Gregory Rosenthal read from a 1978 bar review that Nite & Day was the kind of establishment that had no disco, no dancing and a “Georgetown atmosphere.”
“Basically, it was the kind of place where white, professional gay men came to sit and have a drink. Very bourgeois,” he said.
“So what it is now,” one woman responded jokingly.
A crowd of about a dozen people gathered outside Lucky on Kirk Avenue in downtown Roanoke on Friday night, while people from inside the sophisticated bar curiously stared out at them. Three decades ago, the location was a popular gay bar, although that was short-lived.
“Let’s go in and queer it up!” Rosenthal, 33, declared to cheers. The enthusiasm fell flat once they learned the bar was too full and the hostess turned them away.
It was the third stop on a spirited bar crawl. The group hit up six bars, along the way talking about the vibrant history various buildings had when they operated as gay bars decades ago. There’s the Trade Winds, which is now a grassy patch cluttered with political signs at the corner of Elm Avenue and Franklin Road. Or there’s the Last Straw at Jefferson and Salem avenues, which is now Roanoke Gospel Outreach Center.
“It’s really cool that all these buildings have so much history and how some have changed so drastically over the years,” said Becca Brown.
Roanoke had six bars oriented toward gay people in 1978. Now, it has two. The Park swallowed up competition and is the most popular dance club. The other bar — Backstreet Cafe — doesn’t even really identify as a gay bar that much anymore.
“At Backstreet Cafe, you can be whoever you want to be, without bigotry or hatred, and if there is, I’ll change that,” said Deanna Marcin, the manager of Backstreet Cafe on Salem Avenue.
Marcin happened to be working the door when the bar revelers — sporting “Make Roanoke Queer Again” hats as a nod to Donald Trump’s campaign hats — arrived at the bar. They discussed the history of the establishment, which became widely known to the public as a gay bar when, on Sept. 22, 2000, Ronald Edward Gay, who hated being mocked for his name, walked in, ordered a beer and opened fire, killing one man and wounding six others.
Marcin, a transgender woman, thinks this kind of history is important to know, and she supports Rosenthal’s effort to preserve it and share it widely to as many people as he can.
“If it’s not cataloged, it’ll get lost; it’ll be forgotten,” she said.
For the past several months, Rosenthal has been leading a community-based initiative to collect and archive any items related to the history of the LGBT community in Roanoke. Rosenthal is a history professor, he swore to a bouncer Friday night, despite his pink nail polish and short shorts. He identifies as queer, which means questioning or feeling outside societal norms in regard to gender or sexuality.
The bar crawl is one of a handful of ways the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project has been sharing the history it has collected. This week, the project is unveiling a collection of 14 oral interviews, which will be available to the public online through the Roanoke Public Library.
“There are so many communities in which their stories are not being told,” Rosenthal said.
The idea for the history project emerged last fall. Rosenthal moved from New York City to become an assistant professor of public history at Roanoke College. He had no clue what a rich LGBT history Southwest Virginia has. Part of that reason was because no LGBT organizations had gone through the effort to archive anything, he said.
“I don’t care if we create the world’s best archive, but it’s important to me that we build a collective sense of our history as a community together,” Rosenthal said. “I don’t think the LGBT community here has this sense, so this is about empowerment, about the community and knowing who we are so we can move forward in a better way.”
The organization met several times in the fall, brainstorming what they wanted to find and what stories they wanted to tell. They also came up with the name of the organization, including the use of a plus sign at the end of LGBTQ to convey they are all-inclusive.
Soon, people started dropping off boxes they had holed up in their houses. Items include membership cards for The Park, memorabilia from the 10th anniversary of the Backstreet shooting, and fliers and posters printed by the Roanoke Diversity Center.
“The value to this project is showing what a vibrant community this has been for a long time,” said David Garland, who has been active in helping collect historical materials. “It’s easy for people not to realize what all has come before, because people get caught up in what is happening now.”
One person delivered the first editions of the Big Lick Gayzette, which the Gay Alliance of the Roanoke Valley published upon its founding in 1971. Some donations, such as the Gayzette, have been preserved as a collection available to the public at the Virginia Room at the main library on South Jefferson Street and online as a digital collection. One edition includes the headline “Where are the gay women of Roanoke” and an appeal for more lesbians to be involved with the Gay Alliance.
Rosenthal said one of the more difficult topics getting people to open up about is how for many years, the prominent voices and history relates to white gay men.
“It’s very important that this project try and talk about these divisions in the community, that some people were oppressed,” Rosenthal said. “Some people are not happy to talk about that, but that’s part of the history, as well.”
So far, the project has mostly focused on gathering information about the 1970s. However, he plans to focus on the ’80s and ’90s in the future, including touching on issues such as AIDS.
Rosenthal tasked his research assistant, Shannon Mace, with examining other materials that citizens may not have to donate. Mace, who is graduating from Roanoke College this weekend, has been perusing newspapers, property records and anything that can add more context to places and issues. Among her findings are a 1977 newspaper article about police cracking down on City Market “Queens” — or transgender sex workers — and a copy of a Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control law on the books from the 1930s until 1991 that banned establishments from offering a “meeting place or rendezvous” for “homosexuals.”
“Some history has been hard to uncover, so photos, they are hard to find because of the privacy people maintained back then,” Mace said.
A lot of what Mace dug up will be used on project offerings such as a walking tour. So when the group arrives at Elmwood Park on the tour, Rosenthal can read a 1999 Roanoke Times article about a police sting at Wasena Park resulting in the arrest of 18 gay men cruising for sex. And Rosenthal can play a snippet from an oral history about how gay men referred to the park in code, calling it “Ellen Woods.”
“We have a lot of great, rich stories,” Rosenthal said. “Whatever people feel about the issues of gender and sexuality, the fact is that this stuff happened.”
The project plans to launch the walking tour in September around Pride Week. It also plans to unveil a digital exhibition at Roanoke’s Pride in the Park giving a detailed history of the LGBT community in the region in the 1970s.
Roanoke Pride, the city’s largest gay advocacy organization, now owns The Park, the last stop on Friday’s bar crawl. The Park opened in 1978, and it is the LGBT community’s “most famous dance bar,” Rosenthal read from one person’s transcribed oral history. It’s also the only one left.
“That’s the hardest thing to wrap your head around,” Rosenthal said. “How do you explain that things have been so much better for the LGBT community, but we’ve also lost a lot, too?”
Better to preserve the history now before it also gets lost, he said.