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Developing Identity: A Prelude to Activism

Broadway Cafe

The Broadway Cafe was originally Benny Sepul's, a 1950s-era restaurant with a private back area for gay men. Credit ML

The mid 1900’s was a time of transition towards more visibility and activism in Richmond as well as the rest of the United States which led to the “Stonewall Era.” Like many communities, the LGBTQ community remained underground, hidden and discreet, but gathering places were developing, primarily bars and restaurants. These gathering places were important in developing a sense of community, as were the early gatherings in homes, seen even in the early part of the twentieth century. Some of these restaurants were Marronis, (which became Renees Restaurant which would figure in the Stonewall Era activism), Tanglewood, Benny Sepuls (which became Broadway Café), and Etons.

Etons was located at 938 West Grace Street, near the Richmond Professional Institute (which became Virginia Commonwealth University) and students from RPI were banned from Etons because of their reputation. Eton’s was ultimately closed after an ABC investigation led to 8 charges and the loss of their ABC license in March 1967.[1] The Richmond Pride was a local Richmond LGBT newspaper published by the Virginia Gay Rights association. In an article in The Richmond Pride, Bob Swisher recalled that there was pressure from the Richmond Professional Institute because the administration didn’t want a gay bar to be located a mere 2 blocks from campus. Richmond Professional Institutute was transitioning to become Virginia Commonwealth University which the administration had hoped would increase the school’s visibility and viability.[2]

Bob Swisher wrote about the growing sense of community and several of the bars.[3] The general public remained unaware that a gay community existed until the mid 1960’s, but a “gay community thrived, in fact…" The community came together at a couple of small, dimly lit bars and a Saturday night gatherings in several lower Fan District living rooms.” In the article, Tony Segura talks about Eton’s becoming the most popular gay bar after Marroni’s, which had been located in the seedy Capital Hotel, closed in 1962.[4] Swisher noted that lesbians usually hung out at Smitty’s and, starting in 1960, Benny Sepuls which later became the Broadway Café.[5]

In another article[6], Swisher wrote about the growing lesbian culture which was developing around sports and informal gatherings at homes. In the article, Carol S. said, “I thought for a long time that all the lesbians in the world played softball except for those few of us who sat in the stands.” She said that women’s softball was a really big deal for the lesbian community in the 1950s and 1960s. In a recent conversation, Beth Marschak has said that this in fact continued to be the case even into the 1980s and early 1990s. Carol noted that the lesbian scene in Richmond in the 50s and 60s was purely social and that there was no “consciousness of rights and lack of rights.” Carol also talked about how there was a large group of women who would “party together real often” and “the river crowd” of 10 – 15 women who would go to a cottage on the River in Deltaville on the weekends. One bar that was “taken over” by the lesbians several Saturday afternoons after softball tournaments was Tanglewood, a “beer joint in Goochland County.” According to the article, Tanglewood’s popularity went back to World War II.[7],[8]

An important lesbian couple that were an intrinsic part of the community were L.A. "Shep" Shepherd (1917-1996) and Norma Janet Hofheimer (1905-2001. Women were becoming more independent professionally during this era and Shep and Norma Janet epitomized this growing independence. Shepherd was a pharmacist who ahd graduated from the Medical College of Virginia (M.C.V.). Hofheimer held a high position with the United States Post Office and had graduated from the Westhampton College of the University of Richmond. The two women were a longterm couple in an era when it was unusual. The two were also very involved in community activities. They were members of the Women's Political Caucus, the Richmond Women's Center, Richmond Lesbian-Feminists, Richmond WomensBooks, and were members of Congregation Beth Ahabah. The couple was known for their strong opinions as well as their active involvement. Shepherd died in February 1996.Hofheimer spent her remaining years in Texas, where she died in 2001.[9]

Bob Swisher also writes about the gay male cruising scene that developed or became more visible in the 1940s and 1950s. “In Richmond, Broad Street (railroad) Station, the Greyhound bus station and the USO were full of servicemen on leave or en route to or from military assignments…” In the article, 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."[10]

Mark describes an era where cruising went on unchallenged in the men’s room’s, the men’s grills, in the basements of a lot of the downtown hotels, in the Greyhound bus station, in the Main Street Railroad Station, and in many of the movie theaters along broad street. This was the beginning of “The Block” which was the term used for the cruising area used by gay men even in the 1970s and 1980s; “The Block” wasn’t a static area through the decades, rather an area that moved as police enforcement waxed and waned in specific areas.[11],[12]

