Monday, March 20, 2023

50 years of LOVE: A history of LGBT travel in Virginia

It was in 1969 – 50 years ago – that the Commonwealth’s Virginia is For Lovers” tourism slogan was created. It is now one of the most beloved and iconic travel slogans in the world, and was inducted into the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame in 2009. While it has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people over the years, one thing remains the same: LOVE.

(8) Portrait of Thomas/ine Hall, pencil and watercolor by Ren Tolson Copyright 2020: Ren Tolson All Rights Reserved

As historians like the Colonial Williamsburg Gender and Sexual Diversity Research Committee dig deeper into Virginia’s past, more stories are being mined and shared which center on those Virginian’s identifying as LGBTQ+. They remind us “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” indicative of research committee member Ren Tolson’s article and pencil / watercolor of Virginian (1629) Thomas/ine Hall in Seeing Eye to ‘I’(an intersex Virginian) and Tolson’s article Pride and Prejudice: Honoring historic LGBTQIA+ voices )as they … strove for light in the dark. They worked and fought for joy in their lives. Other efforts include Colonial Williamsburg’s New Colonial Williamsburg Reenactments Will Bring Queer History To Life and the story the story of A Lesbian Marriage in Historic Colonial Williamsburg.

It was also in 1969 that the June 28 Stonewall Riots at The Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighborhood New York City occurred. Led by two transgender women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, this pivotal event is considered the beginning of the gay liberation movement in the United States.

During that time, in Virginia’s urban centers, such as downtown Norfolk, The Continental Restaurant (1: image) and Mickey’s on Brooke Street had become internationally known as a respite for sailors and their friends, and had acquired a largely gay clientele. Later, in 1972, Norfolk’s first local gay newsletter – Friends – was created and edited by Mickey’s Jerry Halliday and H.T. Kelly, Jr. (2: book) Today, Norfolk is home to a vibrant LGBT scene, including local favorites MJ’s Tavern and the WAVE.and visitors can experience Norfolk Queer history on the Queer Walking Tour of Norfolk. For over 30 years, Norfolk has hosted the Hampton Roads Pride Fest and other Pride and local events, showing how the LGBTQ+ community has grown into a vital part of the region’s culture.

Roanoke LGBTQ History Walking Tour

In contrast, Roanoke’s Backstreets and Trade Winds Restaurant were regional gay bars for the small city in this Mountain Region. Patrons would walk around to the back of the building, down an alley and several steps down. Attracting a large crowd, this type of social gathering spot was indicative of many home-grown and under-the-radar gay and lesbian bars around the country. (3: history tour) In 1971, less than two years after New York’s Stonewall event, a group of gay men and women founded the Gay Alliance of the Roanoke Valley, (now the Roanoke Diversity Center) the first Gay Liberation organization of the region. (4: article). Today, one can stay and enjoy the food, sites and culture of the Star City, at the annual Roanoke PRIDE festival or on the Roanoke LGBTQ History Walking Tour. Year-round, local gay bar The Park welcomed visitors and locals since 1978 . And this year, in Blacksburg, the Virginia Tech’s Ex Lapide Alumni Society welcomed back to campus Queer alumni for “Denim Day,” commemorating the groundbreaking 1979 LGBTQ+ student-led day of support on campus, which at the time, was highly contested. (5: timeline)

Northern Virginia’s Freddie’s Beach Bar & Restaurant in Crystal City has been a home and social hotspot for many Queer east-coasters since owner Freddie Lutz opened it in 2001. Freddie’s is known for their weekend buffets, karaoke, and Drag shows. Lutz, a Virginia native, has recently opened nearby Federico Ristorante Italiano. Formerly Café Italia (1976), Lutz started there as a waiter, then maître d’. “Cafe Italia flew a gay flag, employed LGBT staff, and held Drag shows on Halloween,” Lutz says. “Federico’s continues carries on that spirit of hospitality in welcoming all.” Regionally, since 1981, the Arlington Gay & Lesbian Alliance (AGLA) has established itself as a home base and center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender life, culture and equality – centering on nonpartisan political awareness, civic engagement, community service and regional events for locals and visitors.

Richmonders Beth Marschak and Alex Lorch detail in their book Lesbian and Gay Richmond (Images of America: Virginia that the Block Neighborhood, Richmond’s underground community of gay culture and community, is an example of several of the city’s gay & lesbian social clubs “hidden in plain sight.” (6: book) And since 1993, the Richmond Triangle Players has been a major center of Queer theater on the East Coast.

