The archives of the Library of Virginia contain a noteworthy collection of letters offering a rare glimpse into the lives of LGBTQ people a century ago. Same-sex relationships were criminalized and stigmatized for most of American History. Correspondents often used pseudonyms, and letters were often destroyed, either by the recipients or by their families. The T.M. Fleear letters, 1921-1923, touch on friendship, love, infidelity and jealousy. They also touch on LGBTQ people’s fear of arrest and scandal, and the need to pass as “straight” in a homophobic society. The letters are addressed to “Mr. T.M. Fleear,” or “Jonnie,” and most are from “R.C.” or “Roy.” Further research is required to positively identify the correspondents. The letters are dated from the spring of 1923. 1
The Roaring 20s were a decade marked by consumerism, financial speculation, and Prohibition. They were also a period when marginalized people – including LGBTQ people – pushed the boundaries of the social order. The year after Jonnie and Roy exchanged letters, the Society for Human Rights was founded in Chicago, Illinois. It was the first gay rights organization in the US, and it published Friendship and Freedom, the first gay magazine in the US. Both ceased to exist in 1925, following the arrest of the society’s founder, Henry Gerber. The Chicago Police Department raided Gerber’s home and destroyed copies of Friendship and Freedom. None are known to exist today. 2
Unidentified men, 1921,
T.M. Fleear Letters, Library of Virginia
Norfolk, Jonnie and Roy’s hometown, was one of the largest seaports in the country and attracted LGBTQ people from around the world. Moralists referred to it as “the wickedest city in America.” 3 The U.S. Navy, the city’s largest employer, was recovering from a sex scandal. In 1919, the service investigated sailors and civilians suspected of homosexuality at the Naval Station in Newport, Rhode Island. Its agents solicited and entrapped suspects who were held for months without trial. The Senate Committee on Naval Affairs held hearings on the scandal, and rebuked Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his handling of the investigation.4
Richmond, where Jonnie moved, also attracted LGBTQ people, many of them artists and writers. Hunter Taylor Stagg, founder of the literary magazine The Reviewer, opened his home to them. So did writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, friend and literary executor of Gertrude Stein. 5 Van Vechten’s work figured prominently in Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, the first exhibition of LGBTQ artists at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in 2010. 6
Jonnie and Roy were together for a year and a half in Norfolk. Jonnie worked in a downtown office building, and most of Roy’s letters were written in nearby hotels. Jonnie initially visited and eventually moved to Richmond, supposedly to find work. He travelled on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad to Main Street Station. The first letter is accompanied by an envelope in Roy’s handwriting and postmarked May 2nd. The letter, however, is in someone else’s handwriting and written prior to Easter, which fell on April 1st. It is signed “B,” possibly the “B.T.” or “Billy” referred to in Roy’s letters. If so, it suggests a reason other than work for Jonnie’s travels to Richmond.
I received your letter Friday evening and was very glad to hear from you, but so sorry to hear of your fathers illness. I do hope he is lots better now and will soon be in the best of health again. I also hope my friend Jonnie is well. You sure have had one bunch of bad luck this year, but soon I am sure it will be different. I thought I had told you about the Cadillac. It sure is one peach I can sure hit the air with it. My friend is also going to have a new Nash sport roadster. He has ordered it and it will be here in about two weeks. The Cadillac is a seven passenger and is too large to haul around all the time so he will use the roadster when there is not a crowd he has to have a big car to take his people out in. We drove about 60 miles yesterday always hitting forty and forty-five it sure does crack the air. I had a letter from my friend in California this morning so I will have that to answer. I have been half way expecting you up for several days before I you wrote me about your father being sick. Jonnie you never have to worry about me running around with bad company. If you keep as good company as I do you would [illegible] have some good friends down there to cheer you up. I cannot do much way up here but I mean to do my best. The guy I met at the depot when I came to meet you sent me a grand silk scarf two neckties and some linen handkerchiefs y last Friday. He sure is good to me and I certainly appreciate it. I also received a check to make up the balance of the $75 which I needed for my easter outfit, but I want another suit which is forty dollar. I only have three suits now and will have four with the one for easter. I always like to have five or six, so I will have to have another one so I will have to start saving for that or pray to my good angel. Some one is going to give me a top coat for Easter so I will sure feel dressed up. Well Jonnie take good care of your self and remember you have a friend in Rd who is wishing you so very much go luck and every thing nice. B.
