When a Gay Bar in Richmond was an Introduction to a Community

Jun 17, 2016

Bill Harrison is the executive director of Diversity Richmond, which serves Central Virginia's LGBTQ communities. Harrison grew up in the small farming community of Emporia, Virginia and moved to Richmond as an adult. This week he led a vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting, and here he shares about the significance of gay bars in Richmond.

“I’ve lived in Richmond since the mid-70s, and actually my initial introduction to the gay community was through a gay bar. I was in college, and I had become friends with a guy who was a good friend, and a few months into the friendship he came out to me. I, at that time, did not even know what the word ‘gay’ meant. I knew that I was homosexual, but I did not think that you actually did anything about it. I thought you would just put it in the back of your mind and marry a woman.

“And so when Jack came out to me, he told me about a gay bar in Richmond, the Dial Tone. And he said ‘I know a couple hundred gay men,’ and I thought to myself, ‘he’s really a liar, because there’s not 200 gay men in America.’

“And so we got in his red Vega, and we drove down Jeff Davis Highway, and I remember Helen Reddy was singing Delta Dawn on the radio. And we got to the Dial Tone, and I don’t know if you remember the first Star Wars movie that came out, and they went to the bar. And there was every form of life in that bar imaginable. And that’s sorta what I thought the Dial Tone was gonna be like. But we got in, and everybody in there looked totally normal. And as strange as that might seem, I was just really surprised by that.

Bill Harrison at Diversity Richmond, which operates a thrift store | Photo by Michael K. Lease

“Back in the day, back in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, and part of the ‘90s—the bar was our only source of where you caught up with your friends. There was a bar here in town called Scandals that had a big dance floor. And there have been a couple bars over the years that had restaurants.

“Back in the day of the AIDS crisis, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, bars were a way that AIDS organizations raised a lot of money. The bar community was very supportive. They would have different shows and performances there and raise money for the AIDS organizations at that time when government funding was not that available. And so the bar has played a significant role in the life of the community.

“I look back at the AIDS crisis, and this was a disease that came out of nowhere—it was a sexually-transmitted disease that would kill you—and so when you contracted the virus and there came a time in your life when you had to let people know what was going on, there was quite often a sense of embarrassment and feeling ashamed.

“And we took the high road, and we marched on Washington, and we demanded money for research, but I think the most important thing we did is we took care of each other at home. There were a lot of men whose families disowned them, and so we became their family. We had volunteer organizations, we had buddy systems, where we not only bought groceries and took them to the doctor and that sort of thing, but we just went and sat and talked and became friends and we buried them, we planned memorial services for people we had not known a year before because their families refused to be a part of it.

“And I look back at that, and I know how strong my community is, and I see that as my community at its best. When the nation was against us, we did more than survive. We showed the nation how you do it. And with this tragedy, it is not going to stop us from having pride festivals. It is not going to stop us from doing anything. If anything, it’s going to energize us and draw us closer together and make us stronger.”