ROANOKE, Va. — The yellow mums appeared at Backstreet Cafe’s door well before people began arriving for the vigil. John Goodhart Sr. sent the flowers, as he did every year on this day, with a note: “Never forget. Never again. NEVER.”
It was his way of paying tribute to his Verizon co-worker Danny Overstreet, who was killed 15 years ago at a gathering spot for gay people in a closeted city.
Backstreet was a gay bar at a time when the sexual orientation of its customers remained hidden — a haven for an underground culture. Its role in Roanoke was exposed Sept. 22, 2000, when Ronald Edward Gay, a former Marine who had been taunted for his name and hated it, walked in, ordered a beer, spotted two men embracing — and opened fire. He killed Overstreet, 43, and wounded six others, including Joel Tucker, who had to deal with more than just the bullet wound in his back.
“When it happened, I was not out to my family,” said Tucker, who was then 40 and worked, as he still does, for United Parcel Service. “I was not out to my job. I wasn’t out to anybody except my very close friends.”
Tucker denied that he was gay in an interview with the Roanoke Times, insisting that he was at the bar with a girlfriend and didn’t know any of the other people there that night.
Back then, few could have predicted the seismic changes that were coming to the country, to Virginia and to Roanoke — on same-sex marriage, on gays serving in the military, on the emergence of openly gay athletes, chief executives and celebrities.
Backstreet’s identity has shifted, too. It is managed by Deanna Marcin, who was a married man named John Marcin before divorcing and becoming a transgender woman. The bar still caters to outsiders in this city of nearly 100,000 in southwest Virginia, but they are mostly punk rockers and metalheads, rather than gay men and lesbians.
Even so, Marcin wanted to mark the 15th anniversary of the shooting, just as Backstreet had done on the 10th anniversary in 2010. She hired a commercial photographer to document the vigil, and she held auditions to find a local musician to perform John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
As the sun set Sept. 24, about 30 people gathered on the sidewalk in front of the bar. Each held a candle to pay tribute to Overstreet and those who were wounded: Tucker, John Collins, Linda Conyers, Susan Smith, Iris Page Webb and Kathy Caldwell, who died several years after the shooting.
Several people, including Marcin, spoke. Marcin addressed not only the shooting’s toll and its scars, but also the efforts by Roanoke’s LGBT community and Backstreet to move forward.
“I’ve always wanted Backstreet to be a place where you can be anyone you want to be without fear of bigotry,” said Marcin, who discovered the bar a couple of years after the shooting, when she was exploring her identity as a woman. “Just look at me. Backstreet lets me be me, and I want this for everyone.”
Tucker was the only victim of the shooting to attend the vigil. He stayed on the periphery of the crowd, hugging others who had come to remember the night that changed everything for him and so many others.
“The Backstreet shooting made me a stronger person,” he said later. It forced him to be who he was — a gay man in a straight world. “I was very concerned about the reaction to me at work,” he said, “and, of course, my family.”
His district human resources manager welcomed him back to the office, telling him: “I have a lot of friends who are gay. We’ll get past this.” And his father offered acceptance, too. “My dad told me, ‘We love you no matter what.’ That meant a lot.”
It was the beginning of a shift in public attitude that has altered what it means to be gay in Roanoke — and in much of the United States.
Joshua Dickerson was an eighth-grader in Roanoke at the time of the shooting. It felt less like a watershed than a warning, even after Gay pleaded guilty to the rampage and was sentenced to four life sentences at the state’s Marion Correctional Center.
“Not only was I in the closet in middle school, I was about to step up to high school,” recalled Dickerson, now a 28-year-old musician who sometimes plays at Backstreet, “and this shooting rocked the city. Hearing about it was a terrifying moment. Questioning if there would be a day I could safely talk about who I was or if I was going to be confined for the rest of my life in some facade.”
Much of Virginia remained a tough place to be openly gay in the years afterward. In 2006, the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions — a measure swept away by the Supreme Court’s momentous decision this year guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry no matter where in the United States they live.
