Across 30 years and an epidemic, Charlottesville’s gay and lesbian communities came out together

Pride and tolerance
The modern gay rights movement was born in a bar, on a hot June night in 1969 when a police raid led to a riot, which led to a civil rights movement, which led to rainbow flags and, eventually, to the TV show “Glee.” Probably as long as bars have existed, gay bars have existed as well, if for no other reason than this: Bars are a unique combination of public and private, both welcoming and walled in.

Bars form their own community, and throughout history, gay people have needed community more than most. Shunned by their families, their gods, sometimes even themselves, gays have always needed a place to be safe, to learn the rules of their tribe, and to have fun.

So far nothing has replaced Club 216, leaving Charlottesville without that particular institution that for decades has been the center of the gay world. The question is, does it matter?

On Saturday, September 15, the entrance to Lee Park was framed by an arch of rainbow balloons, leading to a maze of booths and pamphlet-wielding volunteers, and the air was full of every conceivable anthem to self discovery and self acceptance that pop music has produced in the last 40 years. It was Charlottesville’s Pride Festival. The official slogan was “It’s About Time.”

When Amy Sarah Marshall moved to Charlottesville in 2001, she was married with children. She came out of the closet as a lesbian at age 33 and organized Charlottesville’s first-ever Pride Festival this year on September 15 in Lee Park. Photo: Billy Hunt

When the event’s organizer, Amy Sarah Marshall, moved to Charlottesville in 2001, she was married with children. Seven years later, at the age of 33, she came out as a gay women. It took her 18 years to get to where she is now, and it wasn’t easy.

“When I came out I knew a handful of people who were gay,” she said. “And I was like, are there any gay people in Charlottesville? I didn’t see them, the visibility is not there, and I really needed a community, I needed to connect with people.”

Charlottesville can be a hard place to get your bearings when you’re new to the whole gay thing. The community is small, cliquish and scattered, with no central gathering place, so Marshall decided to try to build one. She started an annual event called Pride in the Park, a pot luck for the gay community that ran for three years. At one of the picnics people started giving her money. “What am I supposed to do with this?” she thought. “I’m not a non-profit organization!”

To her surprise, people began looking to her for some kind of leadership. People who had newly come out or just moved to the area e-mailed her asking for help in finding their community. So she started Charlottesville Pride Community Network, a non-profit organization intended to be the thing that brings the whole Charlottesville gay community together, starting with the Pride Festival.

“Part of [Pride Fest] was wanting to see allies show up and show their support, which meant so much to so many people,” Marshall said. “You have no idea how many people were just, kind of crying because it was like, ‘Oh, this is where I live and it’s O.K. for me to be here.’”

Which brings us to the idea of pride vs. tolerance, and the idea of Charlottesville as a liberal haven.

“I’ve never lived somewhere that’s so obsessed with being liberal,” Peter DeMartino told me. “Like, I’ve never heard people talk about being liberal as much as people in Charlottesville talk about being liberal. I’m not quite sure they believe it, or they have to keep reminding themselves.”

When Marshall came out four years ago, everyone was fine with it. It’s not a problem, they said, so you like girls, we’re totally cool with that. Only, it wasn’t fine, not for her. It was a massive life change, one that her parents are still not O.K. with. Not to mention that, despite the enormous progress that’s been made, being gay in this country still carries considerable risks. There’s no law in Virginia protecting you from being fired for being gay, and of course, no laws to help you should the person you’ve ostensibly been married to and are raising kids with suddenly die or leave.

“There’s still crazy people,” Marshall said. “If your student finds out you’re gay, if your client, your social worker finds out you’re gay, that’s still not safe. It’s still risky out there… When I was getting divorced from my husband my lawyer was like, ‘Do not have a relationship with a woman, do not have any woman spend the night, do not tell the judge you’re gay.’”

As Marshall sees it, the problem is tolerance.

“I kind of hate that word now,” she said. “Because you tolerate somebody that you don’t necessarily like. When you tolerate people you put up with them. And I [don’t] want to be put up with, I [want] actually to be cared about.”

For Marshall, the Pride Fest was an attempt to change the message in Charlottesville from, “We will tolerate you and not abuse you,” to “We celebrate you and love you.”

