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Generations of Roanoke's gay men and women found acceptance and sanctuary inside the old garage.
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
On the outside, it had the nondescript “move along, nothing going on here” feel of a speakeasy.
Inside was a beat-thumping, strobe-lighted, rump-shaking gay disco — “New Year’s Eve on an every night basis” some called it.
But more than that, for almost 35 years, The Park was a sanctuary for gay men and women in the region who had no other place to be themselves, and a hub for AIDS activism, safe-sex promotions and gay pride in general.
Saturday night, though, brought the last techno beat and final flash of lights to the once-crowded dance floor. It was done in, its owners say, by dwindling business that stemmed ironically from broader acceptance of its patrons in other Roanoke establishments. It had, even its fans acknowledge, outlived its purpose.
“We know … that we served Roanoke, and much of Southwestern Virginia, at a time when we were needed the most,” the owners said in a statement. They asked their names not be used because they hold full-time day jobs and did not make a practice of publicizing their connection to the nightclub.
Roanoke had other gay, or at least gay-friendly, bars before The Park, but gays were still subject to abuse in those places in the 1970s.
The Park’s founders “saw the need to have a place where the gay community (or anyone who was teased or heckled) could be themselves without having to be bullied or shunned,” according to the owners’ statement. They built something that was out-sized for a city in an otherwise rural end of the state.
Jan Wilkins, a longtime Roanoker, was living in New York City when The Park opened in December 1978, but visited it when he was home.
“It reminded me of a New York kind of size,” said Wilkins, 72. “It came on strong.”
An event promoter for years, Wilkins said The Park did things right with sound and lighting. “There were sometimes lines waiting on the sidewalk to get in.”
Cross-dressing and drag shows and pageants were part of the mix, too.
Generations of young gay men and women found comfort inside the old garage at 615 Salem Ave. S.W., safe in the knowledge that they could be themselves, dance with a partner of the same sex, and not fear reprisals.
“For a lot of people, their families turn their backs on them [when they say they are gay] and their friends do it, too,” said Leslie Miller, president of the gay advocacy group Roanoke Pride. The Park provided an accepting family for those people.
The Park was a longtime sponsor of Roanoke Pride events, and home to regular events in conjunction with Council of Community Services to distribute condoms and provide AIDS testing. The owners estimate they gave $1 million to AIDS awareness campaigns over the years.
Despite it’s unassuming exterior, The Park was hardly a secret, and was popular as a dance venue among straight people in search of a DJ, too.
As older gay men and women aged out of the club scene, new young gays were forever discovering it.
Justin Dowdy, 23, grew up in Roanoke and first found himself there with friends when he was still in high school.
“It seemed like a big deal,” he said. “It was all new to me, drag shows and all that.”
Well aware of the anti-gay-fueled shooting at the gay-friendly Backstreet Caf e a few blocks down Salem Avenue in 2000, Dowdy said the secure entrance at The Park made him feel safe.
It’s been a staple of his weekend nights ever since, but he could see it was on the wane, especially in the last couple of years. It didn’t help, he said, that The Park didn’t sell hard liquor, only beer and wine. The owners acknowledged that circumstance as an issue, as well.
“They didn’t evolve. … They failed to realize the fact that more and more of the nightclubs downtown are more accepting,” Dowdy said. “There wasn’t really a need to have an exclusive gay club in Roanoke.”
Dowdy was there Saturday night, arriving about 1:30 a.m., unaware that it was the club’s last night. “We had no clue, and there was no announcement,” he said.
He did notice it was more dead that it typically is.
“I was there until they played the last song,” he said. He couldn’t remember what it was.
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