Letting Go 

The road to saying, "I'm gay." Richmonders share the stories that changed their lives.

click to enlarge Mac Pence and Jeff Wells, the co-owners of Maury Place at Monument, were married two years ago in Boston. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Mac Pence and Jeff Wells, the co-owners of Maury Place at Monument, were married two years ago in Boston.

At last, my love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song

— Etta James

My partner doesn't want to dance.

"At Last" plays at our friend's summer wedding. Young and old join in, but we sit this one out. We are staying off the dance floor to avoid the stares we received at the last reception we attended.

In that moment, I feel disappointed, heartbroken, angry — and alone.

Coming out isn't a one-time event.

Unlike skin color or other physical traits, for most of us sexual orientation is easy to hide. But then there are those moments in life — at a wedding reception, enrolling a child in day care, joining a gym, going to the doctor or renting an apartment — when coming out can come up when you least expect it.

We asked a dozen people to share their coming-out stories — stories as diverse as their backgrounds. And many people stepped forward. But perhaps what's more telling are the stories of those who declined.

Some influential Richmonders you may know are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. Yes. Folks who run Richmond.

Even today, when living openly as an LGBT person has become more mainstream, why decline to tell your story here? Some worried of potentially alienating customers or expressed concerns over their partner's job security (yes, in Virginia you can get fired for being gay — sexual orientation is an unprotected class). One cited her pastor and family telling her that discussing such private matters just wasn't a good idea.

One beloved community leader was an activist in his youth. At 18, young and newly out, he would have jumped at the chance to tell his story. Today, he's certainly not hiding in a closet, but he says that in his position, his ambiguity works for him.

click to enlarge Kevin Clay is editor and publisher of GayRVA.com. - SCOTT ELMQUIST

At that deeply personal moment when you experience that self-realization and first speak the words, "I'm gay" — for me, when I was 17 — a powerful weight is lifted. It can be the most defining moment of your life.

Coming out isn't about pushing sexuality on others. Nor are you trapped in a label. It's part of living a full and robust life. And perhaps we don't give enough credit to loved ones. We don't give enough credit to complete strangers.

Everyone deserves to dance with the one they came with. — Kevin Clay, editor and publisher of GayRVA.com.

click to enlarge DeVoss with her granddaughters, twins Alyssa and Kali. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • DeVoss with her granddaughters, twins Alyssa and Kali.

Sylvia DeVoss, 55
Artist, Grandmother

I'm the proud grandma of twin 9-year-olds. I'm from Waynesboro, but I grew up in Richmond for the most part. I come from an extremely religious background, where being gay was not OK. In fact, if you didn't fall into the religion, you were considered satanistic. I knew I was different, but I didn't know what gay was, I didn't know what being queer meant.

I'm an only child. I always had crushes on women, and I thought I was satanistic. So I grew up emotionally very warped. Depressed, big time. I was diagnosed with a mental illness — bipolar. Which I may or may not be, I don't really know. I'm very artistic, which is what I do for a living — I paint and photograph people. But I'm not real sure that I am bipolar. I really feel it was suppressing who I really was for all those years. Because when I would have what I would call indiscretions, I thought that it was just me following Satan, and so I actually attempted suicide in my 40s because I just couldn't continue that box.

I had a friend that I finally told. I was actually going to [commit] suicide that night. I emailed her, because I didn't have the guts. I was afraid she would call. And I just wanted her to understand, I wanted someone to know why I was suicidal.

The universe does listen, you know? And what had happened was, her car had burnt up on the highway, and she didn't get home until 2 in the morning, which is when I had emailed her. And I knew she'd be asleep — or thought she would. When I emailed her, two minutes later she calls.

She said, "You do realize you're just gay?" She just talked me through it.

Once you tell one person, it then became — it's almost like, you can deny it until you tell somebody. And then that's your truth. And then you're living a lie. So at that point I actually told my daughter, who I thought was going to take the grandkids away from me as far as visitation. So I called her in my room, and I was crying, and I said, "I need to tell you this." And so she's thinking that I'm dying. And I said, "I'm gay." And she goes, "I know mom, what's the matter?" And I said, "You know that I'm gay?" And she goes, "Yeah." And I said, "Why didn't you tell me?" And she goes, "I'm just glad you figured it out."

