Fighting for Diversity in the LGBTQ Community: James Millner’s Mission

by | May 24, 2023 | COMMUNITY, GayRVA

James Millner, Program Director at Diversity Richmond, is at the helm of managing the Virginia Pride program. This program, once an independent nonprofit, merged with Diversity Richmond two years ago, enabling growth and stability through paid staff and increased resources. The partnership aims to augment the organization’s impact within the LGBTQ+ community, transitioning from a volunteer board to a professional team.

Today, Milner’s main challenges involve staying connected with the evolving needs of the LGBTQ+ community and securing necessary resources. The recent election of Governor Glenn Youngkin, with policies rolling back trans rights for students in public schools, has complicated their mission. However, with strategic alliances with other organizations, they have managed to resist legislative setbacks. As they plan for future Pridefest celebrations, their focus remains on fostering community, visibility, and a sense of belonging, even amid the challenges they face.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is James Millner, and my title is Program Director at Diversity Richmond, where I’m responsible for managing the Virginia Pride program. Virginia Pride used to be a standalone 501C3 nonprofit organization. And two years ago, after a lengthy process, we decided to merge with Diversity Richmond to help us have paid staff and really grow the organization. We wanted to amplify the work that we were doing in ways that we weren’t sure we could do as an all-volunteer organization.

Virginia pride was run and managed by an all-volunteer board. What we recognized is that between 2015, 2016, and 2019, we were experiencing exponential growth year over year in terms of the amount of money that we were raising, the size of our events, the number of events that we would produce, and the role that we were playing in the community. It was literally becoming a full-time job for many of us on the board, including myself as president.

And we all also had full-time jobs that we were focused on to obviously make a living and support ourselves. We also wanted to make sure that as we continued to raise more and more money, we were going to be good stewards of that money. And while we were certainly doing a good job of managing funds, we knew that we were only going to keep raising more and more money. So we wanted to be attached to an organization that had an accountant and a bookkeeper and paid people to manage money. 

This is really the community’s money that we raised. It does not belong to an organization, so it was important to make sure we were comfortable with how it was being used. We also wanted office space– we had never had an office. Diversity Richmond was able to provide all these things for us. 

We felt that as volunteers, we had taken the organization as far as we could. If we wanted it to really continue to grow, and to expand and amplify the impact of what Virginia Pride does, we really needed to be a professional organization with paid full-time staff.

James Milner, Diversity Richmond, Virginia Pride
Diversity Richmond at 1407 Sherwood Ave, Richmond, VA 

What are some of the challenges associated with running a successful nonprofit LGBT organization?

Today, it feels like there are more challenges than there were a couple of years ago. But I think one of the difficulties that you face when you are part of an organization like Diversity Richmond, or are doing work with a program like Virginia Pride, is finding a way to stay in touch with the needs of the community that you’re serving, and then finding the resources, the time, the talent, and the money to address those needs in meaningful ways.

We have to ask, “What is it that is most important to our community?” What role do we play as organizations to address the needs of those communities? Are we adequately recognizing that the LGBTQ community continues to become more and more diverse? Today, we are advocating for a much more diverse community, at least in terms of the folks that are now more visible. 

We’re fighting battles on multiple fronts. We are fighting for LGBTQ youth and the rights of queer and trans kids in schools, we are partnering with organizations that serve those populations specifically. We are also recognizing that the attacks that are coming on those kids have an impact on LGBTQ adults. There is emotional and psychological damage that comes from those attacks that expand well beyond youth. We are fighting for the rights of trans folks, nonbinary people, and LGBTQ people of color. All of those things are now happening simultaneously. 

We have certainly notched up a lot of successes in recent years, including things like same-sex marriage and workplace protections. But now, all of these attacks feel very, very, personal. So how do we continue to both celebrate the successes that we have made as a community while continuing to uplift people that even in our own crowds have historically been more marginalized? It’s a lot. That’s an enormous challenge, trying to do all of that work at the same time.

How has the election of the Virginia governor, Glenn Youngkin, affected your work, especially after his legislation rolling back trans rights for students in public schools?

Well, we are not a policy organization. There are organizations like Equality Virginia and organizations that serve trans and queer youth like Side by Side, and He She Ze and We that are really at the forefront of that fight. We stand with them, behind them, and support them in any way we can. Whether that means showing up for events, providing resources in terms of financial support, or lending our space and our social media presence to the work that they are doing. 

