Aug 2, 2022 - News

1920s-era love letters offer "rare glimpse" at LGBTQ+ life in Virginia

An image of a handwritten letter on hotel letter head next to a black and white photo of unidentified men in suits
An abandoned safety deposit box contained letters, personal effects and photos, including this one of two unidentified men. Images courtesy of the Library of Virginia

A collection of love letters exchanged by two Virginia men in 1923 offers "a rare glimpse into the lives of LGBTQ people a century ago," according to the Library of Virginia, which recently shared the correspondence on its website.

What's happening: The letters between Jonnie and Roy follow the couple's effort to make a long-distance relationship work after Jonnie moved from Norfolk to Richmond.

  • But they also document their fear of scandal and possibly arrest at a time when LGBTQ+ people faced intense persecution.
  • In a final letter, Roy writes, "When I said I were going to live a Gay life, I did not mean that I was going to try & ruin my reputation in a months time. But I did mean that I was going to have a good time in a decent sort of way."

Context: Both men were from Norfolk, which at the time was one of the country's largest ports and "attracted LGBTQ people from around the world," writes archivist Kenneth Forest, who notes it was referred to by moralists as "the wickedest city in America."

  • The letters were recovered from an abandoned safety deposit box, the contents of which were turned over to the state library in 1982.

The letters conclude with Roy lamenting the end of the relationship.

  • "I have sat hear (sic) in Norfolk from time to time since Nov. the 20th of last year, moaning & groaning and all over you. But it all did no good," Roy writes in the final letter.

Meanwhile, the timing of a sixth letter in the collection, addressed to Jonnie by a different man, suggests Jonnie might have already moved on.

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