There is no big neon sign outside the entrance to The Park, the biggest and oldest -- not to mention only -- gay dance club in Roanoke, just a placard and a plain purple door, outside which a shivering knot of people is waiting. Once inside, clubgoers make their way down a small, dark, smoky hallway into a huge, dark, smoky room where, on a stage flanked by black curtains, a tiny but astonishingly loud-voiced woman is asking people how they are doing and hectoring them until they give the classically Southern response, "AHHHIIIIGHT!"
It's Sunday night, so this is The Park's regular Sunday night drag show. The woman on stage really is a woman, but before long she will be replaced by 10 or so female impersonators, elaborately coiffed temptresses with names like Savannah Savage and Phoenix Amber and Montana St. Claire and the reigning Miss Gay Virginia, a platinum-haired heartthrob named Ashley Adams. The show has not begun; just now the crowd is mingling to ear-splitting tunes and semi-intelligible emcee patter.
Out on the floor, every kind of person is dancing. There are big black guys in khakis and little white guys in dreadlocks, and women in jeans and sweaters who look like any coed you might see at a University of Virginia fraternity party. There is a circle of men swaying together with their arms interlaced and another group of men taking off their shirts to compare nipple rings. There is a guy with a biker haircut chatting amiably with a man wearing what might best be categorized as Realtor drag: a black knit pantsuit and shoulder-length blond streaked hair. Almost everybody is wearing pants.
Except, of course, the performers, who appear and enact a series of numbers while wearing the sort of elaborate costumery that little girls dream about: sequined and beribboned Cinderella gowns that, when the performer's torso is not excessively matronly, get ripped off to reveal some elaborate merry widow ensemble beneath. Tonight's show is the annual AIDS benefit; in Roanoke, as elsewhere, HIV death rates have fallen in the gay community and there is less urgency to raise funds, so the take will not be what it once was. Even so, about $2,000 will be contributed before the night is over, most of it in crumpled ones and fives stuffed into a container at the front of the stage.
"This one is in memory of Danny Overstreet," a different emcee says after one donation. He does not need to explain that he is referring to the gay man who was killed on September 22 in a shooting at the Backstreet Cafe, a nearby bar and pool hall whose clientele is predominantly gay. At another point a chubby queen, panting after doing a cartwheel, shouts, "If you won't give money to AIDS, give money to a fat girl who's out of breath!"
Backstage afterward, the drag queens stalk around in various stages of undress while I chat with Wayne, a soft-spoken, personable man in slacks and a beige ski sweater. Wayne is chair of the Roanoke AIDS Council. He began doing volunteer AIDS awareness work in 1985, when a friend of his, the director of the Alleghany and Roanoke City Health District, asked him to become a peer counselor for the men who were starting to come in for anonymous testing. As a gay man, Wayne was relied on to explain pretty much everything about gay life to other health workers. One of them, a woman who looked remarkably like Wayne's mother, asked him at the first meeting if he knew gay slang. When Wayne shyly replied, "I think so," the woman asked, very straightforwardly, the precise definition of a particular sexual practice.
"That was the beginning of my metamorphosis," says Wayne. "I blurted it out, and she was, like, 'Oh.' And I thought: Well. That didn't hurt."
And this, Wayne is reflecting at 3 in the morning while performers take off their wigs and undo their crotch bindings, is what's different about being gay in a smaller community: There is no large gay enclave to retreat into, no Dupont Circle and certainly no Castro. Because of this, you are forced to relentlessly interact with people who are not gay. To take a more prosaic example, Wayne used to head the support department of a computer firm where customer service was run by "a guy who is extremely proud of being a redneck." Over time Wayne and this man became friends, and then close friends, to the point where Wayne ended up as best man in his co-worker's wedding.
"Here," he says, "you mesh yourself into a larger community and forge friendships with people who haven't had exposure to gay people before."
Having said this, he does not put himself entirely on the record. Despite his deep commitment to Roanoke's gay community, Wayne prefers not to have his last name published. Waving to the performers as they file out of the backstage area toward their day jobs, Wayne explains that his elderly father used to be a deacon in a Baptist church in a small town nearby. He would not want to embarrass him.
"My name has never been in print," he says. "Otherwise, I'm out."
That night came to epitomize, for me, much of gay life as it's lived in my southwestern Virginia home town: the hilarity and looseness, the fun and casual friendliness, the inclusiveness, the outlandishness side by side with the quiet ordinariness, the hard-won sense of community -- and the fact that so little of it takes place in a public setting. So closeted are many gay Roanokers that some of the organizers of the city's annual gay pride event, "Pride in the Park," prefer not to have their names in the paper. Yet there are more gay groups in Roanoke than one might imagine: not just local branches of well-known national groups like Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), but also a gay political action group and a gay bowling league and a gay country dancing group and a gay Alcoholics Anonymous group and a leather-and-Levi's club that, among its many civic activities, helps an area 4-H Club put on its horse shows.