And then once she was OK, then it was OK with me.

Shunning is a terrible thing. That happened in my religion as a child. The one thing that coming out did, that I didn't realize — it's almost like, I set myself free. It was just like this huge weight just lifted off of me.

It's kind of funny, because now I look back and I think, wow, all those years, and actually I'm just gay. I can't even tell you, it's just been the most marvelous thing to find out that I'm not satanistic — I'm not anything except gay.

click to enlarge Jason Yu - SCOTT ELMQUIST

Jason Yu, 24
Partner and Director of Marketing, the Hardwicke Group Board Member and Contributor, GayRVA.com

I started talking to girls when I was probably 13, 14 years old, back when AOL Instant Messenger and these chat rooms were the thing to do, and we'd always go to the mall and hang out and meet other people.

They liked me, and I guess I liked them, and I guess I was forcing myself to go out with these girls and hang out. I would go to the dances with girls. I didn't see any homosexual couples at the time at the school dances. But I had my fair share of going out with a lot of girls.

I grew up in Virginia Beach. ... I was very involved with school, whether that was the SGA, I was on the school tennis team, I was even on the academic bowl team. I went to a high school that had almost a thousand-plus students. I wasn't alone. There were other gay and lesbian teenagers, not only in my high school but all around the area as well. So that's one perspective to look into, in terms of the open-mindedness of the community at the high-school level, which sort of made it easier for me to come out later.

I came out after high school. After graduating high school that summer, I knew and I had to tell. The first two people I told were ex-girlfriends. Those two specific individuals had a big impact on my life — we were always hanging out, and they knew so much about me, that I owed it to myself and to them to tell them the truth, and to let them know, this is who I am.

I thought it would be awkward. I thought it would be the most insane, scary, all-of-the-above you can imagine, sharing this moment. But it actually felt great to finally let them know. It took maybe about 10 minutes of beating around the bush ... but I told them, and it's funny. They both said, "Oh, I knew that." They had my back 100 percent. They support everything that I do, and they are thankful that I came out to them and told them.

And then I told people at work, and then once I moved to go to college, and obviously I let my roommates go from there. And when I started dating people obviously they knew. It wasn't until my 22nd birthday that I came out to my immediate family.

I took my mother to lunch, and we had a heart-to-heart moment at the Cheesecake Factory, on my birthday. We were just talking about everything, about how everything was going so fast, and then I laid down the news. And we had our little one-on-one crying session. The waitress had to bring over two extra napkins to dry [our] tears — tears of both accepting me as gay and being honest as well. Letting her into my life. I was a military brat growing up, and so my mother was always there while my father was out to sea. And my mother is 100 percent supportive of me being openly gay, and coming out to her. And her love has not changed for me ever since day one. She suspected it, and it is what it is, and that's who I am.

After meeting with my mother, she told me that I had to tell my father and sister — that she wasn't going to be the one, that I had to be responsible for telling them in person, face to face. So that afternoon, I gathered them in our family room ... and said,"I hope you guys will still love me the same way, and respect and support me, and this is who I am," and came out to them.

My father had a shocked, surprised, disappointed look on his face, and my sister started to cry. But my father said: "You can't change who you are. And you are who you are. And that's that. We still love you." And my sister said, "Nothing's going to change."

It's been pretty smooth sailing ever since then.

If you have a good support group, it's just going to make life so much easier — and to always have the lines of communication open, but most important, to love yourself, and to be honest with those who love and support you. Because if you're honestly afraid to come out, let alone to your family — they're the first ones that you're going to turn to, and they should definitely know everything about what's happening in your life. And I'm pretty sure they're going to be more than willing to accept who you are.

click to enlarge Ruth Perkinson - SCOTT ELMQUIST

Ruth Perkinson, 45
Author, Insurance Agent, Former Henrico County Teacher

As I grew older, and it was in the early '80s ... at that time, and a lot of people feel like this, you feel like you're absolutely the only person in the world. Because everything you see — movies, radio, print media — was all just being geared toward the straight life, the heterosexual life. That point in my life was a very lonely time.