We see ourselves playing a very supportive role and not a leading role in that. We work in coalition with a lot of LGBTQ organizations, but the election of Glenn Youngkin as Governor and the new Republican majority in the House of Delegates has made this work in Virginia, certainly more difficult. Because we no longer have allies in those spaces. We have folks that are trying to actually roll back the hard-won progress that we have made over the last several years in Virginia. 

We now have Glenn Youngkin where we used to have Ralph Northam and Terry McAuliffe and it’s really daunting when you realize that that is what you’re up against. We were fortunate in this last legislative session, that the Senate blocked several bills that were targeting specifically queer and trans youth. But we’re a hair’s breadth away from that changing. The elections coming up next in 2023 are going to be pivotal in terms of our ability to continue to hold the line.

What has also happened now, as a result of that, is instead of us continuing to make more progress, we are literally just trying to have the progress that we’ve made not rolled back. 

But this year, especially around all the anti-LGBTQ bills, our friends across the board in the ACLU, Side by Side, He She Ze and We, and Equality Virginia, all did tremendous work ensuring that the rights and protections that we have fought so hard for in Virginia did not get rolled back. There are certain things that Glenn Youngkin can do, whether it be through the Department of Education, or through his own executive orders, either unilaterally or in partnership with state agencies that we really don’t have a whole lot of ability to impact. But at least we were able to withstand the anti-LGBTQ efforts in terms of legislation that originated in the house that Glenn Younkin would have been happy to sign.

This is a big question, but what goes into making Pridefest happen?

Virginia Pride as a program is still governed by a volunteer committee of folks. We used to have a board that was responsible for managing the organization, we now have a committee of folks within Diversity Richmond that are truly leading the effort to work on the advocacy pieces and plan Pridefest. We have a wonderful, dedicated, and very hard-working group of volunteers that make all of those things happen. 

Pridefest is an enormous undertaking. When you think about planning an event for tens of thousands of people to attend, that is one of the most visible and one of the largest outdoor events that happen in the Richmond region on an annual basis– the level of detail required to pull it off can be daunting. Right now we are in the early planning stages of things. We’ve got some really good ideas and we’re putting meat on the bones of the infrastructure of the festival, and raising money to make it all happen. Because it costs a tremendous amount of money to continue to grow this festival and to make it something that our community and our city can be really proud of. 

We want people to walk away from Pridefest feeling celebrated, protected, loved, and welcomed. Every year, we try to elevate and build on what we did the year before. The last Pridefest that we had prior to 2022 was in 2019; it had been three years since we’d had a Pride. So we really invested a tremendous amount of time and energy and money into coming back incredibly strong. 

We had Big Freedia, we had Leikeli 47– we had this amazing entertainment lineup. We also invested in bigger and better staging and lighting, so that it felt more like a true festival concert experience. We had more vendors than we ever had. We truly invested in our youth, in our Youth Pride pavilion with a full-on, professional stage, lighting, and sound– which we had never done before. And it paid off.

But there’s just so much that goes into planning a successful festival. You need your entertainment lineup, you need to negotiate contracts, plan for a bar operation (that requires 60 volunteers on its own), coordinate volunteers, and plan out the parking situation. When I’m sitting here talking about it, I’m like, “Oh, my God, this is a lot.”

But many of us have been doing this for a while. We’re used to it.

James Milner, Diversity Richmond, Virginia Pride

What does pride mean to you?

Are you talking about it as an event or as a concept?

A concept.

I think when we talk about LGBTQ pride in general, we talk about it as both an overarching concept for our community, and as a deeply personal feeling. To me, pride means that you are going through your life every day of the year– not just at a festival or at a Pride parade or during pride month– with a sense that you belong, that you have self-worth, that you feel celebrated, seen, safe and protected. It means that you are able to show up in all the spaces that you enter as your true authentic self without having to be afraid, without having to apologize for it. Without having to wonder if you can be who you are.

That is the goal here. Pride events and Pride Month are important factors that contribute to you being able to do that because they increase visibility and bring in allies. It’s participating, and showing up visibly in-person or online, whatever it happens to be. I think that’s the significance of pride events, and why we celebrate Pride Month. Pride Month also honors the history and the work that has come before us. It’s a time for us to commit to the work that lies ahead, the significant work that now lies ahead in ways that I don’t think we could have anticipated even just a few years ago. 

I moved to Richmond in 2009. And the city of Richmond did not seem to fully embrace its LGBTQ community from both a city government standpoint, and also from the business community. You had a few gay bars, and you had a few queer spaces, but it didn’t feel like the city truly embraced our community. We were part of it, but it was like, “Y’all are fine, just stay over there.”