Today, OutRVA is the go-to guide for the city’s Queer-centric and friendly experiences and home of  three well-established Queer bars: Babe’s, Godfrey’s & Barcode, as well as the VA PrideFest since the mid-1970’s. Richmond is also home to the Commonwealth’s first Black Pride in VA. Lacette Cross, event creator, shared in 2018, “We see the need to help raise the voices and experiences of Black folks and People of Color (POC) in the Queer community, at existing Pride events, and throughout the year.” And on October 5, Diversity Richmond will host Viva RVA! Hispanic Music Festival, the city’s first celebration of Hispanic music, food, and Virginia’s LatinX LGBTQ+ community.

Winchester native Julian Wood Glass, Jr., along with partner R. Lee Taylor, were collecting art and antiques while renovating Glass’s family estate Glen Burnie House and gardens in 1952 – later to be opened as the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in 2005. The museum shares the collections and culture behind this extraordinary story, including a one-of-a-kind, fascinating collection of furnished miniature houses and rooms and shadow boxes. Playing nearby, undoubtedly, one might hear the timeless songs of Winchester native and gay icon Patsy Cline. Born 1932, Cline was a pioneering country music singer who died in a tragic plane crash at age 30, and was the first solo female singer to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1960 and the first woman to be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. Today, one can visit the Patsy Cline Historic House and attend the city’s annual Winchester PRIDE Celebration.

Hill City Pride ~ Lynchburg

And this year, on April 13, 2019, Spectrum Arts Society held its first Hill City PRIDE festival at the home of local Ally Lynchburg Hillcats Stadium. Sponsors and attendees included Lynchburg’s LGBT Diversity Center as well as local business and faith communities. Year-round, visitors can catch a great meal, cocktails and Drag shows at local hotspots Dish and the Water Dog Tap House.

2019 has also brought a multitude of Pride festivals and events all over Virginia, from local happy hours in Farmville and Danville to rural Main Street Prides in Floyd, Harrisonburg, Winchester, and Cape Charles and in the city of Hampton. These events work to bring together Queer locals and Allies while also welcoming home native-Virginia and out-of-state family, couples and friends. And a big draw for Out-of-state visitors are the music, food, cocktails and exponential energy of our urban prides in Norfolk, Roanoke, Richmond and Charlottesville.

And a notable moment in Virginia Queer history took place on Tuesday, June 30, 2019, in New York City. This marked the first time Virginia is for Lovers participated in a World Pride event. Virginians Eric Hause and Andrew Roberts, partners in life and owners/editors/publishers of multimedia company OutWire 757 and OutLife 757magazine led Virginians Nancy Lenthall, Ally Graul, James Hermassen Parker and others joining from the crowd carried the Virginia is for Lovers banner, and wore our iconic VIFL Pride Heart shirts, hats and gear.

From L to R: Virginian’s Andrew Roberts and Eric Hause of OutWire 757 joined by James Hermassen Parker, Ally Graul & Nancy Lenthall

Today, you can find self-designated LGBT-friendly shops, restaurants, distilleries, meaderies, cideries, craft breweries, wineries, outdoor adventures, attractions, and places to stay during one of our many Pride weekends, or for a quick weekend getaway – year-round and statewide. You can also explore one of Virginia’s 10 regions or find them all at

Visitors and locals share their favorites at @visitgayva (Instagram) and @VisitGayVA(Twitter) all year. #visitgayva

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(1) The Boiler Room / Queer Walking Tour of Norfolk Old Dominion University
(2) LGBT Hampton Roads – March 7, 2016 by Charles H Ford & Jeffrey L Littlejohn
(3) Timeline of LGBTQ+ History at Virginia Tech– March 7, 2016 by Ex Lapide Society& Latanya Walker
(4) Lasting Legacy: What Stonewall Means in the South – June 6, 2019 by Dr. Gregory S. Rosenthal
(5) Walking Tour: Gentrification and Queer Erasure in Roanoke – April 27, 2017 by
(6) Lesbian and Gay Richmond (Images of America: Virginia) – July 7, 2008 by Beth Marschak & Alex Lorch 
(7) Virginia Persons of Note in LGBTQ History –2014 by Virginia Department of Historic Resources

(8) Seeing Eye to ‘I’ – December 29, 2020 by Ren Tolson

Wirt Confroy is the Virginia Tourism Corporation’s Director of Business Development. he criss crosses the Commonwealth visiting and working with Virginia communities to develop and market their tourism product and visitor experiences–including LGTBQ+ tourism.

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