I was 14, and I read a few Rita Mae Brown books. Thank God for her. I used to hide them under my bed so my mom didn't see them. And so I would come home and I would race to my bed, and pull them out and read them under the covers at night. And I finally found a connection with her. And she let me know that I was not alone.

I was really drunk, I think, in 10th grade [laughs], and I was talking to a fellow basketball player on my team. And we were out partying, and I kinda had these attractions. And I finally just said, I have to tell somebody. And so after many beers, I told her. And then of course I had that feeling that she might be gay as well. So we both came out together. And then we forged sort of a private alliance at Godwin High School. We didn't become an item or anything, but at least we could talk to each other.

At 17 I told my mother. She's really come full circle. It was actually a very pivotal night in my life. Looking back, I thought [her reaction] would be, "It's OK, you're going to be fine." And then the more we talked about it the worse it got. Bless her heart, but she, for about six months, was not too cool with it.

She was a big Roman Catholic, and I think she was completely embarrassed initially, and initially thought it was kind of worse than cancer, worse than my father's alcoholism. And I kind of get that, because she had nothing to read either. She thought I was sick. She sent me to a psychiatrist. And he asked me if I was afraid of a penis, and I said no, they were fine. No big deal there. But I think with a lot of women from that period, the '50s, they were coming through a different evolutionary period. So she was just in her own shell as well ... so she was just very ashamed. And I think I was too. And I think still, even today, I still carry shame.

Recently I was in a jewelry store right in Shockoe Slip. I wear a ring on this finger [holds up left hand] because I want to get married to my girlfriend. And I remember walking in, and I took it off and put it on my right hand. Because I didn't want to portray who I might be. ... And then I felt very guilty about it afterwards.

Out of high school I went on to [Virginia Commonwealth University] and galvanized into a really nice local community there. I felt for the first time, going to VCU, that I was free. I got my degree ... and I went on to teach at Tucker High School. I was trying to be as straight as possible, if you will, so that I wouldn't be frowned upon by anybody. I did lie. As time went on, and I got into teaching, I was able to come out to some teachers, and let them know who I was. I know the kids knew I was gay, on some level. But I never publicly came out to them. I should have. And when I wrote my first book, I acknowledged that. And I said, to the one thousand kids I taught in Henrico County, I apologize to you.

It's not really the color of your skin, or your ethnicity, or whatever. It comes down to who you want to kiss, which is a private thing. But in order for us to get away from that, we have to make it a completely public thing.

click to enlarge Alvion Davenport/Darryl Jones - SCOTT ELMQUIST

Alvion Davenport / Darryl Jones, 26
Professional Female Impersonator

I am sexually attracted to men, but over the last five years I have been dating a female who is a lesbian but she dresses as a male.

Style: What's the lesson in all that?

Stop judging. Who says there has to be a label? No judging. None whatsoever. You have to give everybody a fair chance. Everybody likes different things. Not to get political, but I think the main [issue facing our country], we need more unity — with everything in life. We're all people.

I came from a family where I'm the youngest — so I have two older sisters and an older brother. And being the baby of the family I was always the spoiled one, of course. I never really had to deal with the feeling-different part. I guess it was thrown off on my being spoiled — my softness, and the femininity.

I was accepted at my high school, all the kids knew, and I never really ran into any bullying or anything like that.

The light-switch moment came when Alvion was created. That was senior year in high school. Our school was called John Marshall, so the mascot was a Justice. So all through high school we had the Mr. and Miss Justice competition. So when I got to my senior year and was able to compete we got a new principal. ... She cut the Mr. Justice part of it, and only had the Miss. So I was very urged to even consider entering the Miss part of the competition ... but I thought, maybe I'll leave that alone.

Graduating from high school, and my first time ever going to the club, which was Godfrey's, I saw a drag show, and that's when the light bulb was like, diiinggg. This is where you belong. And from that moment, about two months later, I entered a drag competition there, and won. And the rest is history.