There are private supper groups for lesbians who like to dine with gay men, and supper clubs for lesbian separatists. There is a teen support group that gathers in Roanoke's central library one night each week and an informal group of men that meets weekly, for dinner, at a local deli. There is an exclusive, invitation-only club for older women that calls itself SOUL, or Slightly Older Unique Lesbians. "She's a real estate agent . . . she's a lawyer . . . she works for General Motors, traveling around the country," a church pianist named Jacque told me one evening over a roast beef sandwich, fanning out snapshots of fellow SOUL members during discreet get-togethers in one another's homes. They also meet at a local senior center, which is not aware of (and has not inquired into) the nature of the group. "One of the members plays bridge there, so she has the key," Jacque confided.
"In a town this size, and in many other towns, hundreds of thousands of towns, we don't live our whole lives as gay," one man told me, trying to explain that it is one thing to be gay and another thing to live every part of your life as a gay person. In smaller cities and towns, he argued, people may be gay, but chances are they don't live every part of their lives as gay people. They may be gay sexually but they are not gay culturally. "We have parties and we do things that are part of a homosexual community, but that's not our lives. That's just a small part of our life."
I was talking to people about this because I grew up in Roanoke, an industrial town of 95,000 in the Blue Ridge Mountains four hours southwest of Washington. As a teenager in the 1970s, I didn't, I am pretty sure, even know what the word "gay" meant: There was no gay bar that I knew of, no television shows with gay characters, no discussion of homosexuality in what little sex education we had. Being female, I rarely heard the taunts boys traded, though even I was aware that on the sandlot football team, one coach had a habit of forcing slow or untalented players to carry around a baby doll. On some level, I guess, I knew that different forms of sexuality existed: In high school we used to drive down to the city farmers market at night to look at the transvestites idling around the street corners. I also remember my mother saying with amusement that her male hairdresser had been seen downtown in a dress. There were guys in high school who didn't have girlfriends, and girls who didn't have boyfriends, but everybody was in that state at one point or another, and nobody paid much attention. It wasn't until college, when I made my first close friend who was openly gay, that I gave any real thought to the matter and, in retrospect, began to wonder what Roanoke had been like for high school friends who knew they were -- or would discover they were -- gay.
Then came the Backstreet Cafe shooting, a horrific incident in which a man named Ronald Gay allegedly walked down Roanoke's main downtown thoroughfare, asked a teenager where to find a gay bar, received directions to The Park, happened to find the Backstreet first, went inside and opened fire. In the ensuing chaos, Danny Overstreet was killed and six others were wounded, two men and four women, one of them so badly that it was feared for a while that she might die, too. Apprehended immediately after the shooting, Gay -- a Vietnam veteran with a history of mental illness -- told police that he had shot gay people because he disliked being teased about his name. He is currently in jail, awaiting trial on charges of first-degree murder and malicious wounding.
In addition to being shocked by the incident, like most Roanokers I hoped it was a fluke, and in no way representative of community sentiment. I worried that here again was a news event that would confirm every cherished stereotype of the region, and would do so in the national news. Nor was I the only one who feared this. "I'm the one who sent in the [earlier] item about how nice it is to live here, and I want everyone to know that this hasn't changed," Jacque e-mailed an Internet group she subscribes to, pointing out (as I often did) that Gay wasn't from Roanoke; that he was a drifter who had moved to Roanoke to receive treatment in a nearby Veterans Affairs hospital. "Despite a fairly hostile climate in the fundamentalist churches, at work and around the community, I have heard many voices expressing tolerance."
"Roanoke draws gay people from the surrounding hinterlands just the way Richmond does and Washington does; it's almost like a gravitational force," said Sam Garrison, an openly gay, politically active lawyer who practices in Roanoke. "I think the very fact that that happens says something about the climate. If the consensus was that it's no better to live in Roanoke than Grundy, people wouldn't move to Roanoke." Nobody wanted people thinking the city was populated exclusively by bigots and people victimized by them.
"I was shocked," Garrison added, "but the shock wasn't that this told me something about the community I didn't know. It was just a shock in the same way that I know that planes crash, and if I'd heard that a plane had hit St. Andrew's Church and 400 people were killed, I'd have been shocked. But it wouldn't have made me move."
The shooting raised other questions for me, some of them embarrassingly basic. Obviously there was a gay bar in Roanoke and, it followed, a gay community. For the people present at the shooting, what was it like being not only wounded or terrorized but, potentially, outed? Clearly things had changed since I was growing up -- but how much? Now that a pride movement born in New York and Washington and San Francisco has made its way to the heartland, now that farmers in Botetourt County can watch "Will & Grace" and teenagers in Boones Mill can log on to gay Internet sites, how does this emerging sense of identity play out on Main Street?
How it plays out on Main Street may -- I learned -- be the real story in gay life today. Though people in Roanoke and other smaller cities and towns may still live something of a twilight existence, half in the closet and half out, out with their friends but not at work, or out at work but not with their families, or out with some family members but not with others, there are more people fully out in the open every day, either by choice or involuntarily. The conflicts that ensue may be lonelier and more difficult than those that gay people are fighting in big cities, where, as one man put it, "the revolution has already happened."
