Won’t You Be My Gaybor?

by | Jul 8, 2019 | QUEER RVA

Our 2019 Summer Pride Guide, in collaboration with VA Pride, is out now! Here’s one of our articles from that magazine, in which Wyatt Gordon examines Richmond’s lack of a gayborhood, and what that means for our city.

If I told you I went to a bar in the Castro, would you even need me to say I was in San Francisco? When you watch something set in New York City, do you realize how often you’re only seeing the West Village? Could you imagine going out in D.C. without spending time in Dupont Circle? 

Some neighborhoods become so famous (or is it infamous?), they can gain a reputation that rivals that of the city in which they are located. Across the world, many beloved and notorious neighborhoods were pioneered by people who today proudly revel in the label of being queer. All of which leads to an obvious question for those of us who live in Virginia’s capital city: does Richmond have a “gayborhood”? And if so, where is it? 

Many might argue that the capital of the Commonwealth is too small to sustain a gayborhood. San Francisco, New York, and Washington are all far bigger cities than Richmond. Could it be that predominantly queer neighborhoods only form once a city has graduated from mid-sized status and evolved into a true metropole? Portland, Oregon won’t let you believe that nonsense for a second. The avant-garde boutiques, trendy restaurants, and — yes — male strip clubs of Burnside Triangle have made the area into the hub of Oregon’s LGBTQ community since at least the turn of the century. And it’s not just the gays who have their own neighborhood. Portlandia’s feminist bookstore is far more than a fan-favorite sketch, it’s a comedic interpretation of Hawthorne, a neighborhood in the city’s southeast, which may be America’s most concentrated lesbian gayborhood. 

Photo by Sara Wheeler

So if size isn’t holding Richmond’s theoretical gayborhood back, could it be our Southern-ness? The South isn’t known for its progressive instincts, nor its inclination toward protecting human rights. Indeed, of the only 24 states in our Union with protections for sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the workplace, not a single one can be found in the South — Virginia included. Three southern states (North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee) even go so far as to prohibit the passage and/or enforcement of non-discrimination laws ratified by localities. 

Despite the South’s prejudiced policies towards LGBTQ Americans, several of the region’s most iconic cities have established gayborhoods inextricably woven into their modern tapestry. Over a dozen gay bars with names like the 700 Club, Rawhide, and the Corner Pocket congregate around St. Ann Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter. For those who would write off the Big Easy as an Acadian anomaly, consider Nashville, the cradle of country music and the self-proclaimed “Athens of the South.” Less than a dozen blocks from the Tennessee State Capital and the Ryman Auditorium (the original home of the Grand Ole Opry) lies Church Street: Music City’s gay mecca. Nashville’s gayborhood has become so famously pro “bears” — slang for large, hairy men that project an image of rugged masculinity — that a local news outlet released a “Grizzlies Guide to Nashville,” chronicling the neighborhood’s top gay bars. 

Atlanta, the unofficial capital of the “New South,” may be the gayest of all. In the city’s last mayoral race in 2017, Atlanta’s first openly gay city council member, Cathy Woolard, came in third. The two remaining candidates released entire LGBTQ policy platforms to combat rising HIV infection rates, shelter the city from state-level discriminatory measures, and — most importantly — woo Atlanta’s queer voters. 

Not all Southern cities are as bold. Richmond has never had an openly gay City Council member, and our last gay candidate for mayor was Dirtwoman (who led a campaign widely derided as a stunt). Only last year did City Council vote to designate the LGBTQ community a protected people — and that decision only came in the wake of Alexandria, Charlottesville, Virginia Beach, and Newport News beating us to the punch. 

Furthermore, there is a debate as to whether the designation is little more than window dressing. Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means that cities must govern according to statewide rules, unless explicitly given permission to do otherwise. As our Commonwealth’s Human Rights Act does not include protections for sexual orientation or gender identity, most lawyers agree that local-level protections are meaningless. Much to the chagrin of NoVA’s swelling suburbs and the state’s increasing ranks of home-grown progressives, Virginia often acts more like the former capital of the Confederacy than a beacon of the New South. 

Could the South’s culture of conflict-avoidance and bad track record protecting the rights of minorities mean that Richmond’s gayborhood is out there, but hiding below the surface? Local civil rights activist and author of Lesbian and Gay Richmond Beth Marschak doesn’t disagree with this idea. “Back in the 1970s there were fewer people in the South that were very out,” she said. “It was more of an open-secret style of being out: people were never gay, they were ‘eccentric.’ Being closeted like that impacts what people are able to do, and how they are able to organize.” 

