Richmond LGBT History Finds a Voice in Beth Marschak


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by Maureen Linke

Born into a conservative family in a small Pennsylvania town, author Beth Marschak has been an activist since her early years at Douglas Freeman High School.

“I was part of a group of students that refused to stand during our school song “Dixie,” because I didn’t think it was representative of everyone,” said Marschak.

Southern Roots

Raised in Richmond, Va. Marschak’s family did not share similar views or her passion for equality.

“My family is Southern Baptist and Republican,” said Marschak. “Growing up I always had a different way of looking at things.”

While Marshcak’s high school was classified as an integrated school, segregation was widespread. But after seeing Martin Luther King Jr. on TV, Marschak was inspired to take a stand. The first demonstration in which she participated was against the Vietnam War. However, it was the Stonewall Riots, which took place in New York in 1969, that had the greatest impact in Marschak’s young life.

“Up until that time you would not have seen anything in a newspaper that used the word lesbian or gay,” said Marschak. “It was the first time I’d ever seen those words, although I always knew I was a lesbian.”

Changing Times

Marschak attended Westhampton College, University of Richmond – an all women’s college. It was during this time she “came out” and also started the first feminist group on campus. However, it became clear that Westhampton, with its historically Southern Baptist roots, was not the most comfortable place to be openly homosexual.

“I was sent to the dean’s office for wearing slacks to class,” said Marschak. “It was so obvious to them that women should not do that, that they didn’t even actually have a rule.”

Marschak remained politically active after graduation, participating in various civil rights, anti-war, and women’s liberation demonstrations. From marches that turned into riots, to handing out information about birth control, she was no stranger to police.

Untitled from Maureen Linke on Vimeo.

“There were very chaotic times and I was arrested – more than once,” said Marschak.

Gay nightlife was a secret world in Richmond during the 1970s. Windows of bars and nightclub were blacked out and appeared desolate, a far cry from the atmosphere in the city today. Violence and vandalism were a widespread reality in the LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) community.

“I had the experience of walking with someone and being verbally or even physically harassed,” said Marschak.

Marschak’s community involvement continued throughout the 1970s. In 1975, Marschak co-founded the Richmond Lesbian Feminists. After being asked to write a brief overview of the womens’ movement in the 1970’s for the YWCA of Richmond, Marschak was amazed at how much she could not clearly remember and how much information could potentially be lost. When approached by Alex Lorch of the VCU Archives Project as well as a publishing company, Marschak agreed to co-write Lesbian and Gay Richmond. For Lorch, it was his love of storytelling that inspired him to collaborate with Marschak.

 

Beth (left) and a fellow activist at a march on Monument Ave.

An Unknown History

“For a variety of reasons I wanted to bring attention to the history of gays and lesbians in Richmond,” said Lorch. “But mostly I just wanted to tell the stories because they were interesting, largely unknown or untold.”

Driven by her passion for history, Marschak spent endless hours searching through archives and piecing together clues that would tell a story.

“I think its important for people to know history, and not just LGBT history but all kinds because its part of how you understand how you fit into the universe,” said Marschak. “Not just the history that relates to you, but everyone.”

While, according to Marschak, homosexuality has existed in America since its founding in 1607, information was still very difficult to find.

“That part of history is very difficult to uncover,” said Marschak. “You can’t just do a search and find people – you have to know who to research to figure out if they were homosexual.”

Lorch also found the experience challenging at times, but in the end he found it very rewarding.

“I most enjoyed finding and meeting new people, telling “lost” historical stories, and working with Beth,” said Lorch

Following the book’s publication, Marschak was asked by the Valentine Richmond History Museum to give a guided tour on historically significant places in Richmond’s gay and lesbian history.

“It’s important that people know that Richmond played an active role in the history of the LGBT community,” said Marschak. “It wasn’t just a phenomenon in San Francisco or New York – there are important people from our history some known and unknown.”

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Beth Marschak was the recipient of the Richmond Human Rights Coalition Human Rights Award in 1983, and the Richmond YWCA Outstanding Woman of the Year Award in Human Relations in 1990. The Richmond Lesbian and Gay Pride Coalition recognized Beth with awards in 1990, 1993 and 1999. She was also recognized by Equality Virginia as one of the 20 most OUTstanding Virginians.
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~ by Maureen Linke on October 9, 2009.

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