ABC Regulations Challenged in Court

Virginia’s anti-gay ABC regulations had long been a rallying point for the LGBTQ community when the case came to the federal courts in 1991. In 1969, months before Stonewall, several bars that served the gay community were closed down due to the regulations, and some of the first public protests of these laws, in the form of letters to the editor, occurred. The Alcohol Beverage Control Board establishes the rules and regulations regarding the sale of alcoholic beverages in the state of Virginia and had several statues regarding homosexuals that stated:

  • Section 4-37 states in part “… a bar’s license may be suspended or revoked if the bar has become a meeting place and rendezvous for users of narcotics, drunks, homosexuals, prostitutes, pimps, panderers, gamblers or habitual law violaters…”
  • Section 4 – 98 “…forbids a licensee from employing any person who has the general reputation as a prostitute, homosexual, panderer, gambler, habitual law violater, person of ill repute, user of or peddler of narcotics, or person who drinks to excess or a “B-girl.”

Many of the groups that organized through the years had eliminating these laws from the books as a goal. In 1991, Virginians for Justice had the opportunity to take an active step in doing so. A federal district court in Alexandria, VA agreed to hear arguments in a case concerning these regulations. Although the laws are on the books, they had, in effect, not been enforced in the 1980s. A lawsuit was filed in Alexandria by the owner of the French Quarter Café, by the College of William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alumni (W&M GALA) group and Dale Barnhard, with the financial backing of Virginians for Justice.

Before the French Quarter opened in May of 1991, retired Col. William Glasgow, Jr. tried to keep the restaurant from getting a license based on the ABC regulations prompting a lawsuit by the French Quarter owners who didn’t want to be in fear of losing their license and being shut down in the future because of the regulations. W&M GALA said the organization joined the lawsuit because of the situation when they attempted to get a liquor license for a Homecoming Event, their request was delayed because of the ABC regulations; a GALA spokesman said that the delay was caused by “a major, ongoing violation of Constitutional rights in the state of Virginia… the ABC code denies the freedom of assembly guaranteed gay and lesbian Virginians, like all Americans."[1] Barnard joined the suit after she felt that she was being intimidated in a “straight” bar and felt she had to stand up after she found out that there were laws on the books stating that a restaurant/bar was prohibited from serving “homosexuals.”

Virginians for Justice had been trying to work with the legislature for at least a year prior to the time the lawsuit was filed. Virginians for Justice Spokesman, Pat Heck, said that many legislators found the rules “anachronistic,” but they refused to do support legislation that would be seen as pro-gay.[2]

On October 23, 1991, US District Judge Albert V. Bryan declared the anti-gay ABC regulations unconstitutional and signed an order preventing Virginia ABC agents from enforcing them. Judge Bryan also required that the ABC board to notify all current license holders and any future applicants of the changes in the ABC regulations. The ABC board was also ordered to pay the court costs for the plaintiffs, equaling almost $11,000. Pat Heck of Virginians for Justice pointed out that the legislators could have saved the state this money and the time and money that the state had invested in defending the case if they had acted and changed the anti-gay language themselves, instead of forcing the issue to go to court. Shirley Lesser, chair of Virginians for Justice, said that the court order was a “victory that will help invigorate our movement and the fight for equal justice. The Commonwealth of Virginia can no longer assume that gays and lesbians are unable to organize to protect themselves from bad laws whether they are on the books or under consideration."[3]


  1. Leonard Green, “Anti-Gay Laws Challenged” Our Own Community Press, October 1991,
  2. Leonard Green, “Anti-Gay Laws Challenged” Our Own Community Press, October 1991.
  3. Keith Maranger, “Virginia ABC laws called unconstitutional” Our Own Community Press, October 1991 (sic actual publishing date was November 1991).