by Mel Frizzell, Special Collections Assistant
The Breaking the Ice Gay and Lesbian Pride Festival was first held February 2, 1991 in ODU Webb Center. It was sponsored by the ODU Gay and Lesbian Student Union (GLSU) and the Hampton Roads Lesbian and Gay Pride Coalition (HRLGPC). The event was envisioned as a winter pride event to supplement the annual Out in the Park pride picnic held each summer. It was also a fundraiser with proceeds going toward Breaking the Ice expenses and toward the summer picnic. The main event took place from 9:30am to 5pm and was followed by the play “I’m Positive” at 8pm and a dance in Webb Center from 10pm to 1am. Daytime events included a showcase of vendors and organizations, as well as workshops “on healthy gay and lesbian relationships, being single, addiction, political activism, coming out, minorities, and the dilemma of gay men and lesbians in the military.” Guest speakers that year included Robert Bray of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) who led a workshop on “The State of the Gay and Lesbian Nation: 1991” and Kate Dyer, an aide to U.S. Representative Gerry Studds (D-MA) who led a workshop on gays in the military. Tickets to the main event were $5 in advance and $7 at the door. Attendance to the evening play and the dance were free.
The format stayed fairly consistent in subsequent years, though there were some changes. The daytime hours shortened to 11am to 5pm the following year and by 1997 the main event ran from 12noon to 5pm. Admission costs were lowered to $3 general admission and $1 for students, and only went up by $1 by the late 1990s. Early evening events varied year to year. Some years featured plays, most years an evening film festival, and a few years featured other entertainment. 1997 featured one act plays by ODU students, followed by country dancing performed by the OtherSiders country dance troupe, and music by local singer and songwriter Julie Clark. 1998 featured Lesbian comedian and musician Lynn Lavner and music by the Hampton Roads Men’s Chorus. The late evening dance in Webb Center remained a fixture each year. In 1997, there was an “All Faiths” continental breakfast held in Webb Center before the day’s other activities.
A number of prominent guest speakers were featured over the years. Guest speakers often represented current events related to the LGBT community. The 1992 guest speaker was Karen Thompson who had recently been awarded guardianship of her lover Sharon Kowalski in the Minnesota Appeals Court. Kowalski had been “severely disabled” in a car accident in 1983. Guardianship had initially been awarded to Kowalski’s parents who barred Thompson from visiting. After nine years of court battles, Thompson finally won custody in December 1991. The 1993 guest speaker was Crae Pridgen — a gay man who had been beaten outside a gay bar in Wilmington, North Carolina by three Marines in January 1993. This happened only a week before his appearance at the 1993 Breaking the Ice. In 1995, Rev. Mel White of the Metropolitan Community Church was guest speaker. White had been an Evangelical writer who ghostwrote autobiographies for televangelists such as Jerry Falwell, Sr., Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham. White came out as gay in 1994, transferred his credentials to the gay-affirming Metropolitan Community Church, and devoted himself to serving gay Christians. The week following the 1995 Breaking the Ice, White led a peaceful protest on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach. White had requested a meeting with Pat Robertson to discuss how the televangelist’s anti-gay rhetoric was harming gay people “in the name of God.” Robertson refused the meeting and White was arrested for trespassing. White refused bond and fasted three weeks in the Virginia Beach City Jail until Robertson finally agreed to meet with him on March 8. At that time, Robertson dropped the charges against White. Guests speakers for other years included Mandy Carter of the Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRCF); Barbara Grier, CEO and Founder of Naid Press; Kerry Lobel of the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce (NGLTF); David Perry of Virginians For Justice, and Lesbian comedian/singer Lynn Lavner.
A variety of workshops were held at Breaking the Ice with some themes remaining consistent over the years. Given the huge military presence in Hampton Roads, it’s not surprising that “gays in the military” was a frequent workshop theme. Coming out was also a frequent theme, as were Lesbian and Gay relationship issues, LGBT affirming-spirituality (including alternative spiritual beliefs like Wicca), and LGBT politics and activism. Other topics included LGBT youth, bisexuality, diversity within the LGBT community, addictions, safer sex, Lesbian and Gay Unions, LGBT legal concerns, finances, child custody, Lesbian and Gay literature, and dealing with grief.
Each year ODU’s Webb Center cafeteria was filled with LGBT vendors and organizations. Vendors included bookstores such as OutRight Books, Phoenix Rising, Lambda Rising, The Tidewater Women’s Bookshelf, White Rabbit Books and Things, and others. Other vendors sold pagers, candles, clothing and jewelry, health products, and Pagan spiritual supplies, among other things. Organizations included political and activist organizations like the Human Rights Campaign Fund, Virginians for Justice, and even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Local service organizations included Tidewater AIDS Crisis Taskforce, AIDSCare, Full Circle Hospice, and American Red Cross. LGBT-affirming religious organizations were represented. These included New Life MCC, All God’s Children, Dignity (Catholic), Honesty (gay Baptists), Unitarian-Universalists, Integrity (Episcopal), and Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. Support, social, and recreational organizations with tables at the event included Youth Out United, Transgender Pride, Gay Games, Mid-Atlantic Amateur Softball Association, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Primetimers, Lambda Car Club, Gay Men’s Chorus, and Tidewater Bears.
Breaking the Ice couldn’t happen without the support of its sponsors and those organizations that provided volunteers and workshop facilitators. The two main co-hosts for Breaking the Ice were always the Hampton Roads Lesbian and Gay Pride Coalition and the ODU Gay and Lesbian Student Union (later renamed ODU Gay Lesbian Bisexual Students and Allies). Over the years other community sponsors and supporters included: Mandamus Society, Hershee Bar, Coral Sand Motel, Don’t Tell Mama restaurant, New Leaf / Quarberg Gallery, Mitch’s Cut-ups, OutRight Books, Out of the Dark, Out and About, Out in Virginia, Our Own Community Press, New Life MCC, Mac Graphics, Virginian’s for Justice, Youth Out United, Bi-Choice, All God’s Children Church, the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, Tidewater AIDS Crisis Taskforce, Tastebuds Supper Club, Taylor Rental, B&B Exxon, and many others.
Breaking the Ice continued at ODU through the late 1990s, and possibly into the early 2000s. The exact date of the last classic Breaking the Ice is unclear as our primary sources for the festival in the ODU Special Collections and University Archives only go up to 1998. ODU Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) brought Breaking the Ice back to ODU in 2019.