rights, knowing there was always more at stake even after the courts made final rulings on those marriage amendments — in the case of Virginia, eventually overturning the ban.

“We’re very serious about our work, because if you look at the landscape of Virginia, there’s still a lot of work to do,” Parrish says. “And we think that includes nondiscrimination, we think that includes public accommodations. We think that does include access to healthcare for trans people.”

 And for those who may be skeptical as to how much further LGBT equality has to go in the commonwealth, Parrish offers up a story. Equality Virginia twice attempted to hold a social event in Abingdon, Va., located in the southwestern panhandle of the commonwealth, with a public event at a bar drawing three people and a private house party drawing five, despite more than 15 people having opened EV’s email inviting followers to the event.

“We actually got a thank-you letter from somebody the next week, thanking me over and over for making the drive down to Abingdon,” Parrish says. “And he said he would have loved to go to the event, but he was so afraid to go, that one of his friends would see his car outside a house with a bunch of other cars, and ask him what was going on. So he couldn’t go, but wanted us to know how much he appreciated it. So when people are saying, ‘It’s over. We have marriage and everything,’ we’re saying, ‘No, we have gay people in Abingdon that are afraid to come out of their house.’ So we have a ways to go.”

METRO WEEKLY: Where did you grow up?

JAMES PARRISH: I grew up in Wakefield, Virginia. I’m an only child. Wakefield’s a town of about 1,000 people, so you would call that a small town. And it was the ’70s. I’m 43, so it was a long time ago. It was your classic, small town, ride your bike everywhere, be home by dark kind of life.

I graduated from school in Wakefield. I went to Tyler Academy, I graduated there. I went to Charlottesville to the University of Virginia, so that’s what got me out of Wakefield. And I had a science degree, and used to do different types of scientific research — virology, microbiology, that sort of stuff.

MW: How did you come to work for Equality Virginia?

PARRISH: I found my way towards Equality Virginia, during our marriage amendment fight, when I think a lot of people in this state became really active. I think that happens, or at least used to happen, regularly in other states.

So what we did for the marriage amendment was create community action teams to handle local work, and I was very involved in the one here in Richmond. From that, I hung on with Equality Virginia’s Lobby Day, and that’s how I got more involved with the office side of it. And so, when the new executive director came on board in 2009, he asked me to join the team. I was in charge of the grant from the State Equality Fund, which is a group that funds a lot of the state equality groups, and we had one for some nondiscrimination work — that’s what I was brought on to do.

As time moved on, my role changed, as it does with any small organization. That was what we referred to as the “dark days.” Equality Virginia survived our marriage amendment loss. Some state groups don’t: it’s a very trying time for any state group. In 2007, coming out of the marriage amendment fight, we had eight employees, and, very quickly, over the course of two years, that dropped from eight to two, just from a combination of fallout from the marriage amendment and the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009.

The executive director left, and the board brought me on in January 2011. And so we’ve slowly rebuilt from our program side, and now we’re back up to five employees, and our budget has doubled in that time. We’ve built a great team.

James Parrish of Equality Virginia Photo by Todd Franson
James Parrish of Equality Virginia
Photo by Todd Franson

MW: When did you first come out?

PARRISH: I didn’t come out completely until I was 30. I came out to my family. That was one of my goals for my 30th birthday. If you asked people close to me growing up, they’d say, “Yeah, I thought he was gay,” but it wasn’t something I acknowledged until I was 30.

MW: How did your friends find out?

PARRISH: Some by just telling them, and some by just seeing me in a position of where I’d mention, “Hey, I’m going on a date with John,” and that’s all. I don’t remember really beyond my parents, because I said, “We’re going to have a conversation.” But, I mean, I was 30, so it’s not like they were going to be kicking me out of the house. Obviously, there was some tension there, because it builds. At least for me — and what I try to tell people who haven’t come out yet — it’s a lot more easy than you build it up to be in your mind.

I mean, I had one friend who came out by sitting down each friend individually, taking them out and telling them. I did not have that process. For me, it was much more casual. I think I’m a much more matter-of-fact person, so I think that whenever I was at that comfort level, where you knew I was gay, it was like, “Okay. Now let’s go out to dinner or something.”

MW: How did your family react?

PARRISH: Fine. They reacted completely fine, they’ve been nothing but supportive. Again, I was 30, so it wasn’t like I had spoiled some family dinner or anything. For me, it was one of those stupid goals you make for yourself, like, “I am not leaving my parents’ house tonight until I’ve told them I am gay.” I told them, and then said I was meeting friends at 10. My flippant quote was — because we were going to the beach the next week, we always go to the Outer Banks — “This should be no shock, now I’ve got to go.” The conversation was probably longer, but it was essentially, “We’ve got plenty of time to talk next week at the beach.” And we never really did. But I’ve had relationships where the person I’m dating vacations with my parents, and they’ve been nothing but supportive.

