Staunton Pride: Shining moments from the community in recent history

·13 min read

STAUNTON — On June 28, 1970, the first Pride was a demonstration demanding LGBTQ+ civil rights and protections. In 2022, we’re still fighting for these rights — but also celebrating how far we’ve come in the U.S.

In honor of June 28, we've put together a compilation from our News Leader archives that highlight some of Staunton's shining moments hard-fought by advocates and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Providing a safe space for the area

From the News Leader archives:Shenandoah LGBTQ Center opens in Staunton

After a sleepless night, Chris Wood made a decision. He wasn’t going to wait one more day to provide a safe space for the LGBTQ community in the Shenandoah Valley.

Executive director of LGBT Tech, he walked into his office on a Friday in July 2018 and told his colleagues he was going to make an announcement, sat down at a table, and on Facebook live asked the community to rally behind him in opening the first Shenandoah LGBTQ Center.

“Last night I heard a story about a kid who was going to commit suicide,” said Wood. “If it hadn’t been for one of the officers that stopped him, he would have been gone.”

Wood said he had heard this story too many times.

“And we don’t catch them. My husband came out here. It was not easy. I came out in Northern Virginia. It was not easy.”

"It is because I care," said Wood, who was in tears. “I’m tired of seeing kids and families and older LGBTQ adults that do not have supportive resources here.”

Until the center opened its own physical space, resources would be housed at LGBT Tech inside the Staunton Innovation Hub.

“I really want the community to step up and work with us to make this a reality,” said Wood. “I think it’s a really big step in a really great direction, and I hope all of you will continue to support us as we move forward.”

This initiative has been underway since Wood and his family moved to Staunton. After opening the LGBT Tech office, parents and teens have been coming to them for help.

“The parents are lost, trying to help their kids,” said Wood. “They have no idea where to turn.”

A Mary Baldwin University student, who joined the small group of people to listen to Wood’s announcement, had moved from a small town in Kentucky to Staunton.

“I’m really so happy to hear that something like that is going to blossom here because it’s really the small towns that get looked over,” said the student. “I think the center is going to be able to provide that for a lot of people and provide the type of resources that are needed to encourage diversity.”

What will the Shenandoah LGBTQ+ Center be for the community?

A place for resources, the student said. Not just education, but people. “People are resources.”

Staunton's first Pride

Married at First Presbyterian Church in Staunton, Gary Wilson and Brad Furr stand with their pastor, Rev. Karen Allamon, at Staunton Pride on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.
Married at First Presbyterian Church in Staunton, Gary Wilson and Brad Furr stand with their pastor, Rev. Karen Allamon, at Staunton Pride on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.

From News Leader archives:Staunton's first Pride to celebrate LGBTQ community

Two days later, Wood announced the City of Staunton was going to have its first Pride festival.

“This is about Staunton,” Wood said. “This is about the diversity that’s in Staunton. It’s about the LGBTQ people who live, love and call Staunton home.”

One of the first initiatives of the Center was having a Pride festival in downtown Staunton.

“The opportunity for us to have a Pride here in Staunton is richer than ever,” said Wood.

“We have quite a large LGBTQ community here. It is an open and diverse inclusive city and town, which is one reason that we love it here,” said Wood. “I think it only has the opportunity to get better.”

An chalk art creation by artist Robert Mott of Harrisonburg features a butterfly with the words "love is love" on East Beverley Street at the Staunton Pride festival in downtown Staunton on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.
An chalk art creation by artist Robert Mott of Harrisonburg features a butterfly with the words "love is love" on East Beverley Street at the Staunton Pride festival in downtown Staunton on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.

From the News Leader archives:Love is love at Staunton Pride

"Who thought this could happen here in Staunton?" said former mayor Carolyn Dull standing on Staunton Pride's love is love main stage to welcome the crowds that came out to celebrate the city's first Pride festival on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.

"When everything is trying to divide our country and our people, we're bringing it together right here," said Dull.

This is the theme everyone was feeling on Beverley Street in downtown Staunton as the community came together to celebrate love is love at Staunton's first Pride festival. Crowds that included business and restaurant owners, community organizations, nonprofits and local churches lined the street with booths, smiling faces and a rainbow of colors.

Chaplain Connor Gwin of Stuart Hall mans a booth at the Staunton Pride festival in downtown Staunton on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.
Chaplain Connor Gwin of Stuart Hall mans a booth at the Staunton Pride festival in downtown Staunton on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.

"I would rather gamble on love than hate," said Episcopal Chaplain Connor Gwin from Stuart Hall School. "God doesn't make mistakes, and we know now that people are born LGBTQ. It's not a choice. It's not a phase. If they're born that way, that's how God made them. And it's my responsibility to love what God made."