"People who live here -- I don't want to say they are braver. But it's in Middle America, just by my being out or somebody else being out at work, or out with their friends -- it changes people's perceptions," said Will Trinkle, a gay man and high school friend of mine. Like me, Will had no clear sense, growing up, of what being gay meant or what a gay community might consist of, but he did have an awareness from an early age that he was "different." After graduating from U-Va., he moved to Manhattan and came out there, and lived there during the height of the AIDS crisis, losing his best friend and countless other friends to the disease, 60 or 70 names he has recorded in the back of a diary. When he moved back to Roanoke to help with the family real estate business, he was determined not to live in the closet.
"People fear what they don't know," said Will, "and if they know [you're gay], they either have to decide they don't like you and don't want to be around you, or if they do really like you and like being around you, they have to change their attitude."
But changing attitudes is a harrowing process. "It was like a battlefield," said Sue Abernathy, who has lived with her partner, Brenda Bishop, for almost 20 years. Abernathy, who runs her own housekeeping business, and Bishop, who works as a jewel cutter, share their household with Bishop's teenage nephews, two boys for whom Bishop was appointed guardian when her brother died. They have tried, they said, to give the boys a conventional, even conservative upbringing -- to ensure that the boys believe in God and that they will someday be "good husbands" -- but for the longest time the peace of the household was disrupted by neighbors who were always revving their engines and shouting things like "dyke" and "butch." Once, Abernathy got so exasperated she shouted: "You got the dyke part right, but I'm not butch! I'm femme!"
"Each year I get a little more comfortable," another woman told me at the 14th anniversary dinner for the predominantly gay and lesbian Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge, talking about her fear that she will lose her children in a custody dispute. Like many gay men and lesbians, this woman attempted heterosexual marriage but eventually moved in with another woman, a former Roanoke police officer with whom she lives on a farm in Moneta, a rural community nearby. Though her two youngest children live with them and attend school in Moneta ("Just about anybody there would tease me," her son said, explaining why he does not tell his classmates his mom lives with a woman), she lives in fear that her husband will try to win custody and that her sexual orientation will count against her, as it did in one high-profile Virginia Beach case several years ago.
"I don't want the years to go by," she said, "but every year I feel more comfortable, in that the older they are, the more say they have in who they'll live with."
When the battles aren't epic, they can be comic. I spent an hour one afternoon with a man who wanted to be identified as Larry P., the co-owner of OutWord Connections, a gay and lesbian bookstore and novelty shop. During our conversation, Larry -- who is also a volunteer firefighter and reports no problems being gay in the firehouse -- was unpacking some gels and lubricants, ForPlay Lube de Luxe and Original Formula Elbow Grease Gel, which the UPS man had just dropped off with a pleasant hello.
While he worked, Larry explained how he and his partner have arranged the store. Cruising is discouraged; all magazines are sold in plastic wrappers (flipping through open magazines is, he said, a common cruising activity); and the more explicit magazines and videos and lingerie are kept in the back. People in Roanoke have a fairly strong sense of public propriety, and gay people in Roanoke are no exception. "We keep nudity above waist level, for when we have kids coming in with their gay and lesbian parents."
Even so, the bookstore is running into problems, Larry said, in part because it refuses to remove a certain item from its display window. For the most part, the window is full of innocuous decorations like abstract sculptures and rainbow candles, but way at the tippy top, in the left-hand corner, are two -- count them, two -- Barbie-size "drag queen" collectible dolls, resting beside two "trailer trash" collectibles. The landlord came in one day and requested that the drag queens be removed, and also, Larry said, wanted to write a new lease giving her more say over the window. Larry decided he'd rather find a new building to rent.
Why would a gay person live in Roanoke? It may be a naive question, but at times it did occur to me to wonder: If you are a gay man or a lesbian (or bisexual or transgendered person, which is the inclusive term that many advocates prefer), why not do everything in your power to move to a big city where you can live life, and pursue happiness, with greater openness and comfort? Why not move to Washington, say, where even if you bought a house in Bethesda or Centreville, even if you worked for a defense contractor or high-powered law firm, you would still have Dupont Circle, and Adams-Morgan, and Capitol Hill, and the refuges therein, and the degree of tolerance these areas have helped to create throughout the city?
Obviously, there are many reasons you might not want to do that, the same reasons why many people, gay or straight, prefer to live in smaller towns and cities: The close sense of community that a small place provides. The slower lifestyle. Cheaper housing. Better traffic. Low crime rate. "This is the best place I've ever lived," said a gay man named Anthony I met at the Backstreet Cafe one night; a recovering substance abuser who formerly lived in Baltimore, he likes not just the unpretentious friendliness of the Roanoke area but, in particular, the fact that no one approaches him at traffic lights to sell him drugs.
Gay people move to Roanoke, of course, for the same varied reasons Americans move anywhere. And they stay for the same reasons Americans stay anywhere. Tammy Nerenberg moved to Roanoke from Houston, for example, to be near a woman she'd met over the Internet. When the relationship didn't work out, Nerenberg had every intention of moving on to New York -- except that by then she had worked her way into a career-track management job at Carilion Health System, a health network that owns a number of regional hospitals and is now the Roanoke area's largest employer. A lot of gay men and lesbians work in health care, and Carilion is perceived as a particularly gay-friendly place to work. So gay-friendly that when Nerenberg makes a new hire, her subordinates quietly fill the new person in on her sexual orientation, so the new person doesn't say anything rude or stupid.
