Like most urban areas in the United States, Hampton Roads experienced a burst of “gay liberation” in the 1970s, and it witnessed the birth of many organizations that helped to celebrate LGBT cultures and experiences here. Two of the main drivers of this first flurry were Norfolk’s Unitarian Church and its offspring, Our Own Community Press; the bar-based activism of Tony Pritchard, among others, complemented this pioneering advocacy.
Nevertheless, it would take another decade after the founding of Our Own Press in 1976 for Hampton Roads to have its first community-wide Pride celebration — a June potluck picnic sponsored by the Mandamus Society in 1986. The delay in the local appearance of Pride may be explained by the heavy toll that the HIV/AIDS epidemic was taking and would take on the emerging leadership and by internecine fights between bar owners that doomed, among other things, the first LGBT Center in the area to never open. At any rate, from those modest origins, the organization that would become Hampton Roads Pride would begin to put on summertime festivals, usually in June, beginning in 1988.
While these festivals were certainly testimony to the resilience, diversity, and spirit of our own communities, they rarely attracted attention beyond the activists and pioneers who put them on at Mount Trashmore in Virginia, Lakewood Park in Norfolk, or Chesapeake City Park. It would take the next century and another Renaissance of LGBT cultures, beginning with the founding of Hampton Roads Business Outreach (HRBOR) in 2007, to begin the road to bringing Hampton Roads Pride front and center in the civic consciousness by holding it in Norfolk’s Town Point Park since June 2011.
This center stage has greatly increased awareness, donations, and outreach, pushing the scope of the organization beyond one big blast in the open. Programming is now year round. Scholarships from the proceeds had been given sporadically, but now they have become standard priorities with the increased budgets. The entertainers for the main day have become nationally-known ones, and the crowds have grown significantly since the move from Chesapeake.
Most importantly, Hampton Roads Pride has become the only such organization in the United States to put on a Boat Parade, underlining our connections with the maritime history of our port cities. This vibrant energy has dovetailed nicely with unfolding events: the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in October 2011 and Judge Arenda Wright Allen’s decision in the marriage equality cases in March 2014 come first to mind here. Accordingly, there is much more to be proud of than ever before both locally and nationally.