"Times are changing," said former Lee High graduate Kyle Legore. "And Staunton is like, you know what, we're going to change with it."

Finding a permanent home for the center and those who need it

From the News Leader archives:Shenandoah LGBTQ Center finds home at Staunton's Masonic building

From the News Leader archives:Shenandoah LGBTQ Center invests in keeping youth off the street

Former executive director of the Shenandoah LGBTQ+ Center, Emily Sproul, had a front row seat to the worst times of a teen's life. She's seen the LGBTQ youth come to her in waves asking for help. They are homeless, afraid, rejected and have nowhere else to go.

Sproul wanted to transition them from a safe harbor to a permanent home. She knew what she wanted to do but she didn't have the means to do it. Overall, she just wanted to have a house that endangered kids could live in.

Lydia Campbell helped make that happen on a tight deadline. She had a grant in mind that would help make Sproul's dream come true but they had to act fast. Campbell is the community based services supervisor at Valley Community Services Board.

Shenandoah LGBTQ Center Director Emily Sproul poses at the center on Nov. 29, 2019. Sproul was selected as a 2019 News Leader "Newsmaker."
Shenandoah LGBTQ Center Director Emily Sproul poses at the center on Nov. 29, 2019. Sproul was selected as a 2019 News Leader "Newsmaker."

Emily Sproul is creating a space for LGBTQ community, one potluck at a time: Newsmaker

Campbell was a key player in helping LGBTQ youth in the area by applying for grants through the Virginia Housing Trust Fund which aimed to provide supporting housing projects for chronically homeless communities and families. VCSB is the lead agency in the local planning group, Valley Homeless Connection. The planning group is made up of homeless service providers and other parties with the goal to end homelessness in communities.

"We only had couple days to submit the grant application," Campbell said.

The tight deadline wasn't the only challenge; Sproul and Campbell didn't have data to analyze to show what needed to be done. Campbell highlighted that it is rare for LGBTQ youth to directly reach out to crisis helplines and general homeless services. According to Campbell, youth in general don't usually reach out for homeless services. The reason they focus on LGBTQ youth is because that population is significantly more vulnerable.

Shenandoah LGBTQ Center located in downtown Staunton
Shenandoah LGBTQ Center located in downtown Staunton

"These are kids who have already seen trauma on a scale I can't comprehend," Sproul said. "All sorts of situations make for these difficult family situations and when you throw LGBTQ identity on top of it in a religiously conservative area. It is just a tinderbox."

However, they both knew the ultimate goal which was to quickly provide LGBTQ youth with stable housing that they can stay in as long as they want and have supportive services.

Good news popped up on Sproul's phone when she read that her organization received one of the grants. The Valley Community Services Board received a total of $147,537 from the Housing Trust Fund. The Shenandoah LGBTQ Center has never received a housing grant, so this was a major milestone.

"Housing is health care," Campbell said. LGBTQ youth facing homelessness is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to challenges they face such as addiction, mental illness, and substance abuse.

Sproul's dream and the future of LGBTQ+ youth in Shenandoah Valley starts now.

Changing school board policies

From the News Leader archives:Staunton approves policy guidelines to protect transgender students

The Staunton School Board unanimously approved updated policy guidelines at its monthly school board meeting on July 12, 2021. The policies included more inclusive language in a continued effort to help protect transgender students. It also shared with those in attendance its Model Policies & Equitable Practices document that outlines how Staunton City Schools is providing equal opportunity for every student.

While many of the school division's policies already included inclusive language, including gender identity, the July 12 vote updated other policies.

The revisions came following the Virginia Department of Education's guidelines for treatment of transgender students released earlier this year. Those guidelines were developed in response to House Bill 145 and Senate Bill 161, enacted by Virginia's General Assembly in 2020.

By law, school boards in the state were required to adopt policies aligning with these guidelines for the 2021-22 school year.

Staunton's Jordan Zipser told the board members that they are transgender non-binary and have three children.

"My hopes for each of them is that they have the tools they need to flourish," Zipser said. "Pretty much every parent I know agrees that we want our children to be themselves. However, that often comes with a caveat. Be yourself until someone else feels uncomfortable. There's always a limit."

Zipser said they didn't want their children growing up feeling like they did, that there is no place in this world for them.

"I want my children to grow up feeling valued by their family and friends, and supported and respected by their community," they said. "That starts with making sure that schools and other public facilities are safe and affirming. That pronouns should be respected and used. That all children should get to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity."

The packet handed out during the school board meeting outlining the policy said that a key recommendation of the Virginia Department of Education's model policy is that transgender students be allowed to access restrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their gender identity. The packet also said that private bathroom space must be an option.

