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Discovering Our History: Carytown LGBTQ Walking Tour Sheds Light On District’s Forgotten Past

The tour, presented by the Valentine and guided by Beth Marschak, brings important insight into the difficult history of Richmond's LGBTQ community.

Sarah Kerndt | June 26, 2018

In the realm of LGBTQ culture, history is often overlooked. Lacking an understanding of our history results in generation gaps, with the rising millennial generation having little sense of the battles won and lost within our community. Millennials today may know little about a time — a surprisingly recent time — when federal, state, and local governments had legislation on the books specifically designed to ruin the lives of those assumed to be LGBTQ, or caught in LGBTQ establishments. Those of us lucky enough to live out and proud in a more welcoming modern world must make an active point to remember, acknowledge, and understand the decades of work that got us to this point.

To this end, The Valentine, Richmond’s headquarters for all things history in the city of Richmond, hosted an LGBT history walking tour through Carytown on a hot Sunday earlier this month. The tour was created and guided by Beth Marschak, co-author of Lesbian And Gay Richmond and founder of Richmond Lesbian Feminists.

The tour began at Carytown’s most popular and longest-lasting LGBTQ bar, Babes of Carytown, and took tour-goers on a journey through Carytown’s LGBTQ past. It was quite a surprise for younger attendees (like myself) to see which unassuming stores on Cary St. were once gay clubs.

Former site of Alexander’s Uptown Lounge. The club was upstairs, which you gained access to through the door on the right.

Carytown’s LGBTQ history began in the mid-20th century. With the development of the interstate highway system and the growth of suburbs, traditional city-dwellers began to move outside the city limits. This made Carytown a more attractive destination for establishments that could thrive in a less well-off area, including “thrift stores… art spaces, [and] LGBT spaces,” according to Marschak.

During this time, Carytown became a relatively LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood. However, friendlier doesn’t always mean safer. Bar owners and patrons had to take major precautions in order to protect themselves from public exposure.

The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control board (VA ABC) proved to be one of the communities largest opponents due to discriminatory laws in place at the time, which prohibited serving alcohol to known members of the LGBTQ community. During the tour, Marschak read from the ABC regulations in place in the 70s, which included Section 4-37: “A bar’s license may be suspended or revoked if the bar has become a meeting place and rendezvous of users of narcotics, drugs, homosexuals, prostitutes, pimps, panderers, gamblers, or habitual law violators,” as well as Section 4-98: “Forbids a licenses from employing any person who has the general reputation, as a prostitute, homosexual, panderer, gambler, habitual law violator, person of ill repute, user of or peddler of narcotics, or person who drinks to access or a b-girl.”

Formerly Carytown Inn, which was popular with lesbians in the 1980s.

Even today, Babes has no outside signifiers that it’s a gay bar. Some might be curious about this subtle presence, which extends to windows being blacked out; the reality is that it’s a testament to dark history surrounding LGBTQ club culture in the 70s and 80s, when Babes was starting out. “The public places people could gather were always in danger of being closed down by the ABC board,” Marschak said. Raids were conducted on numerous occasions. Those caught in raids were subject to being outed in the paper, which often led to job loss.

As we walked further down Cary St, the club-going narratives eventually began to bleed together in bleak fashion. The community had clubs… then they would be shut down. We had something nice… then the government took it away. That was the reality in those days.

The tour ended at the Byrd Theatre. The last 45 minutes of the tour being spent inside the air-conditioned atmosphere of the Byrd were a blessing after being out in the June heat, but the amount of LGBTQ history that took place within the Byrd wasn’t nearly enough to justify the amount of time spent on the theatre’s overall history, most of which had nothing to do with the LGBTQ community.

Former site of Nikki’s, circa 1970s. Italian Restaurant by day, secret lesbian bar by night.

It was hard not to imagine all the narratives missing, all the complexities of life in those days that were omitted from the telling of our history. While the importance of tours like this is irrefutable, it had a strong focus on white gay and lesbian club culture. With the complexities of LGBTQ history and culture often getting lost, I can’t help but wish that walking tours like this would exist in other parts of the city, giving more representation to other communities and historical figures that it’d be all too easy to forget.