Lenton, who was the assistant dean of students at Virginia Commonwealth University for 10 years prior to going into private practice, says that since he entered the therapy field he has seen an enormous change in the public's awareness of homosexuality. "When I first started doing this there wasn't a whole lot of info on this issue," he says. "Thirty years ago ... when I would counsel a gay student, I would keep a brown paper bag in my desk so they could hide any books I gave them to read. Now, I send [my clients] to the gay and lesbian section at Barnes and Noble."
Though he enjoyed working at VCU, he says he went into private practice in 1985, so "I wouldn't have to worry about being fired. I ran up against discrimination. It was wonderful for the 10 years I was there. But as soon as they found out I was a gay man, it changed."
Though people are more aware of homosexuality these days, Lenton says he is still shocked when he meets young adults who don't realize they can lose their jobs by coming out. "It is a more welcoming society," he says, "but there is still a way to go."
Christine Clarke, executive director of the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth (ROSMY), says it is not unusual these days to see kids as young as 12 and 13 declare their homosexuality. "I hear from adults all the time who say, 'If only I had ROSMY when I was growing up,'" she says. "These are very different generations."
And while there are more gay role models available for kids to follow, and more awareness of homosexuality in general, Clarke points out that there is much more harassment today as well. "One of the skills that we try to teach the youth is to know when it is safe [to come out] and when it is not."
For example, "Carol," president of the Richmond Pride Coalition does not feel safe in Richmond. Since she moved here from Chicago in 1989 to take a job in public service, her co-workers have been unaware she is a lesbian.
"Richmond is like the biggest closet in the country," she says during an after-work meeting at Godfrey's, a popular gay bar. "It was such a shock when I moved here, there are all these 'isms,' like racism. To come out and say, 'I'm gay,' seemed unthinkable."
She has not come out, she says, solely out of fear. "I have a mortgage, a very expensive car, I travel a lot and can't afford to lose my job," she says. "I know the people I work with would never understand it I sit in my office and listen to people talk."
So when she is at work she talks about her personal life in generic terms, saying what she did over the weekend but not who she did it with. She goes out with the girls after work and pretends to ogle men. People think she is dating a gay male friend who accompanies her as a decoy boyfriend to most work functions.
Still, she feels a responsibility to the gay community, and agreed last year to serve as the president of the Pride Coalition, a local nonprofit group that promotes homosexual pride chiefly through its annual Pride Festival, to be held this Saturday, Sept. 16. She works in the background while the organization's vice president handles all public functions. Though she will attend this year's Pride Festival, she admits that at last year's event she was in a panic. "I was afraid I would see someone I work with," she says.
"Carol," who is in her late 40s, acknowledges the irony of the situation, but defends her decision to keep her sexuality private. "I don't feel like I should have to wear a banner," she says. "My life is no different than anyone else's. I just have a different sexual preference."
Unlike "Carol," Mattias Flensburg II, 24, is not afraid to literally carry a banner proclaiming his homosexuality. An active member of Richmond's gay Metropolitan Community Church in the Fan, Flensburg can be found at public events such as Easter on Parade and the Carytown Watermelon Festival dressed in black and waving a huge rainbow flag, the symbol of gay pride.
"I do it mostly for other gays and lesbians," he says. "They get to see someone who is not afraid; it gives them morale and the strength to come out. It is a passive demonstration saying, 'We are here. You can't ignore me. I will be here tomorrow and the next day. Learn how to accept us.'"
Strawderman graduated from VCU in 1971, where he majored in theater in an environment where homosexuality was accepted, but, still, he kept that part of him repressed. He dated women, and almost got married soon after he got out of college.
"I bought the engagement ring, we made plans, and we even bought a dining room table together that I still have," he says, smiling. "But before we actually sent out the invitations, I knew I couldn't go through with it. I knew I couldn't be married. ... I couldn't live that lie."
[image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)In his Barksdale Theatre office at the Shops at Willow Lawn Randy Strawderman can focus and retreat into himself. Even though he feels better than he has in years, there has been something missing he hopes coming out can fix.
So Strawderman backed out, using the excuse that he wanted to live in New York and his fiancée wanted to stay in Richmond. "I told her every reason except that I was gay," he says. They have talked about it since, and today she knows why Strawderman backed out on her all those years ago. "But at the time, when it really mattered, she didn't know why," Strawderman says sadly. "If I could have just said, this is the reason, it would have still hurt but it wouldn't have put so much on her. It's those kinds of things that really make you feel yucky about yourself."