It also impacts whether or not you’re willing to out yourself to your neighbors. Something we see  as benign today, like hanging a rainbow flag from your porch, would have been an unthinkable form of protest half a century ago. Culturally, Marschak doesn’t feel that much has changed, either. “Even if you were to walk around in Richmond’s gayest neighborhoods, are you going to see a lot of rainbow flags? Not really — you’ll see a few, but not a lot,” she said. “You’re not going to see a real visible LGBT presence anywhere in the city.” 

Photo via The Valentine Historical Archive

Alas, Richmond has long been a city adept at covering facts with a sheen of alternate reality. After all, until the year 2000, we pretended a holiday simultaneously celebrating two Confederate generals and the leader of the Civil Rights Movement was normal. In the state that chose the term “Massive Resistance” to describe its stance on school integration, it should come as no surprise that gay liberation was only won thanks to a generation willing to storm the streets, risking their lives, livelihoods, and — gasp — reputations. Queers thrived in Richmond since before the days that word was used as a slur against them, and long before it was reclaimed as a proud banner for our full community of societally-dubbed misfits. 

Ask any gay elder about “the Block” and you’ll quickly give up any notions that previous generations were comprised of prudes. During WWII, downtown Richmond teemed with rambunctious men, as Broad Street Station and the USO brought an influx of restless young soldiers on leave, or waiting to ship out. In Rainbow Richmond, her extensive history of LGBTQ Richmond published on OutHistory.org, Cindy Bray tells us that “…the gay male cruising scene that developed or became more visible in the 1940s and 1950s… Mark Kerkorian (a pseudonym) recalled the military personnel were ‘ready for anything’ if they hadn’t picked up a girl by 11 or 12 at night and that there were lots of places to take them like the basement of the hotel across Broad Street from the USO, or the men’s room in the hotel or an alley behind the Colonial Theater. ‘…there were nooks and crannies all over downtown.'” 

The nickname “the Block” was finally coined in the 1950s when the area bounded by Main, First, Franklin, and Foushee Streets earned a scandalous notoriety as a magnet for hustlers, prostitutes, and homosexual acts — the latter of which was the police’s top priority. Until 1993, Section 4-37 of Virginia’s ABC codes warned business owners that “a bar’s license may be suspended or revoked if the bar has become a meeting place and rendezvous for users of narcotics, drunks, homosexuals, prostitutes, pimps, panderers, gamblers or habitual law violators.” The threat proved more than theoretical. Renee’s and Rathkellers’ — two gay hotspots — were both shut down in 1969 after eyewitness testimony from an undercover ABC agent described “men wearing makeup, embracing and kissing in the café.” 

Despite being straight himself, Leo Koury realized gays would pay a premium to socialize in a bar beyond the reach of the long arm of the highly-prejudiced law. In order to establish a monopoly over Richmond’s gay bars, the “godfather of the gay community” bribed police, ordered a drive-by of a rival club, and instigated the murder of one of its bouncers, which later came to be known as the Dial Tone Murder after his most prominent club. Koury’s crimes led to his disgraceful downfall, revealing that the intense, state-led persecution had created a dangerous black market for gay spaces in the city. 

In this atmosphere, open-air gathering spots like the Block served a purpose beyond the ubiquitous cruising depicted in the salacious tales most vividly remembered today. The fact the Block was a purely public space meant that any and all could congregate there as they saw fit, free from police stings and mafia racketeering. Such off-the-grid sites became small oases of queerness in a world of strict conformity, thus allowing LGBTQ people of the day to form a fledgling sense of community in an era of suffocating discrimination. 

Photo by Sara Wheeler

The Sexual Revolution unleashed by the Baby Boomers brought new freedoms, triggered a more laissez-faire approach to homosexuals, and led to a permeation of queer spaces across the city. Fans of Scandals might attest that Shockoe Bottom, the neighborhood occupied by that bygone Richmond gay bar, became the epicenter of the city’s gay culture in the 80s. However, despite legendary performances on their stage by icons like Grace Jones, the heart of Richmond’s queer community seemed mainly to reside closer to the Fan. 

Whereas in the 1970s five or six gay-friendly bars flew under the radar in Carytown, the 1980s witnessed an explosion of LGBTQ venues in the area, so that by the end of that decade the number of gay nightlife choices reached over a dozen. Marschak believes “a gayborhood is not just a place where gay people live, it also has cultural connections and things to do.” Although Carytown was more of a cultural and nightlife grouping than a distinctly-identified gayborhood, Marschak said, “There were more displays of affection along Cary Street than anywhere else in the city, which is probably still true today. Carytown filled the need that people have for a place that’s identifiable — where you can go to see and be seen.” 