Mark also describes much more idyllic times, when groups of “50 to 100 screaming queens” would go down to Chester Lake, a man-made lake on US 1 between Richmond and Colonial Heights. Mark recalls that the gay “kids” who came down “swam and giggled, chased each other around on the sand and in and out of the water… talked, slept and partied, but it was all discreet. No one did anything sexual.” There was basically a straight part of the beach and a gay part of the beach and there never were any problems. Mark iterated that “the climate is so entirely different now (article was written in 1988)."[13]

In the same article, Mark also talked about the YMCA. “For sex, nothing could beat the YMCA… The Y’s management looked the other way as gays checked in for a night or a weekend of sexual activity.” Alex T. continued that thought, “You were keenly aware in those days that what you were doing was illegal, but you felt safe at the Y because there were lots of other gay people there and you didn’t worry about the police coming in."[14]

Tony Segura

In the 1950s, Gonzalo "Tony" Segura co-founded the Mattachine Society, commonly considered the first national LGBT organization. Segura's moved to Richmond in 1959, but his efforts to start a Mattachine chapter in Richmond were unsuccessful. Credit ML

In 1959 a key figure in the move towards visibility moved to Richmond. Tony Segura (1919 – 1991) was a founding member of the Mattachine Society in NY and moved to Richmond in 1959. Several years later Segura attempted to form local chapter of the Mattachine Society, but was not successful. Segura later helped found the Richmond Gay Rights Association and wrote for one of the early newsletter The Richmond Pride. Segura’s partner of 30 years Marsh Haris (1936 – 1993) was a prolific writer of gay pulp fiction in the 1960’s. Unlike most of the formulaic pulp novels, Haris wrote gay love stories with happing endings. Segura would later be involved in numerous gay rights organizations in Richmond.[15],[16]

Swisher notes that the 1950s and 1960s were really hard times in many cities due to increased harassment of lesbian and gay men including raids on many bars, but that Richmond was relatively quiet until the mid to late 1960s. “With no witch hunts, no police raids of gay bars and virtually no harassment, gays here had no motivation to organize for gay rights."[17] This may be part of the reason that Tony Segura was unable to start a Richmond Chapter of the Mattachine Society; of course, it may have been, in part, also due to a less developed sense of identity and community in Richmond. There is no way to really know which factors were the most influential in the lack of development of an activist LGBTQ community until the 1970s.

The bars and restaurants which became gathering places for the lesbian and gay community were under constant threat of being shut down for either selling alcohol to “known or suspected” homosexuals or even hiring a known or suspected homosexual, enforcement of these laws became more rigorous or more noticed in the late 1960s. The Alcohol Beverage Control Board establishes the rules and regulations regarding the sale of alcoholic beverages in the state of Virginia had several statues regarding homosexuals stated:

  • Section 4-37 states in part “… 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 violaters…”
  • Section 4 – 98 “…forbids a licensee from employing any person who has the general reputation as a prostitute, homosexual, panderer, gambler, habitual law violater, person of ill repute, user of or peddler of narcotics, or person who drinks to excess or a “B-girl.”

Several articles in Our Own Community Press and Marschak and Lorch’s book Lesbian and Gay Richmond mention Leo Koury, a colorful character in the history of the some of the bars which served the LGBTQ community. “Acquaintances say that Koury found the restaurants that catered to homosexuals profitable because homosexuals were willing to pay a premium in terms of prices and regular patronage for places where they could gather without being made to feel uncomfortable."[18] One of the restaurants was a hangout for the women’s softball teams in the 50s and early 60s; Smitty's was located at 310 South Sheppard Street. In the early 60s Koury bought the building and changed the name to Leos. By the early 1970s it had become a men’s bar. In 1976, Koury turned the restaurant over to a relative and it became the Male Box, continuing as a men’s bar.[19]

Koury became known as “the godfather of the gay community,” and was indicted for murder, racketeering, and other charges in federal courts in reference to several violent incidents in gay bars in Richmond. Koury was suspected of trying to monopolize control of the gay bars in Richmond. One of the major incidents was a shotgun attack at the Male Room on June 15, 1977 where Albert Thomas was killed and 2 others wounded. Koury eluded the police until his death in California in 1991.[20] Was it easier to intimidate and take over bars that catered to homosexual clientele? Logically, it makes sense that it is easier to intimidate people if they are considered one of the undesirables in society, and it would be easier to take advantage of the patrons, charging them exorbitant prices if they could legally be denied service simply due to their sexual orientation, or suspected sexual orientation.

