In 2011, the Human Rights Campaign conducted its first annual Municipal Equality Index survey, a study that reveals the ways that many cities can — and do — support the LGBTQ+ people who live and work there, even where states and the federal government have failed to do so. Cities are rated on a scale of 0-100, based on the city’s laws, policies, benefits, and services as they apply to the local LGBTQIA+ community
For the first few years of the survey, no Hampton Roads municipalities were on the radar as their scores were dismal. But in the years since, most of the Seven Cities have drastically improved their scores through enacting progressive and inclusive policies and procedures.
The City of Hampton is a prime example. In 2014, the City made its first appearance on the Index with a dismal 0 points. In 2022, that score shot up to 77.
Part of the improvement is the City’s increasing commitment to creating offices and hiring personnel dedicated to improving inclusivity for all citizens. At the forefront of that effort is the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
In 1995, the Hampton City Council appointed a group of citizens to look at diversity issues within the city. Two years and several studies later, this group, called the Citizens’ Unity Commission I, recommended that the city establish an ongoing community-based advisory group to carry this group’s diversity work forward. Since then, the office has grown into an umbrella public/private partnership with a wide array of community partners and programs.
We sat down with Gabe Diaz, the office’s Executive Director and LGBTQ Liaison, to discuss its beginnings, its astounding success in improvising Hampton’s diversity profile, and its continuing mission to ensure that the City of Hampton is welcoming, supportive, and inclusive.
OUTLIFE757: You may recall we were here a couple of years ago and interviewed Latiesha Handie who was then the director of the Citizen’s Unity Commission. Tell me how that office morphed into what it is today.
DIAZ: Latiesha did an excellent job laying the groundwork for the office as it exists today. Her role was somewhat different in that the Unity Commission is a citizen-based organization. A few years ago, the City took on the task of creating a municipal office with a mission that built on that work. We conducted a City executive management retreat and did some real serious brainstorming. We realized that the work we were doing as the Unity Commission didn’t fully define the work that we were actually doing. So I petitioned in 2021 for a departmental name change to better align with the work. I feel like we were missing opportunities in the community, especially with respect to our queer community.
OUTLIFE757: The Citizen’s Unity Commission, though, was pretty progressive for Hampton in 1995 to begin hosting dialogue about diversity relations.
DIAZ: Absolutely. The inception of that office was based upon the civil unrest with relation to racial injustice that emerged from that case. As valuable as that was at the time, those conversations were limited to race. Now we’ve grown into a much more formalized inclusive City office with a strong LGBTQ focus. And we also address inclusivity for all, regardless of race, color, class, religion, age disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
OUTLIFE757: Your office has also implemented some really progressive community programs. Tell me about the Hampton Diversity College.
DIAZ: That’s a free program and one of our flagship programs founded in 2004. It’s been a recurring multi-levelprogram ever since with over 5000 graduates. It focuses on increasing knowledge of the value of diversity, unity, and inclusion in workplaces and in our community. It has three levels that consist of a variety of classes ranging from Diversity 101 to Social Justice to LGBTQ Awareness. It’s also a conversation-based platform where individuals can come and share their experiences. It’s offered in person and virtually, and you don’t have to be a Hampton resident to join in.
OUTLIFE757: Let’s talk about Hampton’s employee diversity training. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I was looking at your MEI scores, and I felt like this is one of the areas where you didn’t quite gain as many points.
DIAZ: Agreed. And we are working on that with our human resources director and City manager. Also, you know how lucky we are to have Neva White (former DE&I officer for the City of Virginia Beach) over here now. You know that she helped raise Virginia Beach’s MEI score to a perfect 100. And she’s instrumental in guiding us along that same path.
OUTLIFE757: This office has several community partners that are doing amazing work in conjunction with yours. The Youth Advisory Group’s work is amazing.
DIAZ: It is. It’s a group of 13 to 19 year-olds, and the prerequisite is that they must either be a Hampton resident or attend a Hampton City School. The Youth Advisory Group represents the voice of young Hampton residents on issues related to diversity and inclusion. The group’s goals are to increase opportunities for Hampton youth to engage in meaningful dialogues on diversity and inclusion.
One of the events they hosted was called Living Life and Losing Labels. The group convened in conversation circles and the discussion revolved around LGBTQ youth in the schools, how to offer safe spaces, and provide a place to talk about their struggles: coming out to their parents, acceptance of family members, and other robust emotional conversations. We’ve been able to connect many of them with counseling services. To have City’s support in that process is super impactful for young people and their parents.
OUTLIFE757: That sounds that sounds really innovative to me. This is the first time I’ve heard of a municipality with a similar program. That usually falls to the GSAs in the school counselors.
DIAZ: That’s the mission of our office now. To bring people together, to have those conversations, and to do the work. There’s a quote, and I screenshotted just this morning from Lila Watson who said, “If you’ve come here to help me, then you’re wasting your time. But if you come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let’s work together.
Editor’s Note: this article originally ran in the June 2023 edition of Outlife757 Magazine and he’s been updated since it’s original publication.