Which is not to say that everybody who is gay in Roanoke really wants to live in Roanoke. "Yesterday we were at the mall and the person at the engraving place called me 'sir,' " said Nerenberg's new partner, Rhonda Chattin. Chattin, who grew up in Salem and now serves as the volunteer head of Outright, a local support group for gay teens, would love to move to a bigger city where she could find work as a gay activist that actually pays.
"If I could get a job, earn a living in Washington or New York, I'd be there in a heartbeat," said attorney Sam Garrison; he and his partner go to New York at least once a year, not just for the gay life but for the culture, "and when we come back, we're always depressed."
But if you love mountains, it's hard not to love the Roanoke area. The mountains may have a backwoods element, but they also nurture a sort of Pacific Northwest progressivism: The libertarian, leave-me-alone ideal is not the exclusive purview of gun-amassing militia movements. There are hippies in the Roanoke Valley, and organic farmers, and commune dwellers, and wineries, and Internet gurus, and even gay survivalists. When it comes to sheer spectacular living arrangements, I had never seen anything like the setup shown to me by a 70-year-old former military pilot and his longtime companion, a former high school football player, who have been together for more than 40 years. ("You hear about the cannons going off, the firecrackers," said the pilot. "They did for me.") One afternoon the couple drove me up a gravel road to the top of a mountain they own. Houses are cheap in Roanoke, and so, relatively speaking, are mountaintops. At least, they're a lot cheaper than they would be in Lake Tahoe or Vail or even Fauquier County.
As we rolled through the electronic gate leading onto their property, the two men said that they'd cleared the road leading up the mountain themselves. They cleared the mountaintop and built the house as well, a well-furnished A-frame they planned and constructed and plumbed and wired. They also built the hunting lodge and the guesthouse. They planted all the fruit and nut trees, English walnuts and hazelnuts and other varieties the pilot -- who quit the military after flying transport during the Bay of Pigs debacle and moved back to Roanoke to oversee a family business -- likes to cultivate. At sunset the two of them can stand on their deck and look down on the valley: the sun setting behind the mountains, the lights of the airport, the waters of Carvin's Cove, the city reservoir, shimmering in the waning half-light.
It's true there have been encounters. While working on the house, the men had lunch one day at a truck stop where they got into an altercation with an employee who was vacuuming under their table. One thing led to another; they objected to the dust from the vacuum and management was not obliging and so the two men left, and while they were leaving a group of men made fun of the way the ex-football player walked. When the two got in their truck, a fist came through the window and hit the ex-football player in the face.
"That hurt!" said the football player, a stout, blond-haired, ruddy-faced man who was padding around his house, wearing a down vest, rugby shirt and bright red socks as he described the encounter. "Well, I'm German and Irish and a little Cherokee, it went all over me, so I reached down underneath the seat of the truck and got a pair of tire chains that had cleats on them. And I came out swinging one chain in each hand, like this," he said, demonstrating. "And I had all five of them lined up against the side of the wall and cut the guy across the face, the one that hit me, and we called the police, and the police came, and took them all to jail."
Years later, the ex-football player ran into one of the police officers, with whom they have good relations -- the two men assist police whenever there are fugitives or vandals on the nearby Appalachian Trail -- and the officer said, laughing, "Do you remember that year you had all those guys lined up against that wall?" It had become a station legend.
"I've often thought," said the ex-football player, "and this is not making any disparaging remark against men that are a little more effeminate than I am, but if we had been that type, we could never have lasted up here."
"Because it's pretty much a redneck climate," said the ex-pilot.
"In a redneck climate," the ex-football player agreed, "they'll test you."
When Ronald Gay relocated from a campground on the outskirts of Roanoke, he took a room at the Jefferson Motor Lodge, a cheap downtown motel that -- in an odd coincidence -- was built near the site of one of Roanoke's first gay gathering places. That place was the Elmwood Diner, a greasy spoon where gay men, along with straight ones, liked to congregate. Nobody seems to know quite why the diner became a gay hangout, but it's likely that people gathered there because it was near the central library, which, in turn, is next to a park that was one of the first gay cruising spots. Both are adjacent to a residential area known as Old Southwest, a prosperous, turn-of-the-century neighborhood that by the 1970s had become rundown and therefore was a place where gays and lesbians could rent or buy housing without upsetting the local garden club or civic association.
Because the story of being gay in a place like Roanoke is the story of finding a place where you can go to be gay, a place you can go not just for sexual and romantic encounters but for community, for fellowship, a place to hang with people who don't think you're weird or immoral, and who won't try to set you up on a blind date (unless the blind date is the same sex as you are) and won't beat you up and will, by and large, laugh at your jokes. Such places are necessary even in big cities, but they may be more important in smaller ones. And in a place like Roanoke, I learned, they have been exquisitely hard-earned.
As it turns out, I was wrong in thinking there wasn't a gay bar in Roanoke when I was growing up. There was one, a lively little hellhole at the intersection of Elm Avenue and Franklin Road, on one border of Old Southwest. Known as the Tradewinds, it was touted as the oldest gay bar in the South, or the Southeast, or maybe east of the Mississippi -- nobody can quite seem to remember. It was a multi-level building with room for all sorts of establishments; upstairs was a regular pizza parlor, but downstairs -- accessed through a rear entrance -- was a bar that drew gay people not only from Roanoke but from Blacksburg and Buena Vista and Covington and Lexington and Huntington and even, some say, New York City.
