1974: GAP, GAS and the First Women's Festival
Gay Awareness in Perspective, GAP, (1974 – 1978) was the first formal gay rights organization in Richmond. It was a natural progression from the less formal GLF and it formed after a speech by Rita Mae Brown in early 1974 at VCU’s Rhoads Hall. Rita Mae Brown was brought to town by 3 VCU students: Frances Stewart, Dottie Cirelli, and Brenda Kriegel. Brown’s talk was “followed by a lively group discussion in which someone brought up a proposal for a gay organization. A paper was passed around for names and phone numbers. ‘There were cheers, spontaneous clapping, the sharing of experiences and hot discussion,’ wrote a reporter from VCU’s The Commonwealth Times.” The organization started several weeks after Brown's visit, initially meeting in the Pace Memorial Methodist Church starting in April of 1974; it is important to note that although VCU students and staff were many of the initial organizers and instrumental in the leadership of GAP, GAP was not a VCU organization.
Stephen Lenten, the Assistant Dean of Student Life at VCU in 1974 and who helped set up the initial GAP meeting and helped guide the organization, recalled in the 1988 article: “It was jam-packed, with a diverse group of men and women.” GAP made a few attempts at educating the straight public and at political activity, but as early as the spring of 1975 GAP saw itself primarily as “dedicated to improving and solidifying our gay society.” In the same article, Bruce Garnett noted: “It developed mainly into a rap session type organization. We discussed things like coming out problems with the family, problems with religions…"
The Gap Rap was the first news and information medium distributed to Richmond’s lesbian and gay community. It was edited by Butch Chilton and was distributed almost monthly from April 1974 – April 1978. Dr. Frank Kameny again came to Richmond to speak to the LGBTQ community this time under the auspices of GAP. Kameny spoke to GAP in 1974 and there is a picture of him wearing a button with one of the first well known positive gay affirmations: “Gay is Good."
GAP was mostly a social group in many ways, becoming a rap session type group, but they were also beginning to be activists. About 50 members of the GAP group attended the NYC Pride parade on June 29, 1975. GAP board member, Stanley Kelsey, was one of the attendees. Kelsey, who was known as Aunt Bee, went as his drag persona wearing her GAP First Lady sash. Most members wore red lettered GAP t-shirts, and the GAP contingent led the participants from Virginia, the “GAP Richmond Virginia” banner leading the way.
Several other major events occurred in 1974. Richmond’s first Women’s Festival was held in Monroe Park on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) on July 13, 1974. This Festival was organized by women’s organizations from Richmond and across Virginia and included speakers Margaret Sloan, Florence Kennedy, founder of the National Black Feminists, and novelist and activist, and Virginia resident, Rita Mae Brown. The Richmond Women’s Festival was not specifically lesbian, but it was the first outdoor public festival with a sense of lesbian or gay pride in the city. In many ways, the gay rights movement in Richmond was greatly nurtured by the women’s liberation/feminist movement.
In addition to being the location of the first Women’s Festival, one of the first student groups in Virginia started at VCU, with a generous cross section of organizers from the GAP. The Gay Alliance of Students formed at VCU and in the fall of 1974 they requested funds and meeting space at VCU and were denied by the governing board.
In October 1974, the GAS president, Walter Foery, and other members filed a lawsuit claiming a violation of their civil rights accorded by the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
The lawsuit was filed against Dr. Alfred Matthews and the VCU Board of Visitors. The local courts ruled favor of the school denying space to GAS; the students appealed to the lower federal courts which also upheld the local court's decision. Supported by the National Gay Task Force (NGTF), which was later to add lesbian to become the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the ACLU,the student organization appealed to the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals. In November of 1976, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the students in “Gay Alliance of Students v. Matthews, et al;" VCU was ordered to give the LGBT student group the same rights as any other campus group including in regards to space and funding. This was a major landmark ruling for the lesbian and gay community since it was at the Circuit Court level and, therefore, affected all student groups in 10 Southern states; it gave gay student groups the same rights to assembly and support as any other student group.
A major figure in the early 1970s, was Stephen Lenten. Lenten was the assistant dean of students at VCU. He moved to Richmond in 1970 and was a key activist until his death of complications related to AIDS in 2001. He was the advisor and helped start GAS in 1974. Lenten risked his job with university by fighting with the students in the court case “Gay Alliance of Students v. Matthews, et al.”
Lenten was also involved in GAP and helped set up the first meeting in April 1974. He also was involved in future organizations the Gay Rights Association (GRA) and Richmond AIDS Ministry (RAM). He left VCU in 1980 and went into private practice as a counselor, served on parish committees of the Catholic Diocese including Sexual Minorities Commission. He was also a member of Mulberry House, a commune which was a family of members allowed to be open with themselves and each other. Mulberry House was one of the best examples of gay and straight people living and interacting socially, lasting for 14 years. Later Stephen Lenten was to say that Mulberry House was just one of the ways he tried to build “intentional family;” the many LGBT rights organizations that he was involved in also were means of forming "intentional" family or a "family of choice."
- Bob Swisher "Author/Wit Rita Mae Brown Inspired First Organization," Our Own Community Press, June 1988
- Beth Marschak and Alex Lorch, Gay and Lesbian Richmond, Charleston SC: Arcadia Press, 2008, p. 36
- Marschak and Lorch, p. 40
- Marschak and Lorch. p. 41
- Marschak and Lorch. p. 42
- Marshak and Lorch. p.43 - 44
- Marschak and Lorch, pp 43 - 44
- Marschak and Lorch. p. 39
- W. M. Minor "Trailblazers: Stephen Lenten: 'A Legend in his Prime'" The Richmond Pride, January 1989