Author's Note: I serve on the Equality Virginia Legends Committee. The following is an op-ed piece that we hope to have published in the Virginian Pilot and the Daily Press.
Among other things, Equality Virginia believes in a truly inclusive Commonwealth where all are equally welcomed and valued, and where all Virginians will be evaluated only on the basis of their skills and hard work, do not face workplace discrimination, and where all people can safely be honest and open about who they are.
Each year for the last four years, Equality Virginia has recognized Virginians in the Hampton Roads area who share this vision and engaged in community activism to further this worthy goal. The individuals are the "Legends" who have been recognized at a gala event each November. Past honorees include Ann Dearsley Vernon, who is active in the region's arts community and was engaged in the civil rights movement in the early 1960's; State Senator Yvonne Miller, the first African American women elected to the Virginia General Assembly; Claus Ihlemann, a civic benefactor and well known business owner; and Cynthia Cutler, a long time area mortgage loan officer and activist in numerous charitable organizations.
This year's individual honorees are Laurel Quarberg and Sarah Munford, owners of The New Leaf florist in Norfolk's Ghent neighborhood and activists in numerous local non-profit organizations and charities ranging from the Ghent Business Association to Equality Virginia, the Hampton Roads Community Foundation and others. For the first time the Legends Gala will also recognize an area institution/organization that has been at the forefront of the leading the effort for equality for all Virginians. The recipient of this first time award is St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Hampton which has championed the "all are welcome" message for many years.
One might ask why and how these "legends" for equality are important to the larger Hampton Roads populace. The answer - besides the fact that equality for all Virginians is the morally right thing to do and in keeping with the founding documents of the nation and this Commonwealth - is that equality, diversity and tolerance are elements that lift up an area in terms of economic and business development and spur innovation. In a recent column, researcher Richard Florida noted that while politicians and voters continue to debate whether LGBT people have the right to marry, to adopt children, or serve openly in the U.S. military, a growing body of research done by both Florida himself and others suggests that considerable benefits accrue to those cities and metro areas that have sizeable, visible concentrations of LGBT residents. Data shows that income levels are higher, as are many other measures of quality of life measures including the arts and tourism.
Florida concedes that the presence of LGBT people isn't in and of itself a sufficient condition for wealth creation. As a group, LGBT individuals are not necessarily more innovative or entrepreneurial than any other societal groups on average. However, the data clearly confirms that places that attract gay people and lesbians tend to have the same open-minded attitudes and business styles that foster innovation. Indeed, the research indicates that a visible LGBT community is the proverbial "canary in the coal mine," signaling openness to new ideas, new business models, and diverse and different thinking kinds of people. These are precisely the characteristics of a local economic system that can attract cutting-edge entrepreneurs and mobilize new companies.
While Virginia continues to pride itself in ranking among the top states for business, the nation and the world are changing rapidly. Just this summer Argentina joined Canada - which has been significantly outperforming the United States in terms of job creation and enjoying rising real estate values - in permitting same sex marriage. Equality is on the march around the world and Virginia cannot sit back on past laurels. The time is coming when comparatively low taxes and a "pro-business" legal framework may not be enough to tip the balance in favor of a business' decision to locate in Virginia. Equality for LGBT citizens is spreading amongst the Virginia's economic competitors. Meanwhile, LGBT citizens in Virginia are still subject to firing from their jobs at will and lack the rights afforded to all citizens by more and more states and nations.
Equality Virginia's "legends" recognize this changing world and the reality that full equality for all Virginians - black, white, Hispanic, LGBT, Christian and non-Christian - is the way of the future. Indeed, past "legends" and this year's honorees have embraced this unstoppable future and have labored to move Virginia forward.
Please join us on November 6, 2010 at a premiere black-tie gathering to honor these forward thinking "legends" for equality. Each year, this event attracts several hundred guests and is promoted throughout the entire community.