There were exactly three things I knew about Richmond, Virginia before venturing down there a few weeks back—it had been the rebel capital of the Confederate States of America, that it was the birthplace of the always sassy Shirley MacLaine and…maybe, just maybe, it was for lovers. And truthfully, I only learned those first two things from a google search I conducted because I had just accepted a little trip down there to see what their Gay Pride (held every last weekend in September) was all about.
Armed with this information—and my Grindr application (don’t judge)—I set out to get to the, uh, bottom of what this curious little, big city/town was all about and to see if it was true, that Virginia was for lovers.
And since now you’re curious, the Grindr scene was brimming with cute and young boys from VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University), as well as with headless torsos, skylines and at least one kitty cat. And yes, it’s possible to find someone good looking and fun on it.
Now you know.
The other thing that Richmond is teaming with is living history as noted while passing a man frantically waving a confederate flag outside some Sons of the Confederacy building. Apparently the guy’s pissed that they refuse to fly said flag atop their building. I guess those gigantic marble statues of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee (you know, the one time president of the Confederacy and his superstar general who tried to keep slavery in action) along the gorgeous tree-lined Monument Ave just aren’t enough. By the way, despite rebel monuments, Monument Ave is absolutely marvelous and here, you’ll note that Richmond has the most wrought iron style porches out side of New Orleans. (There’s actually a super luxe gay-owned bed and breakfast—with two adorable dogs—called Maury Place right there that you should consider making your home base while visiting.)
But really, this is the place Mr. Davis one did call home. And from where he escaped Union soldiers via train as the war drew to an end. You can actually go visit that train station down in the Shockhoe neighborhood, and while you’re there, it’s possible to hop on a throwback boat ride down the Kanawha Canal and get a little history of the place, pass a lot of old tobacco factories that are now fancy condos, an island that once had a church on it and the smallest monument ever to a battle ship. Take some fun boat pictures under a spot called triple bridge crossing and near some old prison where they’d keep Union soldiers.
On a more uniting and revolutionary note, you can also pop in to St. John Church, where Patrick Henry gave his famous anti-British quote, “Give me liberty or give me death,” and go visit to a statue of this awesome slave dude named Gabriel who planned a revolt (but was captured and hung). Oy vey. To get your full dose of African-American history, head to the historically black neighborhood called Jackson Ward, see what’s up a the hippodrome—a new restored theater that once housed the best of American Jazz.
There’s also a strong history of independent women in Richmond so go see a little monument to Anna Maria Lane—a brave woman who fought the entire revolutionary war as a man. Werk!
I also suggest, no, this is a command, that you go visit the Valentine Richmond History Center. Call ahead and ask for Bill Martin. Even if he’s not directly in fashion, he’s the Tim Gunn of Richmond, maybe of the entire south, and beg him to give you a behind the scenes tour—they’ve got one of the largest archival fashion collections outside of Costume Institute at the Met in New York.
And don’t miss the front of house too. The space is a stellar example of Federal-style architecture, which sounds boring, except that a lot of it was inspired by the unearthing of Pompeii around the same time, and its filled with just a lot of really cool, quirky old things that have somehow ended up in Richmond. And if you happen to make it there in November, they’ve invited some hipster VCU kids to poke some visual art instillation stuff over top the old stuff.
Rounding out your selection of cultural things you’ll feel guilty for not doing while you’re in Richmond are—The Museum of Edgar Allan Poe (apparently he spent his younger years here), The American Civil War Museum (which gives some perspective from the losing side) and certainly the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Actually, that last one you really need to see. There’s an amazing collection of art deco, art nouveau, Tiffany lamps, one of the largest Faberge collections outside of Russia, and, interestingly a pretty expansive collection of Ancient African and Asian Art. Also, some rare Warhols and a really suave bar.
Bars? Oh snap…
You must be wondering—what the hell is this dude doing going to all of these museums on gay pride weekend? Well…to be sure, this is Richmond. It’s not like Gay Pride consumes the entire city. A good thing since it’s very possible to visit Richmond for Gay Pride but also do the whole cultural enlightenment thing too.
Anyway, before you go see all that thought provoking history, you might want to look around for a G Magazine—Richmond’s newly launched gay magazine—which’ll give you a sense of what’s goin’ on around town. Some spots to find this magazine?
Start off at Nacho Mamas. Yes, that’s the name and yes, the dude who owns it is Mexican. And gay. And fabulous. Lunch there is delish, as are the 23 varieties of Margaritas, and they always get accolades for their porch-front dining. If they’ve got the mag, good, if not, stuff your face, drink a little and then stroll down West Carry street (Where it’s located) in Carrytown. Hop into For the Love of Chocolate to break every no-carb diet you ever even dreamed of being on and snag some gifts to bring back to your friends/office. Then go shopping. Need Supply is filled with expensive and hard to find designer things (and this is coming from a New Yorker) and there’s a slew of vintage shops off on the side streets. Also, a real, live gay book store, called Phoenix Rising, which, ok, might be also be a first stop to find G Magazine. If it gets to being late, you can stop in to Carrytown’s one gay bar—Babes of Carrytown—which is actually a lesbian bar. But don’t shrug, Richmond’s small, so there’s usually a gaggle of boys enjoying the foosball, pool or outdoor beach volleyball court.
Even if you did find G by this time, it could be worth taking a pit stop at the Gay Community Center of Richmond. It’s the biggest building of its sort I’ve ever seen and, they’ve got Unity Thrift—a used clothing store whose proceeds goes to fund the center’s various community outreach programs (including one for gay middle school students!)
Now, it’s worth noting that due to some bizarre law, all the gay bars serve food. (Before you call homophobia on that one, all bars must abide by this nonsense). What this means is that you probably shouldn’t smoke pot before you go out and that you run a high risk of getting a grease stain on whatever outfit you decide to wear. That said, the most chic gay spot in the city is a high end restaurant called Selba (they know their wine and the exact way to fry up a brussel sprout). You can start off there or skip the fancy meal and go right into the thick of it at the pub-esque Barcode (which has excellent chicken fingers) and fun pop music. A good night in Richmond will end at Godfreys, where there’s raucous dancing, lots of drag queens and cute boys and, which also transforms into a bachelorette/birthday girl drag queen brunch restaurant on Sunday mornings. Fans of drag will appreciate the eggs benedict, bacon bloody mary and camp-a-licious drag queens (and outta drag host) fucking with drunk straight girls and their grandfathers.
And then there’s Pride, which is done block party style (no parade) on Saturday afternoon at downtown Richmond’s Kanawa Plaza. The city’s LGBTQRSTLNE community all comes together to celebrate their presence in the city, drink a shit load of Absolut and let their queer hang out. Miss Raven from RuPaul’s Drag Race sipped her cocktail and kept the audience entranced with her hostess sass. If you’ve got a thing for day drinking in parks with drag queens (which, ok, lets be honest, who among us doesn’t!) then you’ll probably have a laugh or 50 here.
On the way back to New York, I ate just about all the goodies I had gotten at For the Love of Chocolate (sorry friends) and thought for a while about what had just transpired. I had just gone to a small, red(ish) state city…that had at one point been the home of America’s most famous slave-loving rebel and is next to the district where, today, some a-hole named Eric Cantor represents in the House…and didn’t once feel unwelcome or unsafe. And, actually, not only did I find myself smirking about the silly-fun we’d all just had, I was smiling just knowing that in a place like Richmond, the gays have done a very good job at directing their contentious past in a decidedly more all-inclusive future.