MW: Were your parents fairly liberal?

PARRISH: I don’t know how they’d describe themselves. I mean, I’m not going to share their voting record. But they graduated high school in the late ’60s, they’re products of the ’70s. They’re definitely not tie-dye wearing hippies, but when it comes to social justice issues, they don’t have a problem.

Again, that’s part of my personality. I know I had it easy compared to some people, but for me, it was like, “Okay, I’m gay. Let’s move on.”

MW: What were your first experiences with openly LGBT people?

PARRISH: The first trans person I ever met, even though they never transitioned — if that makes sense — was my grandfather’s cousin, Hazel. Clearly looking back, Hazel lived alone all of her life. She always dressed in men’s Sunday best. She had white hair and kept it in the classic ’50s cut that a lot of people have, with black-rimmed glasses. And she’d wear the Oxford shirt, dress pants and shoes. It was always recognized in the family that Hazel presented as a male. I look back, sometimes, with a little bit of sadness, because I think: what kind of a life would Hazel be having now if she had been born in 2000 instead of 1910? I think about her a lot, especially when we talk about trans issues.

The first openly gay person was a gentleman in Wakefield: John. And, stereotypically, he retired and came back to Wakefield to take care of his mother, and opened a florist and gift shop. I did delivery driving for him my senior year. And it’s Wakefield, so a flower delivery could be to the [Sentara] Obici Hospital in Suffolk, 30 miles away, so you’re getting paid as a teenager to drive 60 minutes and listen to the radio to drop off one delivery. And even then, at that time, I would say I knew he was gay. I would say John knew, or maybe even offered me the job, because he knew I was. I thought that was going to be the best thing to just drive around. But again, it was the late ’80s, these weren’t conversations that were had. But he made it clear to me that his shop was a welcoming place, even though I never said to him, “I’m gay.”

The first gay person I knew was in my first year at UVA. My hall mate’s brother had a room “on the lawn,” which at UVA goes to fourth-year students who have done great things for the university. So his older brother was part of whatever LGBT group Virginia had then, and there was a bit of controversy. I remember hearing whispers in the halls, because they were letting a gay person on the lawn. Even though in Wakefield I had heard people say anti-gay stuff, that was the first time I was hearing that a lot of people were having a problem with this just because he was gay. And I don’t even think it was that big a deal, but his younger brother was on our hall, so I think that’s why we were hearing about it. But it just stuck with me, the idea of “people have an unnecessary issue with this.”

MW: How old were you when you first had a serious relationship with another man?

PARRISH: My late 20s. I had two short-term relationships, nine months to a year. And it was near the end of the second one where I set this goal to be out by 30.

One time, I had randomly gone to a movie with the first guy I was dating, and he actually lived two hours from Richmond, in the Northern Neck, and everyone in his world knew he was gay. And he came into Richmond one time and went to see a movie, and while waiting in line, I saw someone I knew — not even very well — and could do nothing but stress that they would see me 75 people back in the line, with a guy. We weren’t kissing or holding hands, but I created in all that chaos in my head.

In the second relationship, that was the one where the guy said, “We’re going to go to a gay bar for the first time in our lives together.” It’s very ridiculous when you think, “Okay, now you’re actually leading the state equality group, but 13 years ago, you weren’t even out.”

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MW: Tell me about Equality Virginia’s current goals or initiatives.

PARRISH: Our board is working on something called Equality Forward, which is designed to take us from 2015 through 2020 and accomplishing certain goals. Legislatively, this year, our goal is to have the Senate nondiscrimination bill go back to the House. Even though Republicans control the Senate, there’s some moderation and friends in the Senate, and so we’ve enjoyed bipartisan support on bills. Obviously Senator [Jill Holtzman] Vogel is a key ally. That doesn’t make some people happy, but we’re glad she stands with us on some of our issues.

If you look at the General Assembly, the House is a different landscape. We have so many Republicans living in moderate districts — I won’t say they’re moderate themselves — but they’re just so worried about being primaried from the far right, which is a bigger concern than losing to a Democrat. They’re actually not worried about it, because of the way our districts have been redistricted so much that they aren’t even worried about losing the general election. They’re worried about losing their primary to somebody more conservative. So one of our goals is bringing on more Republicans to patron more bills and some have done that — Delegates Villanueva and Yost most recently. You have other Republican delegates voting or voicing their support. Not nearly enough, but we’ve been picking up two or three each year. That’s a legislative goal, to keep moving forward on that.