Dora Lee Lewis

Stanley Kelsey performed as DoraLee Lewis. This picture is circa 1980. Credit ML

Another area of LGBTQ society which was starting to develop an identity and was getting established in the 1960’s was that of the “drag families” or “houses”. Stanley Kelsey, a well known female impersonator in Richmond, sat down recently and talked about the “drag families” that existed when he came to Richmond in the early 1970’s. The “families” were interracial and included both men and women performers, some of which performed as their own gender and others were male or female impersonators. “Families” developed which took care of each other, the performers taking the last name of their “family” in performances; Kelsey indicated that although he is known primarily for his performances as DoraLee Lewis (Lewis being a “family” name) he originally as a male Stanley Parkins. Although there is little direct or written references to these families, Kelsey indicated that by the 1970’s these “families” were established which anecdotally would mean that these families were formed or forming during the 1960’s. We know there were “drag” performers in bars in New York, after all, the riots at the Stonewall Inn were really led by fed up drag queens; it is not surprising that there was parallel development in other cities, although on a smaller less visible scale.

The ABC regulations which were specified earlier regarding homosexuals became a rallying point for the LGBTQ community. In March 1969, two popular bars were closed using the regulations: Renee’s Restaurant and Rathskellers. Renee’s Restaurant was located in the Capital Hotel (currently the site of the Federal Courthouse). On March 5, 1969, ABC agents reported to the ABC board in a hearing that they had witnessed “men wearing makeup, embracing and kissing in the café.” On March 13, the board suspended their ABC license. Rathskellers was forced to close in the same month after ABC agents claimed that the restaurant had been serving gays. These closures sparked the first known open protest against antigay action – Hunter Patch Adams, a 23 year old sophomore at MCV, wrote a letter to the editor published in the March 29, 1969 edition of the Richmond Times Dispatch protesting these closures and the regulations which stood behind them. Adams wrote “I find myself too humble to be presumptuous enough to think that I am more deserving of a beer than a homosexual is. I’m afraid that in the atomic age, I feel no safer drinking with heterosexual, especially those harboring paranit (sic) of the homosexual in the next booth."[21]Although this was a small step, the next decades saw a coalescing of the LGBTQ community in Richmond.

Is it a coincidence that this protest happened in 1969, the same year of the Stonewall Riots. Perhaps, the nascent gay rights movement was coming to a head in multiple ways and throughout the United States. Whether there was any particular movement in Richmond immediately following the coverage of Stonewall is unknown, but the following years were exciting years in the development of a sense of community and community organizing.

References

  1. Beth Marschak and Alex Lorch, Lesbian and Gay Richmond. Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008. p. 7
  2. Bob Swisher, "Anger Surface Here Several Months Before Stonewall" The Richmond Pride, June 1989
  3. Bob Swisher, “A Small, but Hidden, Community Thrived in the 50s” Our Own Community Press, May 1990.
  4. Marschak and Lorch. p. 32
  5. Bob Swisher, “A Small, but Hidden, Community Thrived in the 50s” Our Own Community Press, May 1990.
  6. Bob Swisher,“City lesbians ‘took over,’ danced at beer joint,” Our Own Community Press, June of 1989
  7. Bob Swisher,“City lesbians ‘took over,’ danced at beer joint,” Our Own Community Press, June of 1989
  8. Marschak and Lorch, p. 27
  9. Marschak and Lorch, p. 86
  10. Bob Swisher, “While Straights Slept, Gays Played, Part 1, 1944 - 1952” Our Own Community Press, April 1988
  11. Bob Swisher, “While Straights Slept, Gays Played, Part 1, 1944 - 1952” Our Own Community Press, April 1988
  12. Marschak and Lorch, p.57
  13. Bob Swisher, “A Small, but Hidden, Community Thrived in the 50s” Our Own Community Press, May 1990.
  14. Bob Swisher, “A Small, but Hidden, Community Thrived in the 50s” Our Own Community Press, May 1990.
  15. Marschak and Lorch
  16. Bob Swisher, "A Small Hidden Community Thrived in the 1950s" Our Own Community Press, May 1990
  17. Bob Swisher, "A Small Hidden Community Thrived in the 1950s" Our Own Community Press, May 1990
  18. John Freeman, "Memories of Gay Murder in Richmond Brought Back" Our Own Community Press, January 1989
  19. Marscak and Lorch, p. 49
  20. Marschak and Lorch, p. 49
  21. Marschak and Lorch, p. 35