Jelisa Wolfe, executive director of students services for Staunton City Schools, said the school division allows for different options to accommodate privacy. The options are available to any student, not just students who are transgender, Wolfe said.

"We have private bathrooms for use in school clinics," she said. "Additionally, multiple bathrooms have been designated as all gender in each school building. These designated bathrooms are not stigmatizing as anyone can use them at any time and are located in areas that minimize lost instructional time." She also said there are options for private showers for anyone at both Shelburne Middle School and Staunton High School.

The policy packet listed some of the ways these policies may be used in practice:

  • School officials should ask if gender markers on documents are necessary and, if not, they shouldn't be used.

  • When physical education classes provide gender-specific activities, students will be allowed to participate in a manner consistent with their gender identity.

  • Determine if school programs and activities that are separated by gender have a valid reason for the separation.

  • When legal names and sex assigned at birth are required, like on standardized tests, the information will be treated as confidential.

  • Students can use the name and gender as they want it to appear for class rosters and student ID cards.

  • If gender-specific attire is used at schools, officials should ask if it's necessary and, if it is, students will be allowed to use the attire that aligns with their gender identity. Tradition is not a valid reason.

"You will hear our administrative staff say, 100% of the students, 100% of the time," Wolfe said. "It isn't always easy. It isn't always simple, but it is always the right thing to do."

A new director and a new path forward

AnhThu Nguyen has been named the new executive director of the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center
AnhThu Nguyen has been named the new executive director of the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center

From the News Leader archives:Staunton's Shenandoah LGBTQ Center names new executive director

In October 2021, the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center announced that AnhThu Nguyen has been named its new executive director.

The Shenandoah LGBTQ Center is a Staunton-based non-profit with a mission to strengthen the Shenandoah Valley LGBTQIA+ community through advocacy, education, programs and development of safe spaces.

Nguyen assumed her new role on Nov. 8, 2021. With 20 years of experience in LGBTQIA+ advocacy work, spanning non-profit, community and activist organizations, she has been involved with the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center since its inception, serving as a founding board member from 2018-20, and more recently as part of the Staunton Pride leadership starting in 2020.

As executive director, Nguyen will oversee management of the organization, including strategic development and community partnerships, fundraising, and expansion of the Center’s reach and impact in the community.

“I’m honored and thrilled to be joining the center during such an exciting period of growth, and to be continuing such important work alongside Emily (Sproul), the staff and committees as well as the board of directors,” Nguyen said. "I’m excited for our future as an organization and as a community.”

She takes over for the center’s founding executive director, Emily Sproul, who has held the position since 2018. Sproul will continue her work on youth homelessness and community outreach as a senior manager. She will oversee the Hope House of the Shenandoah, a program providing rapid rehousing and rental assistance for young adults aged 18 to 24 who are experiencing or at-risk for homelessness.

In addition, Sproul will continue to strengthen client relationships and enhance support for LGBTQ elders.

“Increasingly, we are seeing a need to support youth, families and educators as they navigate the coming out process,” Sproul said in the release. “As a former educator and a parent, I’m passionate about helping young people grow up in a safe, supportive community.”

“The growth of the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center since its founding a few short years ago has shown us that the LGBTQ community here needs support now, more than ever,” said Christopher Wood, president and founder of the Center. “We are excited to bring AnhThu on as the new executive director to help us meet the need.”

One month later, the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center announced the opening of Hope House of Shenandoah in the nonprofit's December 2021 newsletter.

"Hope House provides connection to rapid rehousing and rental assistance for young adults ages 18-21 who are experiencing or at risk for homelessness," the newsletter said. "Eligible applicants are also connected to additional supportive services to help guide their path towards independence."

To learn more about Hope House, call or text their Hope Line at 540-245-3321 or email hopesshenandoah@gmail.com.

Looking ahead in 2022

Nguyen said in the Center's December 2021 newsletter that 2022 will continue to see a deepening of the Center's work in two major unmet needs in the community: affirming healthcare and housing.

"The barriers that exist to accessing these needs is significant, but we are committed to actionable change that reduces these barriers for our community," Nguyen said. "We know it is life-saving and crucial. Because of our Hope House for the Shenandoah program, 15 young people have a safe place to call home right now. This has exceeded our expectations for this year, and we will focus on targeted efforts to reach our most vulnerable youth across the Valley next year."

To learn more or get involved, visit Shenandoah LGBTQ Center's website, its Facebook page at Shenandoah LBGTQ Center or at its location at 13 W. Beverley St. on the fifth floor in Staunton.

This article originally appeared on Staunton News Leader: Pride: Here are historic moments from Staunton's LGBTQ community