“This is a liberal city? Show me,” she said. “Say it to me so that when I’m walking around Charlottesville I’m not wondering, or guessing, or assuming. Be explicit. Explicitly tell me that it’s O.K. for me to walk down the Downtown Mall holding hands with somebody.”

C-VILLE ran an article right before the Pride Festival called “Queer 101: Everything you need to know about the LGBTQ community.” Two comments on the article perfectly illustrate where Charlottesville is socially.

“As a gay man…I’m a little taken aback. This is Charlottesville. Do we really need a gay slang dictionary? Is it 1995 in Middle America?” And then: “I feel very strongly that there is NOTHING that I or anyone else needs to know about such a community. The world works better when everyone’s intimate life remains intimate.”

Having grown up in Charlottesville, I think those attitudes sum up where we are with a lot of our issues: It’s hard to tell if we’re over them or if we never dealt with them in the first place.

Epilogue
Blaise Spinelli and Michael broke up around 1981, but remained very close. Spinelli would often tell Michael, who was single and dating, to be careful.

“Blaise,” Michael would say, “It’s like .001 percent of people that are getting this.”

One winter, Michael went on vacation to Hawaii. The man he was dating at the time stayed behind in his condo in D.C., and while Michael was gone, he came down with pneumonia, locked his door and crawled into bed with a bowl of chicken soup. He was found dead seven days later. A year after that, Michael found out he was H.I.V.-positive.

“When Michael got diagnosed, I wanted to make sure that the AIDS support group would be there for him when he got ill,” Spinelli said. “I said that when Michael died, that I would back off. That would be the end of my involvement [with ASG].”

He and Michael would finish each others sentences. Spinelli always thought that when he was old, when he was the age he is now, they would be sitting on a bench together, enjoying a beautiful day. When his illness got bad, Michael moved to a hospital bed in his parent’s den. It wasn’t easy for his father to accept, but his mother didn’t think twice. She brought her child home, and cared for him as he went blind and his mind started to go.

Spinelli visited Michael in the mornings, then went to work the evening shift at the hospital, came home to sleep, got up, and went to see Michael.

“I can’t tell you how many nights it would be dark…that phone would ring in the middle of the night, and you’d just lay there with your eyes open and say, ‘Who’s turn is it to get that phone.’ Cause you knew what it was,” Spinelli said.

I asked him if he’s been to a lot of funerals, and after a pause, he said yes.

“Those funerals were just a lot of fun here in Charlottesville, in those Baptist churches, where all the gay people were on one side and the family was on the other.”

Michael died in April 1991. Spinelli made appearances at a few fundraisers and private gatherings, but for the most part he slowly withdrew from ASG.

Clyde Cooper still laments the loss of Club 216, the place where everyone was welcome, where everyone was free to be themselves. He knows that a lot has changed in his lifetime, that these days you can be openly gay in pretty much any restaurant in town. You might not want to dance together, or kiss openly, but, still, a lot has changed.

One of the things he treasures most about his time running Club 216 is his memories of the many people who met in the club, of the relationships that started there. Cooper turned 76 this year, and it was 30 years ago that he met Mike Fitzgerald in Muldowney’s.

“Probably the 10 fingers I’ve got would be more than I need to count how many nights we’ve not been together,” Cooper said.

When official forms ask your marital status, there’s usually no choice that works for him and Mike, no box to check for “not allowed to marry.” Cooper usually checks the box that says married, and then writes beside it, “gay, lifetime partner.” After the 2012 elections, same-sex marriage is now legal in nine states, two Native American tribal jurisdictions and the District of Columbia, but Cooper and Fitzgerald aren’t planning on heading to Maryland or D.C. to get married, because that marriage wouldn’t be recognized in Virginia, and Virginia is their home. But if the Old Dominion ever recognizes gay marriage, they’ll happily take that next step.

“You know,” he said, “I don’t think a lot of people realize how much [Club 216] meant, what that club did.”

“They think it’s just a beer joint,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a lot more than that.”

There’s still a lot that needs to change, Clyde knows, but young people growing up gay in 2012 have no idea what it was like for people his age.

And that makes him very happy.

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