Growing up, I had a cousin who was the same age, two or three years' difference, from my mom. We were very close to each other, and she passed away, unfortunately, about three years ago. ... But I sat her down because I wanted to tell her, because we talked about absolutely everything. And she kind of had a clue. So I was planning to tell her my coming-out story, but in turn she told me my coming-out story: "So before you even stress yourself about coming out to me, I'm coming out to you and letting you know that I'll love you regardless, and I'll always accept you, and when you're ready I'll take you to your mom and we can do it together."

That was probably one of the best moments of my life.

Three or four months after, we were at my parents' house, and I was on the phone talking to a little sweetheart I had met at school. ... My nephew [said something about me being gay]. So I immediately hung up the phone, and my mom came into the room, and was like, "Are you gay, is there something you need to tell me?" And I was like, "Well if I am gay, then what?" And she's like, "Well if you are gay, I'll love you anyway, I'll support you. As a mother we kind of know these things. ... I was just waiting for you in your own time to come to me and tell me."

At that moment, once she knew, I didn't really care about anyone else knowing. So from there, it was just full-fledged out there. To me, the person that I am onstage is also the person that I am offstage. I'm always a bubbly personality; I'm always willing to have fun. Most of my friends, and even some of my family, call me Alvion, because that's who I've been. A lot of my family comes out to see [my shows]. At this point, it's amazing.

click to enlarge Jeff Wells and Mac Pence. - SCOTT ELMQUIST

Jeff Wells, 49, Mac Pence, 50
Co-owners, Maury Place at Monument. Pence, Owner of Pence Auto

Wells: Mac and I have been together for 16 years. We were introduced initially by our hairdresser, who set us up on a blind date. And that was in 1995. We had a union ceremony in December 1999 here at our home in Richmond, which had no legal significance, but it had spiritual significance. Both of our families were there and our circle of friends. We've been married for going on two years; we were legally married in Boston.

For me, coming out was a series of steps. At the time I was an attorney, and I worked for both the state government and the federal government here in Richmond. I really started to come out while I was in law school. I was pretty much in the closet during college and high school, even though I knew I was gay. But in law school there was a lesbian-gay law student association — sort of the light bulb went off that I could come out and it might be OK. So I came out to my friends, my sister, who were all very accepting. Probably one of the biggest regrets of my life is that I did not come out to my father before he passed away. Because I know now he would have accepted me.

I officially came out to my mother — who I think really knew — but I said, "Mom, I'm gay," when Mac and I were planning to have the ceremony. But she had met Mac. She was fine, and she would have been fine if I had come out earlier.

Pence: I did not realize I was gay until I was 30, and at that point I did not come out to my parents. It basically was steps in terms of coming out to people who knew me, and over time I became more open in many ways. I think with my parents, though, it was after I met Jeff. So it would have been four years after I'd kind of figured myself out that I came out to my parents. I'm an introvert, so I just sat down and had dinner, and it was very concise, and I told them I was gay. And they heard me out and they were OK. I think they had processed it before then.

I never had any issue, or concerns — I didn't really care what anybody thought. But I also was really aware back then, there was a feeling that somehow it ought to matter, you didn't want to offend people — people were uncomfortable. And so you kind of thought about that. And now I look back and it's so silly.

Wells: When we had our ceremony, the clergy treated the occasion just as if we were a heterosexual couple getting married, and she asked that we sit down individually, with her present, with our parents. And so our clergy person and Mac and I were there with my mom, and the same with his parents, and they all were accepting. And I guess his dad might have been the biggest question mark, because they had run a business together, a family business, and his father was conservative. ...

Pence: Well my father's conservative in a religious way. And that's a good point, my father may have raised concerns about public image. But what he did was, he asked the minister the question, "Is this like a marriage?" And we didn't really know what he meant by that question and we didn't know what his reaction was going to be. And she essentially said, well, it's the same ritual. And he said, "OK." And it was almost like he wanted it to be that way rather than resisting it.

Wells: For me, the whole process, and what I feel like I've done, at least in regard to my sexual orientation, is letting go of fear. And I feel like I have no fear now. And I never would have thought, when I was in high school, say in the '80s, or college in the mid-'80s, that I would live to see a day where I could be publicly out as to my sexual orientation and married to the man who's my husband. To me, it's incredible.


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