Gay Dating in the 50′s and 60′s – ‘The Block,’ Nicki’s, and Organized Crime
Before Grindr. Before Adam4Adam. Before Nu. Before Scruff. Before rainbow flags flew from the Richmond Federal Reserve. Before AIDS wiped out a generation. Before ‘gayborhood’ was a descriptor. There was “the block.” There was Nicki’s. There was The Male Box. But it certainly wasn’t easy to meet other lesbians and gays.
The 50′s and 60′s were not exactly open and welcoming to those who loved those of the same gender. In addition to restrictive laws governing liquor sales and “sodomy,” congregating with known homosexuals was itself a crime. Back room clubs, public cruising, and seedy crime lords became the de facto outlet for a lifestyle that is now seeing a wave of acceptance.
“There is something in humanity that somehow likes to demonize a group,” said Guy Kinman, an LGBT activist, now in his 90′s who moved to Richmond in 1960. “… in those days, when you became aware you were attracted to a group of people that other people were not attracted to, you knew it was kind of frightening.” Due to the complete lack of discourse about the topic of homosexuality and the post-WWII communist witch hunt that sought gay people as well, publicly being gay was nearly a death sentence, or at least a jail sentence.
But that fear didn’t stop the fledgling gay community from coming together to drink and dance.
There were the obvious outlets – the YMCA and the YWCA were both frequented by LGBT folks. Kinman recollects a trip to Chicago in 1957 where he spent the night on the YMCA’s 5th floor, known to be the “gay floor.”
“You go there and walk around… if you see someone interesting, you turn around, then that starts the process…” said Beth Marschak, sprightly long-time activist who literally wrote the book on gay Richmond’s history (Lesbian And Gay Richmond). She described some of the more publicly located outlets for gays and lesbians to meet.
“The Block,” usually downtown near the Richmond Public Library, was an ever-changing collection of streets frequented by folks looking to meet. “Cruising,” as Bob Jones called it. Jones, an older gentleman and member of the Richmond area Prime Timers, a social group geared toward older gay men (though accepting men of all ages), said body language was the only way to let other people know you were interested. “It was a look in the eyes, and your hands. You don’t do this now.”
But meeting in public like that came with many many dangers, mainly the chance of police or other members of the public spotting you and outing you – often publishing your name and face into local papers and labeling you a pervert. Bars, social groups, and sports leagues popped up to help connect people.
“Sports, softball, bowling. Usually, it wouldn’t be an all-lesbian team, but if people were involved, they were comfortable with it,” said Marschak, recalling her own involvement in such circles. Marschak was involved in activism early, particularly with the feminist movement. “There weren’t a lot of open women, but you could see lesbians that were there,” she said.
Marschak pointed out one establishment frequented by lesbians after sporting events: Tanglewood, located out in the country near Goochland. It was a restaurant in the front, but it had a back room where women could dance together in peace.
This level of privacy was the norm. Jones summed up the sentiment in 4 words – “We lived in fear.” Jones said. “State jobs, education jobs – you’d lose your job in a second if you were seen.”
This secrecy lead to profiteering of the worst kind, with organized crime being the only groups willing to open these illegal bars for people to meet. “Serving and having gay people in a bar was a crime already,” said Kinman. The crime bosses were already negotiating ABC deals and bribing the police, and they knew this unique clientele would pay a premium for a place to be themselves.
Enter Leo Koury, a self proclaimed “Godfather of the gay community.” Koury opened numerous gay and lesbian establishments in Richmond starting in the 60′s. According to Marschak’s book, Koury opened several gay and lesbian focused places like Smitty’s and the 409 club. One venture, Dialtone, was unique because it had telephones at every table, and a patron could literally call another table for an introduction or otherwise. But public discusion of gay bars in general, let alone Koury’s fingers in these operations, was highly frowned upon. “People were terrified,” said Marschak, “… we didn’t want to lose the few places we had. We didn’t have many places, so if you brought up something that wasn’t so good about it [like the criminal element], you were maybe imperiling them.”
Koury’s photo from his Most Wanted poster
Koury’s undoing would be his attempts to monopolize gay bars in Richmond. In 1978 he was involved in the shooting of a bouncer at one gay club, and sending an assassin to another club in town. Koury went on the run, making it onto the FBI’s most wanted list, but evading police until his death in 1991 in a San Diego hospital from a brain hemorrhage. Koury was on the FBI’s list longer than any other current criminal.
There were, of course, rituals at some bars as well. Whether it was knowing how to knock, or which doors to enter, a lot of getting inside was all in who you knew. Marschak recalled one place in Carytown in 1973, Nicki’s, run by Lou and her girlfriend, Pick. An Italian restaurant by day, the ‘closed’ sign at night was the signal that it had changed its target audience. You’d knock on the door, with heavy blinds to block you from seeing in. Someone would peep through the cracks, and wouldn’t let you inside if they deemed you “too butch.”
Marschak and her femenist friends wrote to Lou and ask them to change their policy and be more accepting. They received a reply that stated, “They expected women to dress like the star they were born under.” – a phrase that still makes Marschak laugh. “They had a very conservative notion of how lesbians should look, again, because of fear.” Said Marschak, “They were afraid of things.”
African American bars and clubs were a separate entity all their own. Breaking many laws, places like Lulu’s served liquor without a license and served after hours, and was predominately for black lesbians. And these seperations existed across the spectrum – lesbian bars had strickly enforced ‘no-men’ policies, and the gay men had their own places as well. “Everyone wanted their own private world,” said Jones.”It wasn’t tension, but they wanted their own identity and their own private place.”
Jones and Marschak listed as many as 6 gay bars in Richmond at one time – a number that seemed surprising compared to only four that are outright “gay bars” currently. But Kinman and Jones saw it as progress, and a sign of the better times. “Applebees is a gay bar now,” said Kinman. “You don’t need gay bars like we used to.” Jones notices now, when he goes to new restaurants in town, how indistinguishable gays and lesbians are from the crowds. “All these young people, lots of single women. I didn’t notice any gay people. But now you just wouldn’t know.”
Marschak’s book Lesbian and Gay Richmond – a wonderful pictorial of Richmond’s LGBT history and where the photos for this article came from – is available online here. You can also pick it up at LGBT book stores in town, as well as at the Valentine Museum.
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