LGBT History Month:  Virginia History; Part II: 1940s – 1990s

By Beth Marschak beth_marschak1 photoBy World War II, Tidewater, Richmond, and Northern Virginia were impacted by soldiers stationed in the area.  For the first time many men and women were away from home and in an urban environment where they might form a close attachment with someone of the same gender.  While this was probably always true during war time, we know more about specifics in World War II. Jumping to the 1970’s, Virginia had a lively LGBTQ movement, with many organizations.  While most of the political groups were predominantly white, there were always African-Americans and other people of color who took active part in our movement.  Also, less formal groups such as drag families and houses, which had existed long before the 1970’s, had significant African-American participation.  This was also true for women’s sports groups. In 1977, Anita Bryant led a homophobic national campaign maligning LGBTQ rights, and in the process spurred LGBTQ political organizing in many places, including Virginia.  In Norfolk, there were protestors at her concert.  Richmond held their first public LGBTQ rally focusing on LGBTQ rights.  A few months later, forty-three people representing fourteen LGBTQ organizations met and formed the Virginia Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights, an information and communication network that joined together for conferences at ODU and to have volunteer lobbyist at the General Assembly.  This group was a fore-runner of Virginians for Justice, now Equality Virginia. In the 1980’s we suffered major setbacks with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  Many of our gay men leaders became sick and died.  We all knew someone who had AIDS.  We went to way too many funerals of those who were still so young.  Many of us focused our energy on care giving and support, disease prevention, and advocating for government funding of research, treatment and prevention.  An ACT UP! group was active in Richmond. In 1993, a lesbian custody case in Virginia gained national press.  Sharon Bottoms lost custody of her young son to her mother, based on Sharon’s relationship with April Wade.  While lesbian mothers had lost custody for many years in Virginia, they rarely appealed those custody rulings and those cases were not open to the public.  Only those of us who knew someone impacted realized what was happening.  As early as 1975, Richmond Lesbian-Feminists considered child custody to be a major lesbian issue (gay men were also impacted, but in smaller numbers).   The ACLU handled the case and appealed.  After the final appeal upheld the original ruling, many in our community felt devastated.  Some decided to leave Virginia.  But this case also awakened our community and spurred activism, which extended to friends, family and other allies who were also appalled at this decision. The last part of this series will discuss what else needs to be done as we celebrate the freedom to marry.   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 for 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.