"A dingy room where changing policy on signs of affection depends on mood of the management at the time," is how the Gay Insider USA described the place in the 1970s.
"[Customers] can't be obviously GAY, can't walk around or be too loud." Some of the rules might have been set by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (which at the time banned gays from gathering in bars) but others were purely the invention of the owners, Herbert George, Lewis George and Joe George, three Lebanese immigrant brothers who tended (and this is putting it gently) to be irascible and fickle in their favor. (Lewis and Joe are dead; when I attempted to interview Herbert George, he said, "No, not that!" and sent me away.) Even if you were a regular who knew the rules -- no moving drinks from table to table -- you would inevitably commit some grave but unidentified error that would result in your being kicked out or even barred; when this happened, one of the George brothers would literally give you a pink slip.
Ultimately the treatment at the 'Winds prompted two gay men to found a bar called The Last Straw -- the name was an allusion to some unbearable George brothers action that nobody could explain to me quite clearly; it had to do with somebody being thrown through a car window and the brothers not reacting well -- which was a more pleasant place to hang out in that management was more hospitable and less unpredictable. The Last Straw in turn paved the way for The Park, a club that has been fabulously popular and profitable for its owner, who keeps a low profile but is said to have given large amounts to the community and to have paid for several AIDS-related funerals. The Last Straw also paved the way for the Backstreet, whose manager, it turns out, I went to junior high school with. His name is Alan Blankenship and he's the son of a single father, a construction worker who raised six kids and who, when Alan came out, said he only wanted Alan to be happy.
It is Alan Blankenship and the other Backstreet bartenders who have made that place, in the words of one customer, "the friendliest bar I've ever been to" -- a place so homey and comfortable that on slow nights Blankenship will leave the bar to shoot a game of pool, and customers will just tell him when they're thirsty. Even now, these two bars continue to attract people from hundreds of miles; one night at the Backstreet I met a young guy named Tony who had made the two-hour trip up from North Carolina, and planned to drive back the same night.
But -- like past establishments -- both of these places are somewhat on the city fringe: Both are on Salem Avenue, a narrow old street flanking the railroad tracks in the automotive and warehouse district. More recently, the gay bookstore and the Metropolitan Community Church have set up shop on Kirk Avenue, a downtown street that is more accessible and legit. Both have been provided space by Will Trinkle, who, as a developer and a person determined to bring gay life out of the shadows and into the sunlight, has gone out of his way to protect them. Doing so hasn't been easy even for my friend Will, who comes from one of the city's most socially and politically well-connected families. It was Will, for example, who initially rented the space to the bookstore. (That building was later bought by the landlord who objected to the drag queen dolls; Will has since found a new space for it to lease.) Around the time it opened, Will said, a contractor he worked with happened along and asked, "Who rented that space to them?"
"I did," replied Will, whereupon the contractor began to make obscene commentary about gay sexual practices. He didn't know Will was gay.
"He does now," Will said. The contractor has never worked for him again.
But more than giving space to gay organizations, Will has also worked to legitimize gay relationships, which is something harder. Eventually, I realized that many people in Roanoke are not closeted out of shame as much as out of a kind of Southern decorum, a sense of modesty and privacy -- an unwillingness to make straight people uncomfortable, to create any kind of social ruckus. "You don't want to throw it in people's faces," was how the ex-pilot put it to me, explaining why he often takes a woman, rather than his partner, to tony social functions.
Will quietly does just the opposite: A member of countless civic organizations and cultural boards, he always includes the name of his partner, Scott Bessent, a hedge fund manager who owns his own firm in New York, when his name is listed in any mailing or publication. When Will's mother, Betty, died, Will included Bessent's name in the obituary. A small act, but one that did not go unnoticed. One of Will's relatives told him she thought it was deeply inappropriate.
"I let her have it in a serious way, asking if she felt her husband number three was more legitimate," Will said. "However, the power of it is I had numerous gay Roanokers come up and thank me for putting Scott's name in and not being afraid to do so."
Will and I talked for a long time about what it feels like being back in Roanoke after living in New York (where he continues to spend about half his time; if it weren't for that, he said, he'd find it much harder to live in Roanoke). He told funny anecdotes about how his mother walked into the gay bookstore one day without realizing what it was, bought a rainbow leash for her dog, and -- upon learning from Will that it stood for diversity, of people and sexuality -- walked her dog on that leash forever afterward. But he also talked about the social toll that living in Roanoke has taken in his life. "Old friends, people I thought would be cool, were not. Some that I thought wouldn't be, were. But basically there are not a lot of people I feel like I can call and say, 'Let's go have lunch or dinner.' "
Hearing that saddened me. I thought about all the parties Will hosted when we were growing up; his basement was party central. It was amazing to hear him say that he learns of parties, now, from which he has been excluded. Moreover, he has closeted gay friends who will not go out with him for fear of being exposed.
