When James Millner moved to Richmond from New York in 2009, he wasn’t able to hold his boyfriend’s hand as they walked down Cary Street for fear of being targeted or harassed.
“It’s hard to believe that’s how either of us felt,” Millner said.
Since then, much has changed for Richmond’s LGBTQ community. Last year, the rainbow Pride flag was raised for the first time at Richmond City Hall. And the city notched a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s LGBTQ equality index.
Much of the progress is due to the work of local LGBTQ organizations, which have spent years making Richmond a more accepting place for the LGBTQ community.
Now, two prominent Richmond LGBTQ groups, Diversity Richmond and Virginia Pride, are merging.
Virginia Pride will become a program of Diversity Richmond and will continue to produce its signature event, PrideFest, as well as other events that support the LGBTQ community.
The merger will take effect April 1. The staff of the merged Diversity Richmond will go from 20 to 22 positions.
The merger aims to benefit both organizations and to give structure and organizational support to Virginia Pride, which has been run solely by volunteers for years.
“I remember when the first Pride festival was held in Richmond 42 years ago when 75 people attended,” said Bill Harrison, president of Diversity Richmond. “If you had told me then that one day we would have 40,000 people at PrideFest, I’d have laughed. But, here we are. What Virginia Pride has accomplished as an all-volunteer organization is astonishing to me.”
Since 2015, Virginia Pride’s budget has increased by 500%, with a steady schedule of outreach events straining its all-volunteer staff for the nonprofit that was founded in 2006.
“Over the last five years with the growth of Virginia Pride, it became really strained. Diversity Richmond gives us the organizational infrastructure and additional staff resources. I think it will be a really wonderful partnership,” said Millner, interim executive director for Virginia Pride.
Under the merger, Millner will take a new full-time paid position as program director.
Diversity Richmond is a nonprofit corporation that does business as Diversity Richmond and the secondhand store Diversity Thrift, both of which are organized to improve the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
Since 1999, Diversity Richmond has provided more than $1.1 million in grants and serves as a voice for the LGBTQ community. During the pandemic, Diversity Richmond has held three food drives, helping over 1,800 families in need.
The biggest difference between the two organizations is that Virginia Pride is more public facing, Millner said, taking its events out into the community.
“PrideFest is a massive undertaking every year,” Millner said. “We also host dozens of events at restaurants, bars and organizations, like Pride Night with the Flying Squirrels.”
Virginia Pride will help boost Diversity Richmond’s event planning and fundraising capacities.
“Virginia Pride has grown so much. They have a lot more experience in event planning they can share with us,” said Luise Farmer, chair of the board of directors at Diversity Richmond. “Their marketing strategy is much better than Diversity’s, and their donor base is amazing.”
In return, Diversity Richmond will help Virginia Pride with organizational support, such as having an in-house paid accountant, which Virginia Pride does not have.
“The merger needed to happen,” Farmer said.
The organizations began exploring a merger in 2019. The process was guided by professional nonprofit consultants and attorneys and was overseen by the boards of directors of both organizations.
“We have complementary missions: to make the Richmond region a better place for LGBTQ people to live, work and visit,” Millner said.
The organization does hope to host a PrideFest in late September. Last year’s festival was canceled, like many others, due to COVID-19.
“We’re not going to do anything that would jeopardize anyone’s safety. We will follow every guideline and hopefully by the end of September, we’ll be able to gather on Brown’s Island in some fashion,” Millner said.
Diversity Richmond and Virginia Pride aren’t the only LGBTQ groups that have helped raise awareness in the area. There are also NationZ, Side by Side, and Equality Virginia, to name a few.
While Richmond has become more accepting of its LGBTQ community over the past few years, both organizations admit Richmond has a ways to go.
“There is still racism against transgender people and people of color. There is still bias,” Farmer said. Millner added that Richmond and the state of Virginia can improve public policies that will protect LGBTQ people.
“We’re really excited for what the future holds,” Millner said. “Our mantra is: stronger together.”