LGBT History Month: Virginia History; Part I: The Early Days
By Beth Marschak
As we see the real possibility of marriage equality throughout all of the United States, it’s a good time to look back and see how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.
If you had asked me back in the 1970’s, when LGBTQ activism in Virginia really emerged, “What do you think will have changed in 40 or 50 years?” I would never have guessed marriage equality. Probably would have said antidiscrimination protection for employment, housing, etc, as well as elimination or major changes in the sodomy laws, and hopefully, changes around child custody. So, the Supremes have knocked out the sodomy laws, child custody has changed, but is still not where I would like to see it (especially if we include adoption and foster parenting), and we do not have a national or Virginia law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender expression in employment, housing, etc.
In the meantime, many more issues have gained our attention. But before we look at those in Parts II and III of this series, let’s go way back in time. It is 1624, in the English colony at Jamestown. Richard Cornish is accused and convicted of sodomy; he was executed. That makes him the first person recorded to be executed for sodomy in what would become the United States. Pretty grim, and a reminder that our community, which still experiences violence and the threat of violence, was once subject to the ultimate legal act of violence – the death penalty.
But even in those dismal times, we know that people continued to feel and act on their sexual orientation and gender identity. A very different story is the tale of the women pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who sailed along the Virginia coast and likely came into the Chesapeake Bay and its river system. I first learned of them in the 1970’s, when I was on vacation at the Outer Banks, and bought a booklet about pirates. As I read their brief story – you can easily find it in many versions online – I said to myself ‘They were lesbians, or at least bisexuals in a lesbian relationship.’
That was when I realized that our history is often hidden in narratives that we might recognize, but that many others would not see. After all, our frequent discussions about who is and who isn’t, while they may seem like gossip, are actually an important survival skill – it is still important for us to be able to figure that out, as well as know if someone is safe or not. We can direct that skill in looking at historic narratives to find who is ‘likely’ and do further research. Of course, we can also start from ‘gossip’ of those we come in contact with, as they often know about things that may not be recorded.
Apart from court records, we do know about people from those earlier times. There were women who served as men during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars – on both sides. A marker at the Virginia Capitol recognizes Anna Maria Lane who served as a soldier of the American Revolution; we know about her because she applied to the General Assembly for a pension, and was able to prove her service. We know about a number of women during the Civil War, usually because they were discovered and charged. There are court records and newspaper accounts about them. What we do not know is what their sexual orientation was – some could have been lesbians – or whether they considered themselves to be men or simply doing what made sense to them in order to do a ‘man’s job.’
One famous Richmonder Lewis Ginter, in his day the wealthiest man in Richmond and a generous philanthropist, had a companion and business partner John Pope, and they lived together. Neither ever married. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch obituary, “Mr. Pope never married but lived quietly with Major Ginter, for whom he possessed the most ardent affection.” His niece Grace Arents inherited some of his fortune, and she provided many public works including what is now St. Andrews School, a free library, a public bath house, subsidized housing and the Visiting Nurses Association. She lived out her life with her companion Mary Garland Smith, and her will provided Smith with one third of Arents’ wealth and lifetime rights to live at their home, Bloemendaal. Arents’ will provided that after Smith’s death the property would go to the City of Richmond to be used as a formal, public garden named after Lewis Ginter.
A number of women who were suffragists are now recognized as lesbian, or having same sex partners. An interesting example is Lucy Randolph Mason who was also an early Director of the Richmond YWCA. She was a strong advocate for progressive labor legislation and testified before Congress for the Fair Labor Standards Act. She used her heritage as a First Families of Virginia to work for social change, and became a labor organizer in the South for the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Part II will cover more recent Virginia history.
This blog is part of a three-part series written for LGBT History Month. A special thank you to Beth Marschak for this contribution. Beth is the current Board Chair of the Gay Community Center of Richmond, a long time civil rights and human rights activist, and co-author of the book Lesbian and Gay Richmond. Click here to read more about Beth.