“It was a different time, and it was dangerous to be a lesbian.”
This is what Beth Marschak and Bobbi Weinstock tell me when I ask how the Richmond Lesbian Feminists first began. The organization celebrates its 40th Anniversary this weekend.
Marschak, one of the group’s founders, tells me that Richmond was a very different city in the seventies Gay people lived in secrecy. Gay bars were routinely raided by police. Laws were in place making it illegal to serve alcohol to known homosexuals –– or be served alcohol by known homosexuals.
Marschak says there were only two lesbian bars in Richmond back then. Nikki’s, an Italian restaurant during the day, locked the doors at night. Anyone who wanted inside had to be approved.
Lulu’s was a “nip joint.” At the time, alcohol could only be served by the bottle, but LuLu’s served by the “nip” (glass). And they primarily served to lesbians. You couldn’t get into Lulu’s unless you were accompanied by someone the barkeepers knew and trusted.
Both bars were connected to criminal organizations so cops could be paid off.
Richmond Lesbian Feminists was created so that lesbians could meet in a safer environment. The need for advocacy was important, too.
Across the country, the civil rights movement was in full swing, but the LGBTQ community remained isolated from the mainstream.
A lot of activists thought accepting gays or lesbians into their ranks would hinder progress. At NOW conferences, microphones would get turned off if a lesbian approached to ask questions. The media was all but silent when it came to the LGBT community.
“Words like ‘gay’ were never used,” says Marschak. “Stonewall was the first time I remember any kind of widespread coverage of LGBT issues. Awareness was very, very low.”
RLF formed out of a workshop at the National Political Women’s Caucus. The first meeting took place at the Richmond Friends’ Meeting House, a Quaker establishment.
Initially a statewide organization, the “Lesbian Feminists” were organized in Richmond, Tidewater, and Charlottesville.
Meeting was always a challenge. The Charlottesville branch secured a grant in order to hold a conference, but a week before the event, the venue pulled out, having learned it was a lesbian organization. The branch had to pay back all the money it had already sent to vendors, and subsequently folded. These situations were commonplace.
Weinstock recalls putting together the RLF’s newsletter in the days before social media.
“We’d meet at someone’s house and talk about all the things we’d include that month,” she chuckles. “We had things like poetry and a children’s corner, but our focus was on spreading awareness, covering things that weren’t being reported. There was no other way to get informed. Then we’d go home, type up our articles, and come back together a week later to literally cut and paste everything together.”
They continued to face resistance when scouting for locations for their monthly pot-lucks and workshops. Places would bar the organization upon learning they were lesbians: public libraries, the YWCA, and even public sports fields. Nevertheless, the newsletter helped thousands of lesbians in Virginia feel less isolated.
As Marschak recalls, “I recently met a woman who’s been receiving our newsletter for years, but was never able to come to the events. She told me that just knowing we were out there gave her all the support she needed.”