P.S. I am sorry but I I do not know any Mr. Kelley. If I met him the other summer I can only say I have changed entirely since then all of that foolishness has left me and I am living a new life which I find a great deal more pleasure in, a life that I do not have to conceal from the prying eyes of the curious part of the world. I do not mean I would care to have a every thing I do published in the paper but I can say I have changed and every one else says so. You I guess noticed it. I would not hurt any ones feelings but you can explain things after all better than one can write. Some day I will explain to you myself I hope when I see you. You be sure you keep good company yourself and then you f will find a change I believe. B.
The remaining five letters are from Roy to Jonnie. They recount the couple’s struggle to maintain their relationship, and reflect the atmosphere of liberation and repression in the 1920s.
April 4th 23
Received your card yesterday and also your letter to-day. Was so glad to get a letter. Well Jonnie you said you wanted me to get the 4 P.M. C&O train Saturday and further down in your letter you said you hoped to see me Sunday. I do not understand this. If I came to R’d Saturday night, I would certainly expect to see you. Not wait until Sunday to see you. And I will come Saturday evening on the 4 P.M. train as I really want to see you. Jonnie I do not blame you for leaving for R’d as you can make yourself much better satisfied in R’d. Well it won’t take long to forget me after you are there a few weeks. And Jonnie I have something to talk over with you. But do not think I am mad because I am not. As I am the same as I were Sept 1st a year & a half ago. And in my mind I will be the same always.
I certainly did hate it when I watched that train pull out of the station. I made me feel real bad. But I suppose I have quite a lot of those feelings in life. As I make my own life a misery. But I’ll swear to god I can’t help it. I only wish I did not have such a disposition. I am writing this but do not know whether you will receive it or not. So I am afraid to write two much. Write real soon and I will leave on 4 P.M. train Saturday evening and meet me at the C&O station. [MAIN STREET STATION] And do not fool me. Well I will say good by for this time. Write real soon. Your Devoted Friend, [SIGNATURE ERASED]
P.S. Do not have anything to do with B.T. if you do I’ll get it.
[LETTERHEAD: HOTEL FAIRFAX, NORFOLK, VA]
Wednesday Night [APRIL 4]
I wrote to you to-day but I am down town & it is raining like the Devil. And it is so damn gloomy. The nights are always gloomy for me any way. I can make out very well during the day. But when night comes, I feel like some one crazy. I am so used to seeing you. And I said to myself to-day that I was going to stay in tonight. But when it came on I began feeling blue. So I came down hear. And I am just as bad. It is only 8:30. And if I go home I can never go to sleep. I will only lay in the bed and think of everything in the world. But it is raining as I have said before so I guess there is only one thing left for me to do & that is go on home and worry myself to sleep. God only know what a misery life is to me. I keep it to myself & try to keep smiling but no one know what is behind my smile.
You will say this is all shit but it is not. If I could only turn back a year and be happy as I were then I would be O.K. For God know I was a happy boy then. But they say time changes everything. And it is really so. If we could only get ourselves to-gether & be the friends we were in the beginning it would be some happy days to look forward to. But it seems to go backward instead of forward for me. It looks like you loose interest in me. As your letter was so plain. And when I saw it was from you my heart beat to find out what was in it. And you only said a little. Nothing like you use to write. My God I would give up everything in the world to be friends like we both should be. But I guess I will have to worry it out. Well Jonnie I will say Good by for this time. Trusting to God I will see & be with you soon. I am almost on the verge of giving up my position & coming there & see if I can get work. I wish I could only make up my mind. Well I hope you get a good night rest & are not feeling like I am. For I feel & wish I could close my eyes when I get home. And never open them again. So long as would have so worry worry. It would be a relief for me. If every person of my type go through with worry as I do I feel so sorry for them. Well this is hoping to see you in the near future. I am Always Your Devoted Friend, R.C.
