NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A beloved pillar of the Hampton Roads LGBTQ community is being remembered for his kindness, empathy and passion for the people and causes he championed.

Charles Kirtland, the owner of Gershwin’s in downtown Norfolk and the chair of the LGBT Life Center‘s board of directors, died suddenly this week.

“He meant everything. He was kindness, he was love, he was acceptance. To be LGBT in Hampton Roads was Charles,” said Nick Dintelmann, with Hampton Roads Pride.

Kirtland, a Norfolk resident since 2007, was involved in everything from volunteering with Hampton Roads Pride and the local Stonewall Sports league to local drag and burlesque shows. He was also well known for his involvement in the downtown Norfolk business community, always open to hosting any type of event at Gershwin’s.

“I don’t know if there’s a corner of this LGBT community that Charles didn’t touch,” said Stacie Walls, CEO of the LGBT Life Center. “He was everywhere, and he was there with passion. And he truly embodied what it means to serve. There was not anything he wouldn’t do for anybody.”

Charles Kirtland and friends. (Courtesy of Nicholas Dintelmann)

After testing positive for HIV in 2018, Kirtland “made it his mission to destigmatize living with HIV,” Walls said.

“He was very open about his HIV status … he believed strongly that everybody should get tested, but also if you’re living with HIV you should really be out about it … you can live healthier when you don’t have the stress lingering and the stigma associated with it,” Walls said.

He was also about making sure everyone was included and represented.

One story about Kirtland that stood out to Walls was when he came to a community event in a white dress with the names of trans women of color who’ve been murdered. She also talked specifically about how Kirtland sought to include Black-owned restaurants in the organization’s Dining Out For Life event.

“His willingness to raise up really vulnerable voices and really challenging topics was just magnificent … he authentically engaged in things, it wasn’t like ‘here let me write you a check’ … I know that his voice will live on for a very long time.”

In a 2018 interview with Outwire 757, Kirtland said that Dr. Charles Ford, a Norfolk State University professor and local historian, was his LGBT hero.

Charles Kirtland and friends at the Wells Theater in Norfolk. Charles Ford is second from the back. (Courtesy of Nicholas Dintelmann)

Ford said in an interview with WAVY on Monday that Kirtland considered himself a son to Ford and that he had a “one-of-a-kind” voice.

“He was my friend … a comrade in the struggle for LGBT rights locally … just a person who was very empathetic, very mindful of other people.”

Ford talked about how Kirtland recently took over as primary owner of Gershwin’s after working for years as a bartender, giving a notable boost to the restaurant’s non-alcoholic drinks and food with the addition of a new chef.

Charles Kirtland and friends at Gershwin’s (Courtesy of Nicholas Dintelmann)

“What he truly did was show that you can live a full and successful life being HIV positive,” Dintelmann added. “You could own a business, you could be active in your community, you could volunteer. You could do anything you wanted to be.” 

Walls however wanted to stress that it’s important to “not assume that strong people don’t have needs as well.”

“This is an opportunity for people to talk about mental health, and to check on people … we really want to encourage conversation about that. That’s what Charles would want us to do too … have conversations that are difficult, even if it takes you an extra minute to have that conversation, do it. Because it could really save someone’s life.”

A memorial for Kirtland is scheduled for Monday, February 6 at The Wave on Colley Avenue in Norfolk.

“We are a close knit community, and right now we are supporting each other thru this. A leader among us now rests in power and in peace. Hampton Roads Pride will always remember, Charles Kirtland,” Hampton Roads Pride wrote.

For information on programs, events, presentations and support groups the National Alliance on Mental Illness offers, click here.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-TALK.