Strawderman did move to New York in the late '70s, and it was there that he first began to acknowledge his homosexuality. "It was pre-AIDS, the disco world was raging, and I plunged into it because it was like being a kid in a candy store," he says. He put himself into dangerous situations trying to make up for lost time and gain experiences he had missed. It is not something he is proud of today.
He even marched in his first gay pride parade in New York in 1978. "It was a great experience, but I was miles away from my family, hoping a TV camera wouldn't get me on national news," he says.
When he returned to Richmond in 1981, it was right back into the closet, except when it came to the theater, the only place Strawdermen feels he is free. "When I work with a group of actors I don't censor anything I say," he says. "It's a wonderful feeling.
But then I walk across the lobby and into the boardroom I am a totally different person. I close up. I check myself."
Strawderman does not know what the impact of this article will be on his job as artistic director of the Barksdale Theatre. Last week, he forewarned the Barksdale's board of trustees with a letter, saying his decision to go public was "the final stage of a continuing personal mission to become a more complete, healthy and balanced individual." Board President Julia Rogers and other board members declined to comment on the letter and this article.
"I do not think this article will surprise many people who know me," he writes. "
What they may be surprised at, however, is that I am talking openly about my sexuality."
At this point in Strawderman's life, that is more important than the possibility of him losing his job. "When I take my last breath, I will not be Barksdale Theatre," he says, "I will be me. But I don't want to be here at the expense of who I am." He assures that he has no intention of making Barksdale a "gay theater" and that by finally living openly, he will actually be able to do better work.
"Some people are afraid of failure; I think I am afraid of success," he says. "
There is something in me that still doesn't believe in myself. You can only take so much rejection if you feel like you are being rejected on a daily basis."
Strawderman says people sometimes think he is unfriendly because he avoids meeting new people, afraid that the inevitable questions will be asked: "Are you married? Do you have kids?" "I don't want to check what I say and wonder what I can say anymore," he says. "You can only hold up that guard for so long before it exhausts you. I just feel like I miss so much on any given day. I miss so many opportunities."
This cautiousness has also affected Strawderman's romantic relationships. He has never had a meaningful, long-term relationship with a man. He has never brought anyone home to meet his family at Christmas. He hasn't plugged into Richmond's gay scene, and doesn't get invited to gay parties. He occasionally visits gay clubs, but finds the scene ungratifying, especially as he gets older.
When asked about his motivations for coming out so publicly as a gay man, he has many ready reasons, all of them good. He wants to feel empowered. He wants to end the lies. He wants to be able to live his life more fully. He wants to become active in the gay community, to work with groups like ROSMY.
After a few days consideration, though, Strawderman reveals his most important reason for coming out. "I want to have a meaningful relationship," he says with confidence. "It is something I would like to have before I die. You can't take the theater home with you at night, it doesn't sleep with you at night. I would like to experience some of those things." Like all of us, gay or straight, Strawderman just wants to be loved.
And to be trusted. "I'm not a person who will go steal money from someone, but I'm not honest," he says. "I lie to people every day."
Now, the truth is out. Randy Strawderman is gay.Pride Week
This is a fitting week for Randy Strawderman to come out, as it is also the week of the Richmond Pride Coalition's annual Pride Festival. The celebration kicks off on Thursday, Sept. 14,with a film festival to be held in the University of Richmond's Science Center Auditorium. Four films will be screened during the event: "Boy's Shorts: The New Queer Cinema," "Choosing Children," "Horse Dreams in BBQ Country" and "It's Elementary." A $5 donation is requested.
On Friday, Sept. 15, at 8 p.m., the Pride Coalition will host a reception at Barksdale Theatre for the entertainers who will appear at the next days' festival. Tickets are $25.
Then on Saturday, Sept. 16, from noon to 7 p.m., Richmond's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals, and those who support them, will take to the streets for the Richmond Pride Festival 2000. The free, yearly event will be held on East Grace Street from Second to Foushee streets and will feature entertainment from Lady Chablis, the female impersonator made famous in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"; Los Angeles comedian Cheril Vendetti; country music singer Doug Stevens; and disco diva Loleatta Holloway. Local performers such as comedian Steve Moore and singers Philip Ramierez and Kim Litkenhaus will also appear. The Barksdale Theatre will be on-hand to perform excerpts from "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," which opens on Sept. 29.
That evening from 7 to 9 p.m. a Pride cocktail party will be held at the Fan Free Clinic. Tickets are available by calling Virginians for Justice at 643-2050.
For details on any of these events, call 353-4133 or go to www.gayrichmond.com
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