"Believe me, [being gay] is not a choice," Will said at one point. "Would you choose it? That is the stupidest argument. Yes -- I think I'd like to be in a minority and have people beat me up or want to kill me, have my children taken away, have my job taken away from me, and my housing. Yeah. I'd like that."
The Rev. Catherine Houchins, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge, argues that the main barrier for many closeted gay people is from within. These days, she believes, many straight people do not have as much trouble with homosexuality as some gay Roanokers believe. "You can be as out in Roanoke as you choose to be," she said.
She also well knows that one significant barrier to self-
acceptance is organized religion. One thing I hadn't reckoned on was the profound religiosity of most of the gay men and lesbians I met in Roanoke, the desire to go to church and the need to believe that they are loved by God and that they, too, are made in God's image. The influence of religion is doubtless felt all over the country, but it's even more intense in a small Southern city. "Roanoke has the largest clump of depression . . . stuff I've ever run into," said Houchins, who grew up nearby but lived in California before moving back to be near her parents and to head the church, whose membership has tripled under her leadership. Counseling her church members, she routinely comes into contact with "this undercurrent of oppressive stuff that leads to abuses of alcohol, abuses of drugs: the idea that if everybody says I'm awful, I must be awful."
Church, Houchins explained, has often been a problem for gay people -- not just the much-disputed anti-homosexuality bits in Leviticus, but, more generally, the emphasis on conformity, family, childbearing: "the message of being 'less than' " if you don't lead a conventional life. But particularly since the AIDS epidemic, the preaching of some fundamentalist ministers has described AIDS as retribution for being gay. This is true not only in the South; for a while it was feared that Fred Phelps, the Kansas preacher who pickets gay funerals, would come to Danny Overstreet's. While this didn't happen, there are ministers throughout the region who speak against homosexuality in sermons, preaching a message that Ralph Smith, Roanoke's mayor, described as "not attacking the sinner, but attacking the sin."
I talked to Mayor Smith one morning; he is a polite, soft-spoken, almost shy man with dark hair and, on that day, a dark suit. The mayoralty is his first public office; he also runs a steel fabrication company. At the outset, I asked what he thought of some of the new gay organizations that are downtown, and he replied that he is a member of the Christian Coalition and made it clear that "my Baptist teaching doesn't exactly coexist with some of their beliefs."
"That said," he added, "when I was elected mayor, I was elected mayor of all the people."
Smith went on to say that early in his tenure, he was contacted by the local chapter of PFLAG for a get-acquainted session. He agreed, whereupon some aides asked if he would like "security."
"Security?" I asked. I had met one of the PFLAG emissaries, a wryly humorous, devoutly Christian schoolteacher named Charles Richards. Another member of the group was a retired minister. It surprised me that anyone would think the mayor might need security from them.
"Rumors," the mayor said, shrugging and going on to say that the PFLAG group "were the most cordial people."
The mayor's second official encounter with gay people happened after the shooting. In addition to Danny Overstreet's funeral, which inspired many gay people to be photographed and quoted, there was a community vigil attended by gays and straights. While the shooting told many people in Roanoke that there is a larger gay community than many realized, the vigil told gay people that there are more supportive straight people than they'd realized. A number of community leaders spoke, including state Sen. John Edwards (D) and an Episcopal bishop, and Smith, who took four days before agreeing to do so.
I asked what his reservations were, and he said he was wary of national gay groups that came down to help the city react to the shooting. "I viewed it as some national organization coming in here, doing their best to put Roanoke on the map as some sort of hate city." Moreover, he said, he felt a sense of personal menace. "I had reservations that they would do something to try and embarrass me because of my conservative beliefs."
Eventually, I realized that the mayor was unfamiliar with gay groups, and imagined them all as paint-throwing radicals. Ultimately, he said, he was impressed with a number of local leaders, but added that he does not support adding sexual orientation to the city government's anti-discrimination policy (something that probably will be done anyway, by officials who have the power to quietly change some language) and does not support adding sexual orientation to Virginia's existing hate crime law.
"It's singling out special treatment of one group," he said.
Talking to Smith and others, I wasn't sure I agreed with Houchins that the biggest barrier to self-acceptance is within. There is still in Roanoke a strong community sentiment that homosexuality is not just sinful and aberrant but deliberately sinful and aberrant. That it is a choice, and a wicked one. After the shooting there were a series of public forums about Virginia's hate crimes law, which, in its current form, provides for an enhanced penalty for physical assaults based on race, religion or national origin. In one of these forums, Sam Garrison argued that sexual orientation should be included in the statute, acknowledging that "reasonable people can disagree" but saying that crimes directed at a person who is a member of a group create fear in other group members, so that "a whole lot of people are victimized." This I knew to be true: Gay people in Roanoke are haunted by the Backstreet Cafe shooting, and many times brought up the fact that just a week before it happened, the annual "Pride in the Park" event was held not far from where Ronald Gay was staying. "All our leadership was up on the stage together," one woman remembered. "What if he had opened fire on them?"