But changes were underway in Roanoke long before the Supreme Court acted. The proliferation of dating sites and phone apps such as Tinder and Grindr transformed hook-up culture and greatly lessened the need for Backstreet and other gay meeting places. The widespread availability of LGBT books online and at large chains put Roanoke’s only gay bookstore out of business. And there were signs of greater tolerance: the launch of a transgender medical specialty at Carilion Clinic, western Virginia’s biggest health-care provider, and the Roanoke Athletic Club’s decision to offer a family membership to a gay couple and their son after it was sued for discrimination.
At the time of the shooting, some of Roanoke’s gay residents were so private about their sexuality that they wore masks to public vigils to protect their identity. But the violence galvanized many others.
“What you found was that more people came out,” said Todd Nash, now a board member of the nonprofit Roanoke Pride advocacy group. “People started to realize, wait a minute, their doctor is gay, their attorney is gay. It opened eyes in Roanoke — the fact we were everywhere in their lives, whether they knew it or not. They knew us as people before they knew our sexual orientation.”
A haze of cigarette smoke hung beneath streetlamps as a crowd of young men and women spilled out of Backstreet on a summer night.
Inside, Good Cat Bad Cat began its set with a coiled drumbeat and loping bass line that steadily built. The band members — all veterans of Roanoke’s punk scene — were wearing matching fluorescent T-shirts that contrasted with the mostly black clothes worn by the audience. They leaned forward, preparing for a blast of molten hard-core punk.
Then James Ingrassia, a 41-year-old father of two, thumped his microphone, which remained silent. He looked toward the bar, where Marcin, the manager known to Backstreet regulars as “Princess,” was doing brisk business slinging Yuengling, Pabst Blue Ribbon and bottled water into the crowd.
In a flash, Marcin pulled a large flashlight from a shelf to illuminate the mixing board. In a few minutes, the glitch was fixed.
The band’s drums and bass accelerated, joined by a stabbing guitar. Ingrassia unleashed something between a scream and a bullhorn, and a jolt shot through the crowd. Bodies began frenetically banging off one another. The meek moved to the sides of the room as sweaty guys with beards, baseball caps and band shirts swung their arms, jumping, pushing and singing along.
Around Backstreet, real estate developers have invested millions of dollars to turn blocks of old warehouses and office buildings into trendy apartments for young professionals and empty-nesters.
But Backstreet remains much the same as it was in 2000: a hole-in-the-wall bar with exposed brick walls, cold beer, a pool table and a jukebox. Even the Canada Dry sign that hangs outside over its front door was there in 2000. There’s just one difference: Backstreet is no longer a gay bar.
The old Backstreet didn’t go down without a fight. Marcin — a divisive figure in Roanoke’s LGBT community for her brash outspokenness, her pioneer status as a transgender woman, and her love for guns and NASCAR — tried “underwear” nights, karaoke and drag bingo. She enrolled Backstreet in the American Poolplayers Association, competing against other local bars in organized pool tournaments. Her ideas often worked for a few weeks before business dropped off again.
“They’re a fickle crowd,” Marcin said of Backstreet’s longtime gay clientele. “They show up for the first three weeks, and then they don’t come anymore.”
In 2013, Marcin began opening the bar to local bands on weekends, and it quickly became a cornerstone of Roanoke’s punk, hardcore and metal scenes.
“Some people say I’m a straight bar now,” Marcin said. “Guess what: The gay community left Backstreet a long time ago. They expect the bar that’s been here for 32 years to be the same bar. If I only see you once every three months and you buy one beer, it’s not really your bar anymore.”
Nash said he understands the way Marcin repositioned Backstreet.
“If she hadn’t done it, it would have closed. It would have been lost,” he said. “She made a business decision, and I think it was a smart one. It kept a gay landmark open. We’ve seen too many close.”
Even in its new iteration, Backstreet’s success may be short-lived. Its owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the bar’s history and concerns about his other businesses, acknowledged that Backstreet continues to lose money. He said he has considered turning it into a sports bar.
For now, though, he’s holding off.
Jennifer Jenkins in Washington contributed to this report.