Two Sides of Town

Article excerpt

A shooting in Roanoke brings gays and lesbians together, but fear still keeps some in the closet

Roanoke, Va., is a relatively large city of 96,000 people in the predominantly rural Blue Ridge mountains of southwest Virginia. A former railroad town located halfway between New York City and Atlanta, it has long been a place to where local lesbians and gay men have gravitated, a place where they feel safe. But on Friday night, September 22, all of that changed when Ronald Edward Gay, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran with a history of mental illness, allegedly walked into the Backstreet Cafe and opened fire on the crowd gathered there. One gay man, Danny Lee Over-street, was killed in the attack; six others were wounded, and the incident thrust Roanoke's unassuming gay and lesbian population into the national spotlight.

Gay, who police and family members say was angry about being teased for much of his life because of his last name, was said to have targeted the local hangout because of its gay clientele, telling one witness that he wanted to "waste some faggots." Gay was quickly arrested and charged with murder, and activists across the country immediately labeled the attack an antigay hate crime. An outpouring of sympathy and support for the shooting victims, and the gay community in general, underscored the widespread belief that the town is fairly tolerant.

Yet the town's image may be more complicated than the response to the shooting indicates. Roanoke is also the city where prosecutors charged a group of gay men caught cruising in a local park under the state's rarely enforced sodomy law. And some of the witnesses of the attack were concerned that being found at a gay bar could mean the end of their jobs.

Still, local activists say that Roanoke is overall a gay-friendly place. "Frankly, my own experience [as a gay man in Roanoke] has been very positive," says prominent local attorney and longtime gay activist Sam Garrison. "The anecdotal evidence from lots of other folks who have shared their coming-out experiences with me suggests that most Roanokers are pretty accepting. Based on all I know about here and all I think I know about other places, I consider Roanoke to be above average in tolerance-acceptance levels, both for our part of the country and for our size city. It's not San Francisco, but I understand that there are homophobes in San Francisco too."

The Rev. Catherine Houchins, pastor of the predominantly lesbian and gay Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge, located in Roanoke, tends to agree: "I tell people that you can be as out in Roanoke as you can in West Hollywood [Calif.], and the comfort level for gay people here has risen, I think, in the last few years." Houchins became pastor of MCC of the Blue Ridge in November 1998 and grew up about 30 miles outside of Roanoke. She says that she and her longtime partner, Jeannie, are "very out" and that, in her experience, there has been little harassment of gays in Roanoke. Regarding those fearful of losing their jobs if they are publicly out, Houchins says, "Of course, some people worry, but that's true anywhere."

As the story of the crime unfolded in the media, locals both gay and straight, naturally, expressed shock and outrage. But there seem to be conflicting indications about the level of acceptance lesbians and gay men have felt as part of Roanoke's larger community, in spite of this recent show of support. Most recently and perhaps most tellingly--John Collins, one of those who were wounded at the Backstreet Cafe, told The Washington Post that he was afraid of losing his job at a Roanoke car dealership after being outed as a gay man in the wake of the tragedy. Several other reports stated that some who were interviewed asked that their identities be kept secret, echoing the fears Collins expressed.

The town has seen other, less violent outbursts of antigay sentiment. In the mid '90s a local advertising company refused to place a gay-themed billboard with rainbow colors and the words DIVERSITY ENRICHES. …