ROANOKE — A towering transgender model in an ivory wedding dress strutted around the hotel conference room, where representatives of a local church had posted a rainbow flag to make clear that same-sex couples were welcome.
Caterers, venue owners and photographers at the wedding expo displayed photos of the opposite-sex couples they have always served, but they said they will soon add pictures of some of their newer clients: pairs of brides and pairs of grooms.
Life has changed in quiet and dramatic ways in this relatively liberal city on the northern edge of the Bible Belt since same-sex marriage became legal in Virginia just over a year ago.
Nearly 1 in 9 marriage licenses distributed in Roanoke in the first nine months of this year went to a same-sex couple, the highest of any large city in the commonwealth, according to data provided by the Virginia Office of Vital Records.
Gay rights activists say the numbers reflect the gay community’s deep roots in Roanoke, which were kept hidden for decades but have become more visible as the nation’s attitude toward being gay changed. But they also reflect the growing reality in a nation where same-sex marriage is legal across the land: In rural and urban areas, small towns and big cities, gay couples everywhere are embracing marriage as an institution for them.
Across Virginia, about 3,600 same-sex couples have received marriage licenses since October 2014, when a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to let a lower-court ruling stand meant same-sex marriage was allowed to go forward. Richmond, Norfolk and Charlottesville also have seen a relatively high percentage of licenses issued to gay couples — about 9 percent in each. In Northern Virginia — close to Washington and Maryland, places where gay marriage has been legal for longer — just 4 percent of marriage licenses went to same-sex couples, perhaps because couples who wanted to marry had done so already in other jurisdictions.
The flurry of weddings in Roanoke included a male couple who describe their fathers as homophobic and who say marriage legitimizes their relationship, longtime lovers looking to more easily adopt their foster child, and two millennial women who had moved to Dallas but returned to marry in their home town. Among those planning weddings are a female couple who have struggled with hospital-visitation and custody issues at various points during their 12-year relationship.
The legalization of gay marriage has spawned some resistance, such as a conservative pastor who says he is considering crossing out the “spouse” lines on Virginia’s new marriage license forms and writing in “husband” and “wife” as a form of silent protest.
But it also has prompted the gay-friendly OneLove Roanoke wedding expo, which took place at the Sheraton Roanoke Hotel about a month ago. The event was created as an act of defiance by a local caterer who is not gay but wanted to make a strong statement after hearing a wedding-hall owner say he would never allow gay couples to marry in his venue.
“Two years ago, we would have been looked upon like, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ” said Steve Barshinger, a 44-year-old retired firefighter who visited the expo with his boyfriend, John Correll, to explore their options in case they decide to get married.
Now, Barshinger added, “people are not as afraid to say, ‘I’m going to marry the person I love.’ ”
Michael Earp and Shannon Lovelace debated for months whether they should be one of the gay couples rushing to the courthouse to get a marriage license. Paperwork or not, they have essentially lived as a married couple for five years on their 3
They call their house the bear den, a reference to the gay subculture of heavy and hairy men. Dozens of black-bear figurines line the shelves of the living room and basement, a grizzly bear adorns the throw on the couch, and Beanie Baby bears hang in a pouch near the basement door.
Every Halloween, Earp and Lovelace create an over-the-top holiday display that includes tombstones in the yard and silhouetted murder scenes playing on a screen in the window. An older, straight couple always bring their grandchildren to trick-or-treat and admire their handiwork.
Earp, 50, and Lovelace, 40, had a commitment ceremony in 2012. But they knew the practical benefits of marriage: insurance, survivor benefits; they also thought a lot about the message that getting married would send.
Lovelace says that he did not know any other gay people while he was growing up in nearby Salem, Va. His first encounter with the word “homosexuality” was reading about it under a list of illnesses in the encyclopedia when he was 10. Soon after, he recalled, his father threatened to send him to an orphanage if he turned out to be “queer.”
During his childhood, Earp recalled hearing whispers and seeing uncomfortable faces as his family braced for visits from his gay uncle who lived in San Francisco.
A marriage license, for them, helps end any lingering questions about the relationship that began 13 years ago.
“Marriage took us into a new place in the world,” Earp said. “Whether you agree or disagree with it, he’s my husband, and we’re married. We have firm ground to stand on.”
They wed last Halloween at Metropolitan Community Church, a gay-friendly congregation. The pastor, Joe Cobb, is a former Methodist minister who left that denomination after he came out as gay. He is also president of the Parent Teacher Association at the local elementary school. Cobb said he has officiated about 50 same-sex weddings, sometimes as many as four in one day.
“There were days when I had to remind myself that now I’m with this couple,” Cobb said. “And I need to remember their names and not get them confused with the last wedding I did.”
When Melonie Hollis suffered a stroke about a decade ago, her live-in partner had trouble getting into the hospital to see her. Wanda Moser could hear Hollis calling her name as she argued with the nurses.
“Family only,” the hospital staff said, until a sympathetic security guard let her through, explaining that he would rather get in trouble with hospital management than with his two mothers.
Hollis and Moser raised a foster child, Gabby, together, but only Moser could be the legal parent. They needed court permission for Hollis to pick Gabby up from day care and to sign paperwork at the doctor’s office.
The couple plans to tie the knot in April.
Moser, 43, has lived in Roanoke for years. She was in the city’s surreptitious gay bar 15 years ago when a gunman entered and opened fire, saying that he wanted to kill gay people. The incident shined a spotlight on what had been a mostly hidden community in Roanoke, sparking a new era of gay rights activism.
Now, being gay has “become a non-issue,” said Hollis, a 53-year-old fourth-grade teacher. “People who are in love are getting married.”
But not everything is different. Hollis has not mentioned the wedding to her students, even though she has had conversations with them about different types of families, as more of their classmates were raised by same-sex parents.
Even when being gay was more closeted here, Roanoke drew gay men and lesbians from across southwest Virginia. Now, in addition to gay bars that operate openly, the city hosts drag shows and LGBT-friendly churches and has a transgender health clinic.
Brandon McGhee, a 31-year-old social worker from rural Franklin County, said moving to a more tolerant Roanoke in 2008 helped him accept his sexuality, which he once assumed was inconsistent with his dreams of marriage and family.
In the past year, he and his partner, Toby Lehman, got married and settled into a new house. They are in the process of adopting a teenage foster son.
Recent Virginia Tech graduates Maggie and Katherine Mau returned to Roanoke from Dallas for a rainbow-themed, hometown wedding, with bridesmaids wearing brightly colored dresses and clutching multicolored bouquets. They say they wanted to come back to the area to raise a family.
Such changes aren’t easy for social conservatives such as Mark Graham, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, one of at least two Roanoke churches that broke from its national headquarters over acceptance of gay clergy.
Graham says he and other faith leaders are torn between adhering to their core belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman and potentially alienating parishioners who see such attitudes as bigoted.
“It is the number-one question facing the church today,” Graham said. “Is the Bible right about marriage? How churches answer that question really determines who goes and who stays.”
The importance of marrying in their church is why Sandra and Kelly Bryant decided to renew their wedding vows at Metropolitan Community Church this coming Valentine’s Day. They were married once, during a brutal snowstorm in Maryland this past February, but only Sandra Bryant’s sister made it to the event.
Now their son Trips, 7, describes that ceremony as the “first wedding” and the upcoming one in Roanoke as “the regular wedding.”
They sent out invitations with a pointed message at the bottom: “This is how we would’ve done it the first time had it been legal at home.”