[LETTERHEAD: HOTEL FAIRFAX, NORFOLK, VA]
Thursday Night [APRIL 5]
Dear friend Jonnie,
Received your letter tonight at heart it came in the evening mail. Was real glad to hear from you. Jonnie you say you wished you had stayed on the Law Bldg. Well I thought you would be dissatisfied but I thought if I told you, you would have said I were trying to keep you from going. I really did hate to see you go. But I thought it best to say nothing in regards to it. As I may have told you wrong. Jonnie I will come up as I told you in my letter yesterday. And my pass is on the C&O. As you remember. So meet me at the C&O station as I would not know any other place to see or find you. And it would be more convenient as then I would not miss seeing you. You can stand at the Gate. And I will be sure of seeing you then. Now don’t fool me. And I will sure some unless I hear further from you that you will not come back before. And then it I would not care to come.
So unless I hear from you stating that you will not wait I will be there at 6:50 P.M. I believe that is the time the train is due. Now don’t fool me and I won’t fool you. As it seems a century already since I saw you. It rained all evening here. But has cleared away now. It begins raining about 4:30 or 5 & rains every evening. April showers I suppose. It sure was gloomy last night as it rained awful. And I felt so despondent I thought I would go crazy. Well I will say Good by. Hoping to see you at the station Saturday evening. I am Devotedly Yours, R.
P.S. I guess they think you are getting some mail at the Eagles & all in the same Hand writing. Excuse all mistakes & take m them for X
[LETTERHEAD: HOTEL FAIRFAX, NORFOLK, VA]
May 1st 23
Received your letter this afternoon also your card this morning. I am well only this cold it keeps me feeling pretty bum all the time. But I am going to take some medicine to-night. And probably that will work it out of me. I am glad to hear that you are feeling alright, and hope you continue to feel the same. As it is right bad to be feeling bum all the while. Jonnie after what you said to me Sunday night & Monday morning I think it is best that you should drop me. As I have tried in every way since I have known you to carry myself in a manly way. I have did nothing to my knowledge that would have injured your character. But you still say that I have are will ruin you. And that you are not going to let any — — injure you in any way. Of course I don’t blame you for that. But there is no one who can say that I have tried to & prove it.
As I am always by myself at least have been in the past. But I will not speak for the future. I know positive that you do not care very much for me. As you no longer than Sunday night told me that when you saw me. You got hot. Well if you really cared for me I am positive that would not occur. But dear friend you are in Richmond now. And anything I do will not affect you. If people say anything to you just say “I have not seen him for so & so. And he acted a part of a gentleman while I knew him. But now since I have not been with him I no nothing. It will not hurt you to say that little bit of good about me. And I will always give you a good name and will always say to one and all that I have liked you still like you not like but love even though we may never see each other again. I love you as much as I ever did. But I have worried myself half to death over you. And I simply must stop. And the only way out is the rough life. You are there. And I never would believe you do not enjoy yourself. But I’ll swear for three long weeks I have nearly gone crazy. But now it matters little to me what happens. And you said you made yourself satisfied there. And it is something that helps you do it. I don’t mean any harm by what I am saying. As you told me last week end that I had nothing to do with you & you had nothing to do with me. And being you don’t care I don’t want anything to be surprising to anyone. As I have played the love game and have lost.
