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Beth Marschak (center, with moon shirt) and a group of friends pose outside Aunt Sarah's Pancake House on Broad Street after attending a lesbian prom in 1980. (Photo courtesy Mary Dean Carter)
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Beth Marschak (left) and Bobbi Weinstock, a leader with the Richmond Lesbian and Gay Pride Coalition, outside the Greater Richmond Convention Center during a Pride event in the mid-1990s (Photo courtesy Beth Marschak)
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Beth Marschak (fourth from left, with necklace) and other community leaders at a fundraiser for Richmond Lesbian and Gay Pride and Virginians for Justice (now Equality Virginia) in the mid-1990s (Photo courtesy Beth Marschak)
In our October issue, we highlight advances in rights and recognition for Richmond’s LGBT community. Leaders of early organizations, initiatives and marches talked about turning points over the years. Two of them, Beth Marschak and Bill Harrison, also shared memories of what it was like to live in Richmond in the 1960s and ’70s.
“Police could raid lesbian or gay bars and did. You could be arrested and your name could be in the newspaper, charged with ‘lewd and lascivious behavior,’ ” says Marschak, 65, co-author of “Lesbian and Gay Richmond.”
“Teachers, nurses, lawyers, doctors — anybody in those kinds of jobs could be out of their profession forever,” she adds. “And in custody cases you could lose your children. In fact, you would lose your children in Virginia at that time.”
When Marschak was in high school, she says, “Nobody talked about gay people, nobody talked about lesbians. If I went to the library, I would not have found anything under those topics. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but it wouldn’t have been there.”
She remembers the Stonewall riots in 1969 in New York City making national news. “That was the first time that I ever saw something that resonated with me,” she says. Her involvement in the feminist movement while a student at Westhampton, a women’s college now part of University of Richmond, spurred a gradual understanding of her sexuality.
Bill Harrison, the president of Diversity Richmond, grew up in Emporia. “[A friend] told me before I came to Richmond that he knew about 100 gay men, and I thought he was biggest liar because there were not 100 gay men in America,” he says.
Harrison was an apprentice at a funeral home at the time, but when he started frequenting the Dialtone, a gay bar, he was quickly let go. “I came to work one morning, and my boss told me my parents were downstairs waiting for me. He had called them the night before and told them he was firing me because of my morals, that their son was a homosexual. He talked about me needing to go to Tucker [Psychiatric Clinic] here in Richmond.”
The Dialtone was in Carytown, where Martin’s natural food section now stands, but an area of downtown known as “The Block,” bounded by the First and Foushee streets, also featured a number of nighttime gay bars, frequently harassed by the ABC authorities and police.
For women, there were places like Tanglewood in Goochland County; Smitty’s; and LuLu’s in Church Hill, a black lesbian bar.
“The bars have played such a critical role in our community,” says Harrison. “It was a place for people to meet people and become friends and support each other and have community.”
Marschak remembers Nicki’s in Carytown, where Curry Craft now operates. Owned by a woman named Lou and her mother, Nicki’s was an Italian restaurant by day. “At night, if you went there, the Venetian blinds were closed, there was a closed sign on the door. You knocked on the door, and they would look out and decide whether to let you in. Lou’s girlfriend was named Pick, and Pick was a singer. So they had a piano player who played the piano for Pick, and she sang show tunes.”
There’s no nostalgia for that era, though, when clandestine socializing was done out of concern for safety.
“What we would do is we would arrange a double date with two gay guys,” says Marschak. “And we would all be in the car, but the guys would be in the front seat or the back seat together. People were very clever about figuring out ways to navigate things, but clearly that would’ve been a major thing, if you were just going out with another woman on a date.”