In the forum on hate crimes, Garrison's opponent was a local lawyer named John Rocovich, who argued that the hate crimes law should apply only to people who attack others based on "immutable" characteristics like race. Garrison countered by pointing out that the existing statute protects religion -- which is not immutable, which is something people choose. He then asked Rocovich, "How do you know that homosexuality is not an immutable characteristic? I have probably talked to thousands of gay people in the last 20 years, and . . . in all that time I have only met one person who claimed that he or she can even remember a day that he or she wasn't gay. What they can remember is denying it. What they can remember is being in the closet. Do you have a database like that?"
Rocovich replied that the statistics on this were not good. At another point, he argued that "the biggest enemy of the gay community is the gay community. The fatality of the lifestyle as well as the violence."
Beyond expressions of moral disapproval, one central reason gay men in particular might not want to come out is the fact that in Virginia, sodomy remains a felony. By admitting you are gay, you are in effect admitting to serious criminal behavior. "I thought, I'll never vote again, never sit on a jury," said Shane Wolfe, who was a 21-year-old schoolteacher when, a little more than two years ago, he was caught up in Roanoke's other major gay-related story: a sting operation in which 18 men were arrested in a local park, not for having sex but for talking about having sex with undercover police officers, after which they were charged with soliciting a felony, which in Virginia is itself a felony.
In Wolfe's case, he did not talk about sex and had no intention, he said, of having sex in a park. He was looking to meet people and, as a fourth-grade teacher, didn't want to risk being seen in a bar. So he went to the park for the first time in his life, and when two men pulled up beside his car, got nervous and hemmed and hawed and eventually pulled away, whereupon they identified themselves as police officers. The charges against Wolfe were dropped a year later -- but not before his name was on the front page of the Roanoke paper and he was suspended from his job. For that year, he worked in a factory sanding furniture. He received a great deal of support from many of his students' parents, but was so traumatized by the publicity that he moved to Atlanta, where he works as a real estate agent. To this day, he said, "when I fly into the Roanoke airport, I go home and stay home. I would never visit Roanoke again, were it not for the fact that my family's there."
And for all gay people, male and female, most Roanoke workplaces offer no guarantee against being fired. "As a schoolteacher, I have no protection," said Charles Richards, the PFLAG emissary who visited the mayor. Raised Baptist himself, Richards not only prayed not to be gay, he fought his own sexuality so hard that at one point he was persuaded by a friend to see a psychiatrist to learn to be heterosexual. After six months of sessions Richards gave up, after which he felt the most straightforward thing to do would be to come out -- to his family, his friends, his workplace. After he did, he said, he was walking up the staircase at his school, touched a colleague on the shoulder, and she said, "Leave me alone, you fag!"
Richards's experience as a schoolteacher raised a question I'd been wondering about: As someone who works with kids both at his school and with PFLAG, was it his impression that things have gotten easier for kids who are identified as being different? Is there less taunting, less gay-baiting? Richards replied that he thinks it is slightly easier -- there are guidance counselors who are attuned to homosexuality now, and there weren't when he was growing up -- but added that sexual epithets are traded now at an even earlier age.
"Even in the second grade, that's the big insult -- to call someone a fag. For most of my kids, they'll hear it from older siblings or even some of their parents. I've had children come to me and say things like, 'My daddy says you're a queer' or, 'My brother says you're a faggot.' I'll say to them, 'That's not the first time I've been called that, but that doesn't change the relationship I have with you.' " Over time, he added, the hallway epithets get rarer, and he even hears some of his students discouraging their use. He regards that as his job: curbing language, changing ideas. "I feel," he said, "that straight people who are struggling with the issue need the support of gay and lesbian people."
"I've heard that Roanoke has the highest population of gays and lesbians and bisexuals that are out in, like, the world!" said a multi-pierced teenager hanging around the downtown market.
The girl is a member of the Outright teen group, which has existed for several years. In Roanoke, any kind of gay youth group remains controversial; when PFLAG approaches schools about creating a safe zone, such as counselors' offices, where kids can be free from heckling, some administrators are receptive while others reply that the school has no gay students. Organizers are careful not to appear as though they are recruiting: Not long ago, a kid from Staunton took the bus all the way to Roanoke for an Outright meeting, and the adult organizers put him up for the night with a heterosexual couple.
Gradually, though, clubs are forming both within the schools and without. The night I attended an Outright session, about a dozen kids watched the independent film The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love in a conference room in the central library (some things never change), then made their way to a favored hangout called Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea. The coffee shop is in the city's renovated farmers market, which has changed enormously since my friends and I used to check out the transvestites. These days, the entire downtown area has become a sort of bubble of diversity; the farmers market has always anchored the city, but, as part of a major renovation -- a response to the malls that have sucked the life from so many American downtowns -- the area has been enhanced not only by specialty shops and restaurants but by cultural attractions like a theater and science museum. The result is a place where these kids can feel comfortable with their peroxide, their tattoos, their body art, their sense of exile and fatalistic humor.
"One of my friends, she was weirded out when I came out to her," said the girl, who works at a co-op. "But then she was like, whatever." This girl is gay, so far, only in theory; she has never actually been with another girl. She's too much of a freak, she said; no one wants her; even the teachers have her on a freak list! But it's okay. "I've been called a dyke before, but I'm, like, 'Eh,' and I do this," she said, and raised her middle finger.
