Kathy Caldwell was sitting near the front of Backstreet Cafe, a narrow bar in downtown Roanoke, when a bearded man with penetrating blue eyes walked in. Wearing a long, black trench coat on a warm night, he stood out.
“Sure. Go ahead,” Caldwell said, according to court testimony. “There is a half a pitcher of beer there. It ain’t mine. Feel free to drink it.”
The man drank silently until two men at Caldwell’s table stood to hug. Then — chaos. Caldwell saw a blur of black from the corner of her eye — the man in the trench coat suddenly in motion as he pulled a Ruger 9mm handgun from under it. He sprayed the crowd with bullets, starting at one corner and ending at another.
The gunman then spun toward the door and, stepping over bodies, walked out. He left one man dead and six people wounded, including Caldwell. Her left hand was shattered by a bullet and another tore through her shoulder. She would later tell a crowded courtroom that she would never be the same.
Within minutes, police picked up the shooter, Ronald Edward Gay, then 53, who made no effort to escape. When they interviewed him, he railed against gay people, saying that they were “abominations,” that his last name was related to a bunch of “sickos,” and that a higher power had told him: “It’s either you or them” — meaning he either had to kill himself or kill homosexuals. So he took his pistol to Backstreet, and when he heard gay men “talking in their sissified talk,” he just couldn’t take it. (Gay died in January 2022 while imprisoned for multiple life sentences.)
For many in Roanoke, each incidence of violence that targets LGBTQ people — the one at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub in 2016 and, again, at Club Q in Colorado Springs just before Thanksgiving — brings back memories of Backstreet.
But, for all its trauma, many also saw that September 2000 tragedy as a turning point. At the time, Catherine Houchins was the pastor of Roanoke’s Metropolitan Community Church, which was founded as a safe space for LGBTQ people. She first heard about the shooting from a parishioner the next morning. “Backstreet was just your little neighborhood bar,” she said. In disbelief, she rushed downtown to find a crowd gathering in front of her church. “People were out in the streets. They weren’t hiding. They weren’t ashamed.”
Just two years earlier, local police had raided a park popular for gay cruising and arrested men for soliciting undercover officers. After being targeted for decades, many LGBTQ people in Roanoke were wary of drawing attention to themselves.
But after the shooting, thousands of queer people and their allies filled downtown streets during candlelight vigils, and — right in front of news cameras — they overflowed a nearby funeral home for the service for Danny Overstreet, who died on Backstreet Cafe’s floor.
“It was a very solemn time,” said Houchins, “but the undercurrent was ‘We’re not going away.’ ”
Two years later, a diversity center was founded with the mission of empowering LGBTQ people. The number of queer-affirming religious congregations surged from two to nearly 20. And the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project began documenting the stories of queer elders in Roanoke and surrounding areas.
That project also launched a popular series of history tours in 2016. “It’s a lot of the historic gay bars and nightclubs, but also talking about sex work, like the old red-light district,” explained G. Samantha Rosenthal, a history professor at Roanoke College and a transgender woman. She helped found the project and authored a book about Roanoke, “Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City.”
In 2018, openly gay clergyman Joe Cobb, then 56, ran for city council. After eight years as pastor of Roanoke’s MCC Church, where he took over after Houchins moved to Charlotte, Cobb had fostered relationships across the valley. He was well regarded in religious circles and among local political, charitable and business leaders. Still, he wasn’t sure whether Roanoke was ready to elect a gay man.
“I just went about doing what I had been taught to do,” Cobb said, reflecting on his campaign, “Get out there. Knock on doors. Introduce yourself.”
It worked. Not only did Cobb become Roanoke’s first openly gay elected official, but he garnered more votes than any other council member, which, to his surprise, made him the city’s new vice mayor.
In his role, he hears from many LGBTQ people, and the recent attack at Colorado’s Club Q, has left some rattled, especially trans people. “I want to continue to be active in the community,” he said they have told him, “but when I step out, is somebody going to be after me.”
Cobb shares their fears. “I do think about the physical risk,” said Cobb, who has four children, two grandchildren, and a partner of 20 years. “I feel it in my whole body.”
Mohammad Elshawarby, vice president of the Roanoke Diversity Center’s board, said the threat of violence and hate crimes has remained on the minds of the local LGBTQ community ever since the Backstreet shooting. But efforts since to be more visible and build relationships have also helped foster a level of acceptance in Roanoke that was unimaginable in 2000.
When Cobb ran for reelection this November, he was joined by three new gay candidates. Cobb and two others won. Come January, they will hold three of Roanoke City Council’s seven seats. That gives Roanoke more LGBTQ elected officials than any other Virginia locality, according to the Victory Fund, a D.C.-based nonprofit that boosts queer candidates.
Sean Meloy, the fund’s vice president of political programs, credited the candidates for the wins, especially at a time when state legislators keep introducing anti-trans bills, drag shows have become the targets of armed protests, and school districts are banning books with LGBTQ themes.
Praising Cobb and the two new gay council members, he said, “In this time, when conservatives have embraced anti-LGBTQ rhetoric as a motivator for their base, they persevered.”