Babe’s may be the last remaining bar from that era of raucous rebellion, but new queer-friendly spaces have moved into the area. One is the Tottering Teacup, a community-minded bakery and tea house owned and operated by a non-binary person and featuring displays and menu items focused on the colors of various Pride flags. The continued role of Carytown as a center of LGBTQ culture in the city makes sense given the corridor’s proximity to the Fan, the West End, and VCU — all historic hubs of “eccentricity” in the city; however, before you label Carytown as Richmond’s gayborhood, Marschak would warn you: “Just because a city has a gayborhood doesn’t mean all gays live there.” 

Bill Harrison, Executive Director of Diversity Richmond, wholeheartedly agrees. In a recent interview, he recalled an illustrative anecdote: “A woman once asked me if the gays in Richmond all lived in the same neighborhood, and I said, ‘No we’re everywhere — just spread all over the place, and I like that.’ I like that we’re integrated into all neighborhoods of the city.” Indeed, when hunting after Richmond’s elusive gayborhood, I received a wide range of answers from the queer people I asked: Westover Hills, Bellevue, Church Hill, Downtown on Franklin Street, Forest Hill. Even Marschak, Richmond’s premier queer herstory expert, couldn’t pin down Richmond’s gayborhood for me: “LGBTQ people are all over the place here!” 

The increasing acceptance of queer people in recent years may even mean that Richmond’s gayest neighborhoods will become less so going forward. As the potency of homo- and transphobia gradually wanes, our community may begin moving into areas that would have been deemed unsafe for LGBTQ people a decade ago. One need only consider the growing number of gay couples buying homes in Northside or the East End (known as Church Hill North to gentrifiers) to realize the truth behind this trend. The irony of societal acceptance is that queer people may begin to act like straights always have, and move into those neighborhoods across Central Virginia where they feel most comfortable for socioeconomic, racial, and familial reasons. Could the decreasing threat of harassment from outside the community paradoxically mean the end of the gayborhood as we know it? 

Similar alarms have already been sounded for another pillar of queer culture: gay bars. Considering the modern gay liberation movement began in a bar (Stonewall), it’s understandable that LGBTQ people would be concerned about losing spaces that have often been at the heart of our community’s social support structures, political organizing, and search for love and partnership. There are a wide range of hypotheses behind this phenomenon: the rise of dating apps means people don’t have to go out anymore to meet someone; same-sex couples are getting married, having kids, and moving to the suburbs just like straight people do; bars no longer function as places of political organizing because current political challenges like trans discrimination don’t impact most of the community; LGBTQ people are more accepted now and just go to straight bars; many gay bars are not compatible with the #MeToo era and inhospitable to lesbians, trans people, and women. 

Those concerned about the disappearance of gay bars quote the recently compiled statistic that 12% of all gay bars closed between 2005 and 2011. But does that statistic prove queer nightlife is in crisis? No. The exact same study shows that 11.1% of non-gay bars closed over that timespan as well. Millenials and Gen Z kids drink less, and they have fewer sexual partners than previous generations. Gentrification is raising rents in lots of urban neighborhoods, and pushing bars, clubs, and (predominantly low-income) people out. 

Gayborhoods — like the gay bars they support — aren’t disappearing. Society as a whole is changing. The shift in American public opinion towards LGBTQ people, from a position of prejudice and persecution to an increasing attitude of empathy and understanding, is a transformation unlike anything seen before. By coming out en masse, the generations before mine did the heavy interpersonal, familial, and societal lifting required to unleash a sea change of tolerance and growing acceptance. It makes no sense that queer-friendly spaces would begin to decline when ever more of society is identifying as such. Whether we were in our teens or our fifties, all of us remember the weight lifted from our chests the first time we walked into a predominantly queer space. In a world of persistent discrimination and ignorance, our need for spaces in which we can be ourselves — free from the wider world’s judgement — remains unchanged. 

Whereas Richmond’s lack of a gayborhood may once have indicated the all-too-common prejudice that kept us hidden and underground, today the lack of one neighborhood where LGBTQ people feel they must cluster in order to live safely should be taken as a sign of the movement’s success. In today’s Richmond, every neighborhood where two or more queers are gathered is a gayborhood.

Top Photo by Sara Wheeler

Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon is a born-and-raised Richmonder who holds a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor's degree in international politics from the American University in D.C. Wyatt is an urban planner and community organizer working to foster safer, more sustainable cities and greater civic participation in local government.

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