I think there are some fair bills that were put up this year that, unfortunately, didn’t make it. But nondiscrimination for state employees is a common sense bill. All of our Fortune 500 companies based in Virginia, and a majority of our leading employers already have these practices. We have straight youth graduating from colleges looking at HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, because they know if a business is pro-gay, it’s a progressive place to work. So non-gay people are looking at these metrics, because if a company is supportive of gay people, they’ll be supportive of everyone. We just see that as a common sense policy that faces difficulties, but should pass. The housing bill’s another one. First of all, if you take federal money, you can’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But why do we want to live in a Virginia where that happens?

MW: What’s another bargaining chip that activists can use to pull delegates to their side?

PARRISH: That’s part of what we’re doing. If we need the support of eight more delegates — obviously, we want to get more than eight — where are 15 different places in the state where there are opportunities? A lot of those are rural areas. Does that mean we need to hire a rural organizer in Republican areas, who identifies Republicans who support LGBT issues, so these delegates are hearing from their Republican base, “Hey, I’m fine with the LGBT issues. Move on”? Is it more faith work, and having faith leaders stand up?

So that’s a difficult strategy piece of: how do we pull over a few of these delegates each year onto our side? One good thing is history’s on our side. Two, momentum is on our side. The business community has the greatest input with our General Assembly. That’s why we have Virginia Fairness and Equality Means Business as ways of identifying and highlighting businesses and spreading that narrative to greater Virginia, that, “Hey, this is already happening.”

The flip side of that, though, is Virginians themselves need to catch up in terms of education. And that’s why we’ve doubled down on the trans piece, and are trying to provide more resources for the trans community. Because while we believe that the General Assembly will be more led by the business community in putting in place these protections, we also need to make sure that the general population understands why we need these protections. It’s kind of our responsibility. We can’t expect Virginians to support a law if they don’t even understand why it’s needed.

I still get into arguments with gay people at Prides who say that they can’t be fired in Virginia because their company has a policy or because it’s already against the law. Our own community doesn’t even know that, yes, you can be married in Virginia, but you can still be denied public accommodations, you can still be fired and not hired, you can still be denied housing or credit. Basically, anything and everything else.

James Parrish of Equality Virginia Photo by Todd Franson
James Parrish of Equality Virginia
Photo by Todd Franson

MW: Why is the LGBT community so misinformed?

PARRISH: Most people, when polled, support LGBT protections, but if you flip that question on its head and say, “Is it already a protection in Virginia?” I guarantee you the majority of people would say yes.

And then some people mistakenly believe that, because their company has a policy that they can’t be fired. We just saw that with the Saks case, where the trans person was fired. I know of a person who filed a complaint because they said, “Once I came out at work, I hadn’t been getting the promotions and reviews under this manager,” and the company, which has a good policy, said, “You’re in Virginia. We have this policy, but you have no protections, because you live in Virginia.”

And then there was the case in Gloucester County with the trans youth. Nothing could be more clear on how much education there is still left to do in our state than watching that hearing of 90 people where five or 10 spoke in favor of the student, but a clear majority of people, including students, and tons of mothers and grandmothers raising their children, spoke against it, literally shaking, not even able to understand that the school is going to let what they perceive as a girl in the bathroom with their sons or grandsons. Completely not understanding the issue, but — and this is where the LGBT community can be in a bubble — for these people, it’s not just a simple process of letting the student be himself. If they’ve never interacted with trans issues, or know a trans person, all they’re thinking about is the biological parts that he has and that their son might see in a locker room. Because they have been raised all their life that that’s just something that doesn’t mingle.

It was all coming from a very legitimate place of fear, or just not understanding what the question at hand was. It wasn’t anti-trans, it wasn’t anti-gay. And that is why we’re doing Coffee Talks, and want to expand that into book clubs, where they can read a selection of trans books and listen to speakers, and really get into what MAP [Movement Advancement Project] calls the “conflicted middle.” Those people that when you ask them about nondiscrimination, 80 to 90 percent support it, but as the question gets narrower — like, should a trans person be allowed to teach in high school? In middle school? — the “yes” responses start going down. Those are the people we’re trying to target. Because I do believe that most people are good at heart. I do believe that just as we’ve seen the amount of support for the lesbian and gay population increase in this country, we will see the same thing for the transgender community. But we have to get trans people out there, and it’s our organization’s duty to give them the support they need and training they need to be the best advocate they can be on this issue. We’re depending on them to be part of the process to educate people.

MW: In Virginia, is there a regional divide on LGBT rights, or not as much as people suspect?

PARRISH: I think there’s maybe regionalism in the sense that everyone thinks where they live is the best place. There are places in this state, especially for gay and lesbian people, where, living your day-to-day life, you really aren’t facing challenges. If you live in the “Fan District” of Richmond, or Charlottesville, or the Ghent area of Norfolk, there are pockets in this state, outside of NOVA, that are friendly. I’ve dated somebody, where I’ve walked down Cary Street [in Richmond] holding his hand and not felt that I was endangered in any way. So I don’t think it’s correct to say that there’s this NOVA world and the rest of Virginia, and one’s good and the other’s bad.

