July 26, 2018 at 5:35 am EDT | by Grace Perry
New LGBT ventures in Virginia Beach, Shenandoah
Virginia LGBT organizations, gay news, Washington Blade

Kathy Hinson, co-founder of Virginia Beach for Fairness speaks at Neptune Park last week along with co-founders Tracey Swinarsky (left) and Michael Berlucchi. (Photo courtesy Virginia Beach for Fairness)

Virginia Beach for Fairness community meeting

 

Wednesday, Aug. 1

 

7 p.m.

 

Meyera E. Oberndorf Central Library

 

4100 Virginia Beach Boulevard, Virginia Beach, Va.

 

virginiabeachforfairness.org

Shenandoah LGBTQ Center Community Listening Session

 

Saturday, Aug. 4

 

2-4 p.m.

 

LGBT Tech HQ

 

32 N. Augusta St., Staunton Va.

 

shenlgbtqcenter.org

The long, slow trend of Virginia gradually becoming a more LGBT-friendly state continues as gay residents are in the midst of starting two new organizations dedicated to increasing protections and providing resources for queer people in the Old Dominion.

Michael Berlucchi is a proud Virginia Beach native and has spent the majority of his life in the city. Even though according to Berlucchi, who’s gay, Virginia Beach has “historically been a leader” in the LGBT fight for equality, last winter, Virginia legislation regarding nondiscrimination in housing and public employment died in subcommittee. This failed legislation triggered the creation of Virginia Beach for Fairness, a new coalition effort to support LGBT equality.

“We know that if that legislation had the opportunity for an up-or-down vote on the floor of the House of Delegates, it would pass with overwhelming bipartisan support,” Berlucchi says. “(So) it was very discouraging to see it die a procedural death in the subcommittee.”

Berlucchi co-founded the coalition alongside Tracey Swinarsky, a transgender advocate and veteran, and Kathy Hinson, a public servant and mother of three. Berlucchi says the coalition rests on the fundamental belief that ensuring protections for the LGBT community necessitates the involvement of the Virginia Legislature and public awareness of the issues facing queer Virginians.

“I believe confidently that the people of Virginia Beach support protections for LGBT Virginians and I also believe that most people think the protections already exist and they’re surprised to find out that they don’t,” Berlucchi says. “So we just decided it was time to raise some awareness about that.”

Berlucchi also lists bipartisanship as a cornerstone to their coalition, citing Republicans’ central role in passing protective legislation.

“[Virginia Beach] has a tremendous, incredible history of supporting LGBT Virginians, and we’re really proud and grateful that Republicans participate in that,” Berlucchi says, arguing LGBT rights are not — nor should be — “a partisan issue.”

He says that’s even more important considering how polarized the country is in general these days.

“In this particular political environment that’s so heated and so charged and so polarized, we’re making every effort to present ourselves as a relief to that,” Berlucchi says. “We want to work with everyone in a collaborative fashion to pass commonsense legislation that the majority of Virginians and certainly the people of Virginia Beach support.”

About 240 miles away in Virginia’s rural Shenandoah Valley, another push for LGBT rights is underway.

Entrepreneur Christopher Wood, a former Washington Blade employee, has placed LGBT rights and advocacy at the center of his career. A gay man himself, he continuously looks for spaces where the LGBT community has been rendered voiceless. One such space he noticed was the tech industry, so in 2012, he co-founded the LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute (LGBT Tech), which seeks to empower community members through technology and find ways that technology can provide solutions for queer individuals in need. Both Wood and Berlucchi said their new ventures are too new to have annual operating budget estimates yet.

Like any good entrepreneur, Wood was running LGBT Tech from the upstairs of his house before moving to a permanent location in Staunton, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley last March. Wood says one of his goals in setting up the LGBT Tech headquarters in Staunton was to better understand the broader Shenandoah Valley community and find where resources were needed.

“I’m hearing stories about youth or older LGBT individuals who don’t feel accepted by society … or accepted here and their only way out is to no longer live,” Wood says. “That’s when I have a problem. And that really was the drive for me to plant the flag and say ‘enough is enough.’ The valley needs resources; our community is screaming, begging, yelling for the resources.”

Thus came the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center. Since putting the center’s logo on the front door of LGBT Tech, Wood says the community reaction has exceeded expectations.

“We’ve had hundreds and hundreds — possibly thousands — of touch points at this moment,” Wood says. “The response has been overwhelming in such a good way.”

The community response is exactly what Wood was hoping for; he says he always intended the center to be not only community focused but also community led. He never intended it to be a one-man operation.

“My entire vision for this is that it’s a community-led effort,” Wood says. “I’m only one person with one experience … I knew if I planted that flag and asked the community to rally that … it would bring the right people out to start and launch something that was needed here in the valley that didn’t exist before. … I really hope that there are leaders that emerge out of this that are willing and able to take the reins.”

Wood hopes that five years from now the center has a strong connection with the entire Shenandoah Valley community beyond Staunton alone, providing a plethora of resources from health care to education to legal services for the queer people in the area. However, he also hopes to see the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center inspire other rural communities across the country.

“I really want to push the boundary of what it looks like for a rural LGBTQ community center,” Wood says. “[I hope to] show other rural LGBTQ centers how they can serve and reach their clients in the best way possible.”

Christopher Wood is co-founder of the new Shenandoah LGBTQ Center in Staunton, Va. He’s seen here giving an on-camera interview with Channel 29 about his new venture. (Photo courtesy Wood)

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