Early Virginia History: Reconstructing History
The history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community in Richmond, Virginia pre-Stonewall is often hidden and hard to find, but it wends itself through the historical narrative of the city of Richmond and the state of Virginia. This hidden narrative mirrors the hidden, underground existence of LGBTQ individuals; there was probably no LGBTQ “community” in existence until the 1900s, but “gay” individuals can be found. There was no concept of homosexuality, per se, before the Twentieth Century. In fact, “In the late 19th Century, close friendships, intimate business partnerships, and even companionships between members of the same sex were acceptable. Love and affection between two women or two men did not necessarily imply a sexual relationship but rather a preference to be in the company of the same sex. Particularly in the South, almost all of these relationships existed without an acknowledged sexual component.” To place the modern construct of “gay or lesbian” upon men and women prior to the early to mid Twentieth century may be stretch, but it is certain that relationships existed where men and women preferred the company of people of the same gender. Whereas, we may not be able to identify them as gay or lesbian, these historical same-sex relationships were primary, intimate relationships and are the foundation for today’s LGBTQ family relationships.
Early historical figures in Virginia, include Richard Cornish, the first English colonist to be executed in the “New World” for “buggery and sodomy” in the Jamestown colony. As referenced in the OutHistory article “Sodomy Case: Cornish execute, Virginia, c. 1624 – 1625,” About 1625, ship’s master, Richard Cornish, was executed in the Virginia colony for an alleged sexual attack on one of his male stewards, a crime that Cornish’s brother later denied. Cornish was the captain of the Ambrose, a James River ship, and stood accused of attempted sodomy with William Couse, a 29 year-old ship’s mate and indentured servant. Couse testified that Cornish had tried to sodomize him while the ship was anchored in the river. Almost solely on Couse’s testimony, Cornish was convicted and sentenced to death. Cornish’s brother, Jeffrey Cornish, protested the verdict several months after Richard Cornish’s execution. Two shipmates of Richard Cornish, Edward Nevell and Thomas Hatch, contradicted Couse’s testimony, the court concluded that Nevell and Hatch were lying and sentenced them to be pilloried. Nevell lost both ears and Hatch lost one and was beaten.
Although the Cornish case was not in Richmond, it demonstrates the existence of gay individuals in Virginia from the very beginning. There is evidence of gender non-conforming women dressing as men and entering the masculine realm of the army; there is a historical marker recognizing the only documented female veteran of the Revolutionary war. Anna Maria Lane. Lane cannot be documented as a lesbian, in fact she joined the army in men’s clothing with her husband, she certainly can be seen as gender non-conforming and accepted as part of the LGBTQ spectrum viewed through today’s lens and with today’s constructs of gender. Lane was awarded a military pension in 1808, the only woman from that era to be awarded a pension.
There are several other instances of gender non-conforming women presenting themselves as men and serving as soldiers including Mary and Mollie Bell (aliases Bob Martin and Tom Parker) who served in the Civil War. After their uncle left to join the Union Army the cousins decided to conceal their sex/identity and enlist in a cavalry regiment under the command of Confederate General Jubal Early. The Bells served honorably for 2 years having attained the rank of Sergeant and Corporal, respectively. When their secret was reported to General Early, they were arrested and sent the Castle Thunder prison in Richmond. This was reported in the Richmond Dispatch. Their service and imprisonment were also reported by the Richmond Daily Examiner, and it was reported in the November 25, 1864 edition that the women were released to return to their Pulaski County home.
There is evidence that another female soldier was in fact a lesbian or at least bisexual, Loretta Valasquez, in her memoirs noted that she courted women dressed as a man, but she was also married multiple times. Velasquez reportedly used several names during the war, including Lt. Harry Buford and to have romanced women while in disguise. She also claims one of the aliases she used was Alice Williams, and there was an Alice Williams arrested in Richmond, imprisoned at Castle Thunder, and released upon establishment of her identity. There are questions of the veracity of Velasquez' claims, but some historical evidence exists for some of the psuedonyms she used. Beth Marschak also talked about her research on Valasquez and that she believed from her research that at least some of the story was true, but a detailed story of Valasquez was not included in the book Gay and Lesbian Richmond.
The Civil War also gave us Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, who served as a woman but dressed as in men’s clothing. Walker (1832 – 1919) served as a US Army surgeon who was captured and imprisoned in Richmond. Walker was the only woman if the Civil War to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor; indeed she was the only woman to EVER receive the Medal of Honor. The Medal of Honor was rescinded in 1917, but Walker refused to return the medal which she wore until her death in 1919. Fifty-eight years later, the US Congress posthumously reinstated, and restore by President Carter on June 10, 1977. Walker was a feminist and abolitionist, and that may or may not have been the reason the Medal was rescinded in 1917 since over 900 other Medals were also rescinded. The Whitman Walker clinic in Washington, DC, which primarily provides medical care for gays and lesbians was named for Walker and Walt Whitman.
- Beth Marschak and Alex Lorch, Lesbian and Gay Richmond. Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008. p. 7
- Marschak and Lorch, p. 9
- Marschak and Lorch, p. 11
- Civil War Women Blog, http://www.civilwarwomenblog.com/2007/11/mary-andmollie-bell.html/ ©2007 Maggie MacLean]
- An adaptation by the author of the blog from Clad in Uniform: Women Soldiers of the Civil War, by Wendy A. King, ©1992, http://www.scv670.com/women/clad.htm
- Marschak and Lorch. p. 11 9. http://userpages.aug.com/captbarb/walker.html.