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Richmond's hidden LGBTQ+ history

A black and white photo of people marching

About 200 people marching in downtown Richmond for an "AIDS candlelight vigil" in 1988. Photo: Courtesy of The Valentine

Richmond's LGBTQ+ community has been active since at least the 1900s, but the details of what that looked like aren't widely known or documented.

Why it matters: That history β€” which includes the spaces people frequented, often at the risk of persecution or prosecution β€”Β helped shape a pivotal part of the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in Richmond.

Between the lines: Most spaces that existed denied access to Black people.

  • And records of LGBTQ+ establishments for Black Richmonders remain scarce, per the Department of Historic Resources, which lists over 100 sites related to LGBTQ history in Richmond.

These are a few of them.

Early 1900s

1914: The Hippodrome Theater, opened in Jackson Ward with artists hailing from Harlem. It's said to have been LGBTQ+ friendly.

1940s to 1970s

Richmond used to have an underground LGBTQ+ scene called "The Block," which had dozens of gay bars lining the area between First and Foushee Streets.

  • Back then, gay bars (and serving alcohol to LGBTQ+ people) were illegal, making them the subject of police raids.
  • One of them was the Eton Inn on West Grace Street, which closed in the late 1960s after ABC authorities revoked its liquor license. Its location later became the VCU Police Substation.
  • You can read more about "The Block" in the Times-Dispatch.

Lulu's, not the modern-day restaurant, was a Black lesbian bar in Church Hill. You could only get in if the bar keepers knew who you were.

1976: The Gay Alliance of Students at VCU took the university to court for not allowing them to register as a student organization.

  • A federal judge ruled in their favor, allowing for the official formation of multiple LGBTQ+ student clubs in other states.

1977: Monroe Park was the site of Virginia's first gay rights rally.

1978: St. Peter's Catholic Church recorded the first gay marriage ceremony in Virginia.

1979: Richmond had its first LGBTQ+ pride event in Byrd Park, 10 years after the Stonewall riots in New York.

  • The DHR states Byrd Park was also used by lesbian softball players since at least the 1950s and was close to another 1950s lesbian bar called Smitty's.

1979: Babe's of Carytown opened. It's estimated to be one of 33 lesbian bars in the U.S. and the only one left in Virginia, according to the Lesbian Bar Project, which tracks the remaining spaces dedicated to queer women, trans and nonbinary people.

1980s to present

1986: The Richmond Pride, a monthly newspaper serving the Richmond area's lesbian and gay communities, is first published.

1997: Godfrey's, which to this day is known for its drag brunch on East Grace Street, opened years after a federal judge overturns Virginia's ban on gay bars in 1991.

2018: Richmond was the site of Virginia's first official Black Pride.

2019: "Viva RVA!" in Richmond marked the first celebration of Virginia's Hispanic LGBTQ+ community.

2020: LGBTQ+ flag flew over Richmond's City Hall for the first time.