Digging the Skeletons out of Richmond’s Closet
The following story was published in our 2013 issue of G Magazine – GayRVA’s print publication. Check out the entire magazine here.
Surely you’re aware of Richmond’s status as a mecca for US History. However, beneath the common tales of wars, presidents, and prohibition, there’s a more personal past to the River City. Just like any American city or town, Richmond’s gay and lesbian history carries its own interesting stories, people, and lively places. Before Babe’s, New York Deli, and kickball tournaments, the lesbian scene of the past started slowly but emerged as a bold force which has paved the way to make RVA a tolerable city for LGBT residents.
Like many in the younger generation, I’m guilty of taking things for granted. For example, holding my girlfriend’s hand in public, being out at work, even wearing pants. Yes, pants. At one time, wearing them was a sure sign of lesbianism, and could get you thrown out of some college classrooms. Oh, how far we’ve come.
Richmond’s lesbians and gays faced a tumultuous road throughout the decades of hiding, repression, and badass strength. In the mid 1800’s, well before Tobacco Row was converted into bourgeois living spaces and VCU’s campus invaded the surrounding city, lesbian history was quietly happening. Documented accounts of bold women who dressed in men’s clothing to serve as Civil War soldiers and officials were some of the first inklings of a lesbian presence in Richmond. Some of these ladies who were gay kept it quiet, but were typically strong figures in the suffragist and abolitionist movements. Unsurprisingly, being out in this era wasn’t easy, but it didn’t stop women from falling in love; many lesbians shacked up with their companions and kept to themselves.
Fast forward to the mid-1900’s, when Richmond’s queer scene became more confident after New York’s Stonewall Inn riots proved a positive catalyst for change. Bookstores, bars, restaurants, and remote hideouts became common spots for ladies to gather to share support or just have a grand time – single or not. The contrast between Richmond’s current handful of LGBT establishments and decades prior, when there was a plethora of hangouts (not all relating to alcohol), is hard to believe. At that time, in order to meet like-minded women (and lovers), you had to put forth the effort to find them.
Labrys Books, Richmond’s first women’s bookstore, opened in the Fan in the late 1970s. It quickly became a place for women to convene and form a community, well before the days of Meetup and ebooks. Labrys closed in 1981, after only four years in business, but within the same year, WomensBooks opened on East Main Street. However, it also closed just two years later.
Throughout this era, bars, dives, and restaurants were obvious hangouts for lesbians, but most had a high turnover rate. Smitty’s was a laid back joint for sporty ladies to let loose in the 1950s. A few years later, and under different management, the same space was renamed Leo’s and became a prime hangout for gay men. In the late 70s, it was renamed (yet again) to … the Male Box. Unfortunately, an alleged-rival-gay-bar-owner-shootout occurred, and the Male Box closed its doors. Lots of history for one little building that now sits on South Sheppard Street.
If you wanted to take a short trip west, Tanglewood (now Tanglewood Ordinary) in Goochland County provided a safe haven for ladies to flock after sporting events (bowling and softball were hot at this time). Here, both lesbians and gays gathered to dance and socialize in peace.
The late 60’s proved to be a highly discriminating time for the queer community and their favorite watering holes. The Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC) board revoked and shut down several establishments because they were deemed as meeting places for homosexuals. Sounds frightening, right? Like we’re contemplating ways to take over the world. After a handful of these occurrences, the gay community grew a pair and the first protest against these revocations took place in 1975.
Nicki’s, a lesbian-owned Italian restaurant, sat across from the Byrd theatre and transformed into a secretive lesbian bar when the sun went down. Nicki’s was like In-N-Out Burger’s secret menu–the good stuff wasn’t publicly known. Not only did you have to know about it, but you also had to get approval to be let in. A “closed” sign on the front door was an indication that the party was going on inside. To enter, you’d need to knock, then wait for someone to peer at you from inside and decide if you were fit to enter. Although Nicki’s served as a safe haven for women to meet and connect with one another, physical affection between women was rarely shown. Beth Marshak, a Richmonder who was a patron, recalls, “It was fairly conservative, as far as what people would be able to do … you couldn’t dance. You really would not have shown affection much there.” Even in the safest places, women still guarded themselves. Nicky’s closed their doors around the same time that Babe’s opened.
On the other side of town in Church Hill, there was Lulu’s, an exclusive bar geared towards black lesbians. This was a place where you had to know someone to get in. Talking with Marshak, she refers to Lulu’s as a “nip joint” – nope, not a strip joint, as I had envisioned. Instead, it meant Lulu’s served single liquor drinks illegally. Back in this time, if you wanted a liquor drink from a restaurant or bar, you had to purchase a bottle and drink from it throughout the night. It was like a more annoying and less sexy version of bottle service.
Communal living in the Fan? Check. I discovered Mulberry House after a few minutes of research and was instantly mesmerized. The commune, founded in 1972, actually consisted of two houses on the corner of Grace & Mulberry Street. The folks who resided here were diverse in sexual orientation and gender identity. Everyone living under the Mulberry roof embraced self-expression, shared household duties, and even referred to themselves as “The Mulberries.” Several powerful figures in the LGBT community lived here, including Gloria Norgang, a powerful activist involved with Richmond Lesbian-Feminists and WomensBooks. I’m not sure what bathroom lines were like there, but the whole concept seems kind of appealing in such a time of repression.
Activism was extremely powerful in the post-Stonewall era. Lesbians, feminists, gays, and straight women all united in the fight to raise awareness towards a number of issues. Several groups were formed, and often met in each other’s homes, bookstores, community centers, and parks. Richmond’s first gay pride festivities took place in June 1979 and included a parade, picnic lunch, and formal dance at a nearby hotel. With the help of the Virginia Historical Society, I was able to uncover several flyers for past Pride events, and quickly realized that technology has transformed the flyer aspect of promotion into tweets, email blasts, and social network updates.
In digging up the past, I wondered whether we as a younger generation have lost touch with our roots. Discussing this in my conversation with Beth, I was a bit surprised when she told me she didn’t think so. As we talked, I understood that there is activism, ongoing awareness, and a strong LGBT community. Times have changed, and although Richmond’s LGBT community still doesn’t have it all (marriage equality, workplace protection, etc.), we have more now then we once did. Activism operates through different channels, a strong majority through technological means. When you post a status update, sign an online petition, or show up to an event, you are taking a stand.
Richmond’s gay community didn’t come together overnight, and the more I’ve studied our city and talked with those who have a history here, the more I get it. Behind everything we have now are stories of people and places that brought us to where we are today.
I adore good food; the restaurants that serve it, the energy around it (even the hoopla), and telling others about it. When I'm not grubbing down on a great meal or writing, I'm mixing aromatherapy oils, letting Jillian Michaels kick my ass, and discovering new indie music that eventually goes mainstream (sigh).
“It’s important to know how you fit into the stream of history”September 22, 2016
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