And I am the old card now and I can never be what I have been and I realize it. But knew all along for 6 mos. But my liking for you keeps me down. I just sat and pictured things and only made myself a nervous wreck. But I hope you the best of luck in your new home town. And hope you will never have anything to wrong you. I have lost my pass to Washington. I don’t mean lost it in the street are anything like that. It has been revoked by the office. As it hasn’t been been but 10 days since I used one and & they are holding it until the 15th of May before I can use it. So that is another crooked path I have to travel. Well Jonnie I do want you to be friendly with me and I do want to be the same to you when ever we meet and please do me a favor by not calling me out of my name. And I’ll assure that I will always be a little friend in a friendly way to you. We do not have to cease being friends because our little disagreements have come between our mutual affair. For as I said I will always have memories for you no matter what I do are where I go or who with. I will not really enjoy myself for thinking of you. And keep what I am saying in this letter to yourself and do not make public to any one our trouble. And I will also do the same I will say we are still god friend which we are I hope. When ever we meet each I each other if we ever do. Well Jonnie I will say Good by for this time, although it is almost breaking me down. I have been, a Good time, [SIGNATURE ERASED]
[LETTERHEAD: THE MONTICELLO HOTEL, NORFOLK, VA]
May 3rd 23
Just a few lines to let you know I received your letter this afternoon. Jonnie you said in the letter I had this in my mind for a long time. Well I must say you are mistaken about this, as I have not. But the way I figured it was this that we were both jealous of each other and every time we get together we just argue all the time. And you know yourself that no longer than Sunday night laying in bed that you told me that things came in your head and you disliked me. And really and truly, I have done nothing that you can say would cause our trouble. But you have caused the majority of it your self. As you know if you could have gotten billy like you tried this little Roy could have gone to the devil just like you did Harry when you met me.
It was a similar case and you know yourself that you told me Sunday night a week ago that you would have did better if to have Harry than you did when you met me. Well why wouldn’t that make me think you did not care. Jonnie you have did me a number of dirty tricks that I never mentioned even a year ago. Thing I really know to be the truth. Well Jonnie when I said I were going to live a Gay life, I did not mean that I was going to try & ruin my reputation in a months time. But I did mean that I was going to have a good time in a decent sort of way. I have sat hear in Norfolk from time to time since Nov. the 20th of last year, moaning & groaning and all over you. But it all did no good as you were gone most of the time. And your cry was you could not get work here. But it is funny that I see others working on new jobs even in the Down town District. It was not that. It was that you just desired to go away, & to tell the truth and no lie about it. You have been away so much in the past 6 mo. And I have sat and moaned over you until recently, I may say since Sunday night & Monday morning when you talked to me as you did about ruining you and I just got myself together and said to myself that I was a damn fool to continue it. And so I decided I just as well try and forget as to worry all the time. And worry my life away over some one who pretended to care & cared nothing. Well you said you would be in Norfolk Saturday evening and you would like to see me and talk to me. Well Jonnie I will be around the Atlantic Hotel and I will be glad to have a talk with you. But you must promise not to begin calling me all kind of names as it will ruin my character as well as yours more than anything I ever will do. As for my doing any thing drastic I have not so far. Well trusting this find you well and it leaves me the same. I am, your old Friend, Roy.
Today, Main Street Station is one of Richmond’s landmarks, and it is easy to imagine Jonnie and Roy meeting on the platform on a spring evening a century ago. Each June, the station is decorated with Rainbow flags for LGBTQ Pride Month. The relationship ended, but Jonnie kept Roy’s letters. He returned to Norfolk, and placed them in a safety deposit box in the Virginia National Bank, along with other papers and photographs.
Main Street Station, Richmond, VA, 2022
Photograph taken by Author
The contents of the box were presumed abandoned and remitted to the Division of Unclaimed Property of the Virginia Department of the Treasury in 1973. The department attempted to locate persons with an interest in the contents, without success, and they were transferred to the Library of Virginia in 1982. Today, the T.M. Fleear letters are accessible to the public in the Library’s Archives Research Room.
 T.M. Fleear letters, 1921-1923, Accession #31473, Lot 716, Virginia Department of the Treasury, Division of Unclaimed Property, Library of Virginia.
 Jonathan Katz. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976. 385-393; “LGBTQ Activism: The Henry Gerber House, Chicago, IL,” National Park Service https://www.nps.gov/articles/lgbtq-activism-henry-gerber-house-chicago-il.htm
 Charles H. Ford and Jeffrey Littlejohn. Images of Modern America: LGBT Hampton Roads. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2016. 7.
 See Lawrence R. Murphy. Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy. NY: Harrington Park Press, 1988.
 Beth Marschak and Alex Lorch. Images of America: Lesbian and Gay Richmond. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2008. 7, 20-23.
 See Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward. Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2010.