I also think it’s hard to understand the NOVA world. When you want to hold an event in Roanoke, there’s one or two places where anybody close to Roanoke, if they’re interested in EV’s work, is going to come. You go up to NOVA, where it’s wall-to-wall people, and if you’re not in that person’s circle of influence, and half a mile away from where they live or work, you don’t get everybody coming. So there’s pros and cons to both. There’s a lot of concentrated leadership in Northern Virginia that’s supportive of LGBT rights, but they have to be, because there’s so many LGBT people there. We see a lot of bills that get filed, and that’s wonderful. Let’s make sure everybody’s not just filing bills to check off a list, but putting some muscle behind it.

On the other hand, our two strongest Republican delegates are one from outside of Blacksburg, in southwestern Virginia, and one in Virginia Beach, which is a very Republican city. It’s not those Fairfax Republicans in the House of Delegates. So you can talk about that NOVA belt, but the people who are standing the strongest with us aren’t Northern Virginia Republicans, outside of Jill Vogel in the Senate. So, NOVA’s great, but it doesn’t mean that everybody up there super-duper loves LGBT people. And we have House Republicans who have supported nondiscrimination, but it’s like, “You’re from Fairfax, why aren’t you more of a leader on this? Why aren’t you pushing your party on this?” It’s not safe to assume that just because you’re from NOVA, you’re more progressive than other places in the state. That’s definitely not true.

MW: Would you like to see more openly LGBT elected officials, on the county level, and in the General Assembly?

PARRISH: Yes, it’s necessary for several reasons. It’s not fair to Senator Ebbin or Delegate Sickles to be the point person on all LGBT issues. That’s not a responsibility that only they should have. We have two board members who are civic and community leaders. Michael Sutphin, our board vice chair, is on the town council of Blacksburg, and Lawrence Webb was on the Falls Church City Council and is now on the school board there.

So, yes, we’d love to see more people. And if you’re talking about representation, I’d love to see more women. I’d love to see a strong lesbian advocate. It’s something where it can be too gay man-centric. A trans person would be amazing, I think. That would be interesting. And this is not my issue, or EV’s issue, but the argument that some of the partisan Democrats are having in Virginia is when some of these people retire, a lot of people on the progressive side are just seeing white men replace white men, and if there’s any place you’re going to have an out lesbian, it’s probably going to be one of the more progressive districts. How are we diversifying the makeup of the General Assembly if, even in the most liberal districts, we’re only putting in white straight men? All of whom, I should say, are strong advocates of ours and doing great work. But that’s a question to ask. We’d love to see —

MW: A Republican lesbian from Southwest Virginia?

PARRISH: Yes, or a Republican trans delegate representing District 1, way down in what I call the beak of the chicken of Virginia.

But you know what? We have a great advocate down there who we hope will be one of our equality ambassadors. We met her when we did the state tour. We toured the state twice last summer trying to garner up support for our trans conference. The first time, she came with family members because she was nervous. The second time she came by herself. Then she came to the conference. And the Barter Theater in Abingdon did a reading of the play 8, and she handed out EV brochures and signed up people, and wants to do more. That’s us putting a clearly trans woman, front and center, in Abingdon, Virginia. There’s a long way to go before any delegate elected in that area is an LGBT leader, but to have her out at events, that’s a way people are meeting a trans person. She’s amazing, so who knows? I personally love her. So maybe she’ll end up changing hearts and minds and end up being the first trans member of the Abingdon Town Council and the first trans delegate in the Virginia General Assembly. But even just having her as a strong advocate would be a great achievement, because she’s an amazing person.

MW: Where does the equality movement in Virginia stand post-marriage equality? Has EV been hurt because marriage is perceived as the end-game?

PARRISH: No, and I’ve seen quite the opposite, which is really great. Bringing the freedom to marry to Virginia has been an amazing thing.

When you went to our website, it wasn’t about marriage, marriage, marriage. It’s been about nondiscrimination. It’s been about trans rights. It’s been about other things including marriage. We’re seeing this sense of excitement, like, “Yes, we can get something accomplished. Let’s not just stop with marriage.” We’ve had some new people that we just brought on the board that are as excited as anybody before. They’re like, “I can’t wait to see what we win next.”

Success breeds success. People support winning. We haven’t experienced a decline in donations, which was a huge worry. We are seeing this renewed sense of energy and momentum. I can’t wait to see what’s next. For us, it’s been an amazing whirlwind year that, so far, has done nothing but bolster the enthusiasm of our community. I’ve seen people come out of the woodwork to say, “I want to help you do what’s next.”

For more information about Equality Virginia, call 804-643-4816 or visit Follow Equality Virginia on Twitter at @EqualityVA.

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