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Carytown’s LGBTQ History explored in walking tour Sunday

Marilyn Drew Necci | August 18, 2017

The Carytown neighborhood has played quite an important role in providing space for the RVA LGBTQ community over the past several decades. However, in light of Carytown’s growth in recent years to become one of the major commercial districts in the city, that sort of history might not be visible to the naked eye. Luckily for us, there’s a great opportunity to learn all about the important LGBTQ history that took place on those streets, both before and after it became an in-demand shopping destination.

This Sunday afternoon, Beth Marschak, the Valentine History Center‘s master tour guide, will conduct an LGBTQ-focused historical walking tour of Carytown. Marschak has plenty of personal history with the neighborhood, which she draws from as material for the tour. “I grew up here, and went to Carytown myself starting in the 70s,” she says. “Some things I know from experience, and other things that date from the 60s I’ve learned from just being around the community.” She mentions that she even got a few tips on facebook, helping further prove that the murky world of social media does still have some redeeming qualities.

Speaking to GayRVA over the phone, Marschak set the scene for us with some fascinating historical detail. “It was illegal to sell alcohol to known homosexuals in the state of Virginia until 1991,” she said. “It was also illegal for a known homosexual to sell alcohol.” Therefore, she explained, the gay and lesbian bars of the era had a great deal to fear from police raids. “Several bars were closed that way over the years,” she adds.

This legal dilemma helped bring organized crime into the picture. In particular, it gave local organized crime figure Leo Joseph Koury the opportunity to make a whole bunch of money at the LGBTQ community’s expense. Later ending up on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List due to two 1979 murders, Koury originally made his fortune by helping to open and maintain various gay bars. “He had part ownership in several clubs, and many he didn’t own paid him for protection,” Marschak said.

One particular location run by Koury, The Dialtone, was located in the shopping center that until recently housed the Carytown Martins. Before Martins bought it out, the store had been a Ukrops location. The Ukrop family were known for their conservative Christian beliefs and enacted them through their business, most obviously symbolized by their remaining closed on Sundays. “Now I can’t prove this,” Marshak told us. “But it is said by a lot of people that Ukrops went into that shopping center on the condition that there be no gay establishments on the premises.” As you can imagine, the Dialtone did not fare well under such scrutiny, and was soon out of business.

Marschak’s walking tour will spotlight the location of many former gay and lesbian bars within Carytown, almost all of which are gone now (Babe’s obviously being the only holdout). But there are many other important locations on the itinerary. She mentions the former location of Commonwealth Professional Services, which provided important counseling assistance for pioneering LGBTQ groups within the city, as well as the former Biff’s Books, which was the only place in Richmond to stock gay literature and newspapers in decades past.

The walking tour will begin at Nacho Mama’s, which has significance on the tour due to its being owned by openly gay local businessman Raul Cantu. It will reach its end at the Byrd Theatre, on the other end of Carytown. Attendees will be given an in-depth tour of this historic establishment, which has in more recent years played host to everything from John Waters live appearances to Transgender Day Of Remembrance services. And rest assured, we haven’t even scratched the surface of all the locations that will be spotlighted inbetween.

With all of the current LGBTQ-related issues causing controversy today, Marschak feels that this tour is an important reminder of what our community has already endured to get here. “It’s good for people to know that, at various times, the community has faced a lot of challenges,” she said. “The current political trends have made people comfortable expressing bigotry–racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia–in ways they haven’t been since the 50s. It’s good to know that in the past, organizing supported the community, so that when anyone is attacked, we can all respond. People don’t have to deal with it by themselves.”

The Carytown LGBTQ History Walking Tour will take place from 2 until 4 PM on Sunday, August 20. Meet at Nacho Mama’s, located at 3449 W. Cary St, at 2 PM. Tickets are $15 for the general public, $5 for Valentine members. For more information, contact Beth Marschak at marschak@juno.com, or call the Valentine: 804-649-7011.