I had moved here from DC and New York, where the opposite was true, where the LGBTQ community was really woven into the fabric of those cities. I’m really grateful that I think that is where we are now in Richmond. It feels that way now for many of us. I’m not going to say that everyone feels like they have an outstanding community– we still have a lot of work to do. But we’ve come a long way. The city now acknowledges our community in very visible ways, whether it be raising a pride flag at City Hall, turning buildings rainbow colors for Pride Month, or us being able to wrap a city bus in pride colors and supportive messaging. 

I look at what happens in our neighborhoods, in our bars, and in our clubs. And not just those that are designated as queer spaces, but, say you walk through Scott’s Addition and you see rainbow flags everywhere, all the time, not just during pride month. We have businesses and organizations that are constantly reaching out to us and saying, “How can we help? How can we get involved?”

We have tourism agencies, both at the state and local levels, that have dedicated campaigns to make Richmond and Virginia a welcoming place for LGBTQ visitors. We now have the ability to have events and be safe and celebrated and seen in spaces that have historically not been made for us. We have a Virginia Pride pageant where we crown drag performers to represent us as Mr. and Mrs. Virginia Pride. For the first time, we’re actually going to have that pageant in the lobby of the Quirk Hotel. 

That was something that would have been unfathomable, even just a few years ago. That Quirk would allow us to– well frankly they didn’t allow us, we didn’t even ask. They asked us. They were like, “Hey, would you like to do something here?” That’s a pretty big step forward because it’s a very public space. We are no longer relegated to the spaces that we own, or the spaces are specifically by and for queer people. That’s a huge step forward.

We’re talking about the community in Richmond. What advice or resources would you recommend to someone who is queer and new to the Richmond area? Or to those who have lived here for a while and are just looking to foster connection in the LGBT space?

Online is a great place to connect with people. There are a number of dedicated groups for the queer community, there’s RVA Queer Exchange and LGBTQ+ RVA, and a few other sites that will give you a sense of what’s happening in the community. There are organizations like Stonewall Sports that folks can get involved with. Regardless of your sports ability, it’s a wonderful opportunity for social interaction. I think volunteering for organizations, whether it be for Virginia Pride, Diversity Richmond, or Side by Side is a great way to get involved and meet people. 

There are dozens of events that happen– some led by Virginia Pride and Diversity Richmond, that you can show up to. Virginia Pride has a monthly queer rollerskating event called Rainbow Roll that is open to all ages. It’s a sober event. So many events in the community are based around drinking and bars. We really want to be intentional about creating opportunities for people who don’t drink or who are not of drinking age to come out and feel like they are part of a community. 

I think, as a whole, the LGBTQ community is certainly more visible than it was when I first moved here. We’re no longer relegated to the fringes of our community. I say that as a blanket statement with a lot of caveats because I recognize that there are still many people in our community who do not feel that way. Who do not feel safe or seen. They may not have the resources to actively and meaningfully participate in our community. And we have to do better at that. 

There’s absolutely no question that all of our community organizations, our city leadership, our elected officials, all have a lot of work to do. There are still a lot of folks in our community that are living on very thin margins and are on the verge of homelessness or are experiencing homelessness and food insecurity. That is oftentimes a product of being a part of a marginalized community and we need to do better. And we can do better. But I think we’re going in the right direction.

James Milner, Diversity Richmond, Virginia Pride
James Milner of Diversity Richmond and Virginia Pride, photo by Kimberly Frost @kimberlyfrost

I know you said that 2023 Pridefest is still in the ideation phase. But is there anything you can tell us about what you have planned?

There’s not much that I can officially say at this point. Although I can say that we are definitely going to be bigger and better. We are adding bells and whistles to the whole festival experience that we’ve never had before. We are also, for the first time, going to have a Pride weekend closing concert on Sunday night. It’s going to be a big deal. 

We’ll have three days of events for sure over Pride weekend. We’ll have our big pre-Pride party and Pridefest on Saturday, and then Sunday night, we’re gonna have a Pride weekend closing concert with some big-name entertainment. That’s about all I can say.

ed. note: Since this interview Tegan & Sara have been announced as headliners for the Pridefest Weekend Closing Concert on Sunday.

Give Diversity Richmond a follow @diversityrichmond
Follow Virginia Pride at @vapride

Audrey McGovern

Audrey McGovern

Audrey McGovern is a former creative writing student who studied at Virginia Tech. She likes telling stories.

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