"I got in a fight my freshman year with a guy who called me a faggot," said a guy with her, speaking brightly as if describing a prize he'd won. Nevertheless, he is out, completely out, pretty much resigned to whatever happens. "I twirl flags and that helped me come out," he continued. "Going out there in front of a whole football field, they say, 'Look at that fag.' They watch you more and they're, like, 'Look, the fag dropped it.' I like flags, though. I like twirling flags and I'm good at it. But my band teacher won't let me anymore." Something about how the uniforms are only right for the girls.
Easier -- but not always easy. It's never easy, being young and different. Still, I thought, it's progress that these kids have a place to come and commiserate.
Progress. Thinking about the kids, I also thought about an interview that I had with the head of Downtown Roanoke Inc., the group that is paid by the downtown merchants to revive and maintain the downtown area. The head of that group, Matt Kennell, enthused about having gays and lesbians in town, talked about how the restaurateurs covet them, because "we know that gays and lesbians spend money."
"The last thing we want to do is run them off," he said, adding that after the shooting, "we very quickly did a resolution to support the victims, and participated in the vigil." He and his employees would have gone anyway, he said, "but we also understand the business implications."
His sentiments seemed sincere, but it also struck me that it's so easy, accepting gays and lesbians as consumers and habitues of coffee shops, just as it's easy for television to accept them as a desirable dem-ographic and Subaru to target them in Outback ads. Such acceptance -- in Roanoke and maybe in America -- is somehow easier to achieve than acceptance as people and family members and friends and neighbors. After all, money is money.
"I saw Danny with a hole in his chest," a man named Dalton Flowers told me one night at the Backstreet. A regular at the bar, Flowers goes by the name of Gene there, and I sought him out because he was present the night of the shooting. In fact, he was sitting with Danny Overstreet and another victim, John Collins, when Ronald Gay came through the front door wearing a trench coat. According to Flowers, Gay proceeded to the bar, ordered a beer, left a tip, then came to Flowers's table and asked if he could sit down. The three men told him sure. "John was sort of squatting down, and I wasn't paying attention. John said he stood up and hugged Danny," Flowers remembered. "Then the man stepped back and started shooting. He shot Danny and he shot John and I sort of fell behind the seat so he wouldn't shoot me."
I was also interested in talking to Flowers because, immediately after that, Flowers attempted to flee out the back door. "I don't need to be here," he told Alan Blankenship, the manager. By that point, Gay had left; in the subsequent screaming and chaos, Blankenship had rushed to lock the door so Gay couldn't get back in. I asked Flowers how he could leave his friends wounded and dying, and he said, "There was nothing I could do." He works for Roanoke Electric Steel, a classically Roanoke blue-collar environment, and was afraid of the consequences.
But before he could slip away unnoticed, Flowers was stopped by police coming in the back. They frisked him initially, but when Flowers said he was an eyewitness, they took him down to identify Gay, which he did willingly, and eventually his name was in the paper and he was on TV. I asked him what the reaction was at work, after everything he'd done trying to avoid publicity. "Nothing," he said; nobody said anything to him except for expressions of sympathy. It was a non-issue. The same was true of his family. "I called them to tell them I'd be on television. My sister-in-law, she said she was sorry it happened. My brother told me he knew how I felt. They said they were sorry, and people who didn't like other people should leave people alone."
I also met one other person who was at the Backstreet at the time of the shooting. His name is Charlie Haupt, and he's a member of the gay bowling league, a diverse and low-key group that bowls on Sunday nights, in nearby Vinton. I attended a session at the invitation of Charlotte Eakin, one of the original members of the league, which was founded in the '80s. At one point, Eakin stood by the railing between frames, companionably pointing out some of the members whom I hadn't met yet. "That man there, he goes to the Outright meetings now, and waits in the hall to make sure nobody bothers the kids. He'll be mad I told you that. And that man there, he held Danny Overstreet while he was dying."
She was pointing to Haupt, who just then was contemplating his tally up on the scoreboard, standing alone, in a short-sleeve black T-shirt, with graying hair and a small neat goatee. When I asked him about the shooting, Haupt said that he was shooting pool when Gay took out his gun; after diving to the floor and pulling a woman down with him, Haupt crawled to the back and, once the shooting stopped, started getting wet paper towels for victims. Seeing how badly Overstreet was wounded, Haupt, who is a certified nurse's assistant, held him and took his pulse, monitoring the heartbeat as it slowed and finally stopped. Many people reacted similarly; one woman helped a victim find her finger after her hand had been shot. According to Alan Blankenship, when the paramedics got there they described it as the best-
organized, least panicked mass shooting scene they'd ever seen.
That was the image I drove away with from Roanoke back to Washington -- a closed gathering, a terrible intrusion, one man heading for the back door while all the rest turned into the health care workers so many are, and tended to one another at the risk of being identified. I also left with one other image, which was recounted to me by another man who was there. A collector and flea market aficionado, this man was driving down the street a few days after the shooting and noticed an estate sale. Getting out, he realized that he was talking to Danny Overstreet's grief-stricken mother, who was selling her dead son's effects. It was all there: his kitchenware, his small appliances, his Christmas ornaments, even his drag wig. All of it was for sale, remnants of a private life that -- even in a small town, or maybe especially in a small town -- can never be kept private.