When Republican Glenn Youngkin was running to be Virginia's governor, he defended a teacher suspended over an objection to using students' preferred pronouns. He opposed transgender children playing on sports teams aligned with their gender identity, and he indicated a personal objection to same-sex marriage.
Given those positions, it generated some bipartisan surprise in Richmond this week when he hosted a reception celebrating Pride month at the Virginia Capitol.
The event astonished and angered many LGBTQ advocates, who called the festivities hypocritical and chose not to attend. But Youngkin's supporters held up the event as an example of the conservative governor living up to a central campaign promise to serve as a unifier who cares for all his constituents.
“I think this demonstration of outreach, of genuine communication is reflective of why he was elected," said Michael Berlucchi, a city councilman from Virginia Beach, Republican and member of the state's LGBTQ+ Advisory Board who attended the reception.
Youngkin, a former private equity executive, became the first Republican in almost a decade to occupy the governor's mansion in this blue-leaning state after defeating former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a costly, high-profile race last year.
Openly religious — he once helped found a church in his basement and often opens meetings in prayer — Youngkin essentially avoided the issue of gay marriage on the campaign trail, declining to say in one interview whether he supported it. The Associated Press pressed him again in October, and he indicated that while he did not personally support same-sex marriage, it was “legally acceptable” and he would “support that.” He also emphasized that his faith calls him "to love everyone.”
Lisa Turner, who serves on the LGBTQ+ Advisory Board with Berlucchi and chairs the group created to advise the governor, said the Youngkin administration has been less than engaged with its efforts so far and took issue with how Pride month was handled.
Turner said she asked the administration for a Pride month proclamation — a ceremonial recognition that's standard for other heritage months. It didn't happen. She also said she was initially told by an administration liaison that there would be no Pride month programming and that perhaps the group should convene somewhere other than Richmond for a meeting that also happened to be on Wednesday. She wasn't informed of the reception — which she opted not to attend — until a week prior, she said.
However, Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said the June events were planned well in advance.
“The Governor is committed to leading on behalf of all Virginians. We are one Virginia and engagements help strengthen our communities and the spirit of Virginia,” she said in a statement.
Berlucchi said about 50 people attended the reception in the Capitol rotunda, smaller than similar events during the past two Democratic administrations. The reception was closed to the press, typical for such events, but the administration also took the step of closing the public building entirely at the time.
Several of the state's leading LGBTQ advocacy groups issued a joint news release condemning what they called the governor's “hypocrisy” in hosting the event.
“I was shocked. I was disappointed. I was slightly amused,” Narissa Rahaman, executive director of Equality Virginia Advocates, said of her reaction to learning that the event would take place. Rahaman said she was not extended an invitation.
James Millner, director of Virginia Pride, said in a statement that he was invited but would not attend.
“I appreciate the Governor’s invitation, but I think it is premature for this administration to celebrate LGBTQ+ equality when it has yet to take any meaningful steps to advance it,” Millner said.
Meanwhile, Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia — which opposes same-sex marriage — stopped short of criticizing Youngkin.
“The Governor should meet with citizen groups to discuss their concerns but given that nothing less than total capitulation to the LGBT agenda will appease these groups, this seems like a distraction,” she said in a statement.
Veteran political analyst Bob Holsworth said he couldn’t recall a similar Pride commemoration by another Republican administration. But he noted that public opinion on the issue has shifted since Virginia last had a GOP chief executive.
Youngkin also hosted a luncheon at the governor's mansion this month with members of the LGBTQ community and attended a roundtable Thursday hosted by the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative LGBTQ advocacy group whose endorsement he touted during his campaign.
Casey Flores, president of the group's newly organized Richmond chapter and an attendee of the luncheon, said he had no problem with a governor maintaining a faith-based opposition to homosexuality, and he criticized the backlash to this week's events.
“The Democrat Party and the people on the left, the left-leaning organizations, they all lambaste Republicans for not embracing the gay community. And then when one does, they lambaste and they lose their minds,” he said.
No LGBTQ state lawmakers were extended an invitation to Wednesday's reception, according to Turner.
Democratic Del. Danica Roem, who is transgender, equated the event to sending LGBTQ constituents “thoughts and prayers.”
Roem was particularly disappointed that the governor's office was publicly silent earlier this year on a legislative push blocked by House Republicans to remove a defunct provision prohibiting gay marriage from the state constitution. It's a matter of urgency, she said, at a time when some advocates increasingly fear the right of same-sex couples to marry could someday be stripped away by the Supreme Court.
Turner wondered if what seemed like a last-minute jostling to schedule a few Pride events was a response to a recent virtual attack against her group, when an online meeting was flooded with racist and homophobic messages and imagery, according to VPM News. She noted that Youngkin made an appearance at the group's Wednesday meeting, where he condemned the harassment, but said she thinks the administration could do far more to advocate for Virginia's LGBTQ community.
“Just having a Pride event is not as significant as actually putting in the footwork to make sure that the community has protections,” she said.