Celebrating 40 years, Richmond Lesbian Feminists were there for the best and worst of times
“It was a different time back then and it was dangerous to be a lesbian.” This was the response that both Beth Marschak and Bobbi Weinstock gave me when I asked what the impetus was for starting the Richmond Lesbian Feminists.
Marschak, one of the founders of the group, went on to describe a sociocultural time when all gay people were forced into living with secrecy and apprehension for safety. RLF, which celebrates its 40th Anniversary this weekend and next, had its first official meeting in July, 1975.
Richmond was a completely different city for its LGBT population back then.
LGBTQ bars were raided regularly by police and the ABC had laws in place prohibiting both serving known homosexuals alcohol and having alcohol served by known homosexuals. Marschak spoke of the only two lesbian bars in Richmond.
One, named Nikki’s, doubled as an Italian restaurant during the day and was located across from the Byrd on Cary St. At night, the door would be locked and anyone asking for admission would have to be approved or know someone who was inside to be let in.
The other, LuLu’s, was located in Church Hill and was known as a “nip joint.” At that time, alcohol could only be served by the bottle in VA. LuLu’s not only served alcohol by the nip (glass), but they served primarily to a lesbian population. A customer could not gain entrance into LuLu’s unless they were accompanied by someone who the keepers of the bar recognized and trusted.
In order to stay safe, these bars had to be connected to organized crime in Richmond so that they could pay off the police to stay away.
RLF sought a safe place to meet that didn’t involve these dangers.
While safety was a primary concern for the founding members of RLF, Marschak and Stephanie Meyers, so was the need for advocacy.
In a time when many of the civil rights movements were in full swing across the country, African Americans and women were finding their voices through organizations such as the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Movement, NOW, and the National Women’s Political Caucus. Yet, the LGBT community still remained relatively suppressed and somewhat isolated from the mainstream.
Many of these movements believed that openly accepting gay or lesbian factions would hinder their ability towards progress for equal rights. For instance, at NOW conferences, audience microphones would often be turned off when a lesbian approached to ask a question or give input.
In today’s world of social media, it’s hard to imagine that just 40 years ago, the media was all but silent when it came to LGBT activity and issues.
“Certainly those words were never used,” says Marschak. “Stonewall was the first time I remember any kind of widespread coverage on an LGBT related story…Awareness, in general, was very low.” Marschak went on to discuss how the founding of RLF was as much about survival and information as it was anything else.
With little to no media coverage, no inclusion into the broader freedom movement groups who were scared of having “lesbian visibility” within their causes, RLF formed for the first time out of a workshop at the National Political Women’s Caucus.
Their first meeting was held at the Richmond Friends’ Meeting House, a Quaker establishment. At first a statewide organization, the “Lesbian Feminists” were organized in Richmond, Tidewater, and Charlottesville. However, they faced great challenges to even be able to meet and form community freely. For instance, the Charlottesville branch secured a grant to have a conference, but a week before the event was to take place, their venue, having learned that they were a lesbian group, kicked them out.
The Charlottesville branch had to pay back the money that they had already sent to vendors and they eventually folded due to these circumstances. This kind of story was commonplace within the early organizing days of RLF.
In Richmond, the Lesbian Feminists were building strength. Both Marschak and Weinstock were active in the national feminist movements and so RLF became active politically as well, on a national and local level. However, the main mission of RLF was much closer to home.
In a time when society as a whole made being a lesbian woman dangerous and taboo, RLF provided and still provides a safe, thriving, vital community touchstone for the lesbian community while focusing on its unique needs and causes. One of their key methods has always been the RLF “flyer” or newsletter.
Weinstock chuckled as she recalled the process of putting together the newsletter in days before technology and social media:
“We would meet at someone’s house and talk about the things we would include for the month. We always had things like poetry and a children’s corner, but our focus was on spreading awareness of the national and local news for our communities. These things weren’t being reported on and so, there was no other way to be informed…Then we’d go home, type up our articles or columns on our typewriters, and come back together a week later to literally cut and paste everything together into the newsletter.”
The newsletter played a vital role in community-building, according to Weinstock, and helped lesbians across the state to feel less isolated. It would address issues that no one was talking about openly —child custody, lesbian women’s health, etc.
It was a way to feel connected to others with like minds and needs through a safe medium.
The newsletter was often the primary means of community building, because RLF met with significant resistance when trying to find places to physically meet for their monthly pot-lucks or workshops on women’s issues.
Weinstock told stories of a succession of meeting places that RLF used until it was discovered that the group was made up of lesbians: public libraries, the YWCA, and even public sports fields. However, dedicated to their mission to provide community and visibility for lesbians, RLF continued to hold public forums and outreach to get people involved and talking about women’s, lesbians’ and feminist issues.
One of their most prominent events is their renowned, all lesbian, New Year’s Eve dance. Providing a much needed space for being around other members of the community in freedom and celebration, this dance has been a cornerstone of the lesbian community in Richmond for decades.
RLF is one of the oldest and storied LGBT organizations in Virginia. Their dedication to providing community, advocacy and a safe place for socializing has undoubtedly affected thousands of lives. In a time when the media and the overwhelming majority of Americans did their best to suppress lesbians and force them into isolation, RLF remained stalwart and continued to fight to extend awareness and connection to those in desperate need of those things in Richmond, VA.
As Marschak recalled, “I met a woman once who has been receiving our newsletter for years, but was not able to come to any of our events. She told me that just knowing we were out there gave me support.”
Below is a schedule of RLF’s 40th Anniversary celebratory events. Come out and show this organization your support!
Check out details below and reach out to them directly for more info and tickets at RichmondLF40@gmail.com.
Apryl Prentiss is a right wing dropout. Born and raised in Virginia Beach, VA and heavily involved in the evangelical Christian community for her entire life. She lives in Richmond, VA with her partner, Adrian, and enjoys trying to dialogue with those in the evangelical community about sexuality.
There will be a RLF 40th Celebration for all of the Richmond Community on Saturday, July 18, 2015 from 2-4pm at Diversity Richmond’s galleryJuly 13, 2015
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