Richmond is coming out, and I don’t like it

The city of Richmond, Va., is rubbing me the wrong way. The capital of Virginia (and onetime capital of the Confederate States of America) has launched a new advertising campaign aimed at LGBT travelers. This campaign has even caught the attention of the New York Times.

To kick off the campaign, Richmond posted video showing off the sights of Richmond, with locals (Richmondonians? Richmondites?) extolling the city’s welcoming and progressive spirit (footnote 1).

Richmond also started a web/print campaign ad that features letters from Richmond to other cities (Atlanta, Washington, Boston).

If I were in Richmond’s shoes, I’d probably do the same thing. LGBT people want to go where they’re welcome, which is why we’re probably not seeing a lot of LGBT tourism to Uganda. Like many another travelers, LGBT tourists seek out places with unique character — somewhere that’s not crammed with the same Olive Gardens and Walmarts we can find at home.

So what don’t I like? It’s the campaign itself, which claims that Richmond is “coming out.” I put coming out in quotes because I’m offended by the idea that anything but an individual can decide to come out of the closet.

I still remember when I came out. It was such an emotional, sensitive, and scary part of my life. I remember that when I visited my parents to tell them the news, I had packed my suitcase beforehand in case I needed to leave their house immediately, and forever. I knew on an intellectual level that my parents would readily accept me (they’re staunch progressive liberals, like me) but the entire experience was so nerve-wracking I really didn’t know what to expect.

Telling friends and other family members was also terrifying. The best reaction I got was from my baby brother, whose first response was “Does this mean we can still go car shopping this weekend?” Some people treated the news with indifference. Others behaved differently around me, and I had to cut them out of my life.

Coming out is such a powerful and personal thing that I think it’s insulting that a city can claim to do it? Did the city have have to go through a gamut of emotions, from fear to joy? Did the city risk losing friends and family? Did the city have to go through the steps of coming out to itself, then coming out to others, and finally living openly and proudly? No, of course it did not. It just hired an advertising agency that thought it was doing something cute.

Cities can’t come out. Richmond’s new advertising campaign and video trivializes the highly emotional and sensitive process of coming out.

I have checked with friends who used to live in Richmond, and they say it’s it’s a complex place that’s a little hard to describe definitively because it’s proud of its heritage (footnote 2) and, at the same time, very welcoming and progressive (footnote 3). It sounds like the kind of place I’d like to visit, if only its invitation weren’t so tone deaf.

1. Please note the lack of diversity in the video. It’s over 90 seconds long, and only one African-American is shown — and she appears for a fraction of a second.
2. Should a city be proud that it was once the capital of a country that (a) went to war against the United States of America and (b) was founded entirely on the idea that certain people didn’t deserve equal rights? Discuss.
3. Direct quote from a friend: “RVA is an historic southern city full of contradictions. I’ve spent a lot of time there. Much of the population is diverse, quirky, edgy, creative, and somewhat anti-authoritarian.”