“You’ll never believe it,” I shouted to my friend as I burst through her apartment door after a trip to the local drugstore for some forgotten toiletries. “The cashier was a queer woman, too!”
Just over a week ago, my friend had moved to Roanoke — a city in southwestern Virginia — and I had made the trek down to help her settle in for a few days. I was completely wide-eyed as we drove around, taking in everything from how far apart the buildings were to the rolling mountains in the landscape. What really struck me, though, was that I seemed to be spotting queer women everywhere. Was I maybe projecting a bit? Sure; considering I would be trapped in a rural area, my brain was manifesting the community I hoped to see. As someone who has spent their whole lives trying to spot fellow queer women in a city made up of predominantly straights, I would consider my visual gaydar — if you will — to be fairly strong. And it was going off left and right in Roanoke: at the drugstore, at the liquor store, at Target, in my friend’s apartment complex — seemingly everywhere.
Queer women are everywhere, even if you can’t see us, but I was still surprised by the visibility I was seeing in Roanoke. Spotting community in public wasn’t based on fingernail length or forlorn glances; rather, these women donned clothing and hairstyles that seemed, well, very gay. Growing up in coastal Virginia Beach, I had always assumed that the more inland you get in Virginia, the more rural and conservative you get; instead, I was delighted by just how much Roanoke proved me wrong.
“I don’t want to reinforce a binary stereotype about rural versus urban, because that’s not wholly true,” says Dr. Gregory Samantha Rosenthal, assistant professor of public history at Roanoke College. “I think there’s at least a 50-year gravitational pull — that people do come to Roanoke to find gay people. … The city is overwhelmingly Democratic and we’re surrounded by Trump country — it looks like a bubble. There’s not a lot of that Bible thumping or that kind of stuff. It’s a very liberal city. It really is. There’s no other way to frame that; the immediate suburbs around us, the counties around us, get very conservative very fast.”
But in Roanoke, says Rosenthal, the urban environment is more than enough to draw out the visibly queer and give them a space that feels comfortable — or at least, not in danger. Rosenthal has been documenting the city’s community through the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, a community-based queer public history initiative that they co-founded in 2015. The project focuses on crafting an archive of historic artifacts — like newsletters and zines — and oral histories from queer elders of the area to get a better picture of what queer life was like all the way back to 1971, when the first gay rights group was founded in Roanoke, and beyond.
“It’s about 50 years of out, organized, clear movement presence,” notes Rosenthal. “But there were, of course, out people before the ‘70s too, so some of the oral histories with some of the oldest folks — we’ve got some stories about the ‘50s and ‘60s here.”
According to Rosenthal, queer women specifically found a home in Roanoke for their greater community. As the area became a draw for LGBTQ+ people in the ‘70s after the Stonewall Uprising over 400 miles away in NYC, a major lesbian group was able to find its footing in the ’80s: First Friday. Their primary focus was the Roanoke Valley Women’s Retreat, a yearly retreat in the woods open to queer women from all over. But despite their size and the fact that they kept to themselves both during and outside of the retreat, their presence was increasingly unwelcome.
“They kept choosing different places all over Southwest Virginia each year, because when they would register to hold the retreat, they just call it the women’s retreat,” Rosenthal says. “But then once they got there, the people who ran the site or whatever [were] like, ‘Y’all are lesbians,’ and they wouldn’t be invited back the next year.”
At their height, the annual event had upwards of 200 women involved. A recent film that debuted at Boston’s Wicked Queer Film Festival, titled “The Unlikely Story of the Lesbians of First Friday,” chronicles the group’s history and prominence in the region. While wildly successful in creating safe space for the community and making them comfortable in their own region, First Friday ended up disbanding by the early ’90s, and no major lesbian group has yet replaced it.
“There are a lot of seeds; there are a lot of different scenes that people plug into, but that was sort of the height of, like, big-L lesbian visibility,” Rosenthal tells GO.
While I was smitten with the individual visibility of queer women that I found around the city, the more I dug into the LGBTQ+ history of the area, the more I found that most communities were invisible. If you were white and cisgender, Roanoke’s history focused on you. If you weren’t, you were erased. In fact, the local newspaper, the Roanoke Times, hadn’t written an article on the queer Black community until last year but had covered white, cis queer content going back to 2000.
“For Black queer folks, that’s been an enduring invisibility [that] has been a real issue forever,” Rosenthal tells me. “There is a huge black queer population here and they’ve always been very invisibilized by the dominant white queer community. The lesbian group back in the eighties — they were extremely white. All the gay activist groups [were overwhelmingly white], and still to this day I think that’s true that nominally gay groups and spaces still are quite white, quite cis.”
And while identity plays a major part in what communities are outwardly visible, it’s always been difficult for queer people of all identities to exist in the city. Beginning at the end of the ’70s, LGBTQ+ people were subject to urban restructuring, which pushed them out of the city center into the outskirts of the community. Part of that came from the fact that although Roanoke was a city that once welcomed the LGBTQ+ community, it was also very close to the center of the Moral Majority, a prominent American political organization with harsh Christian and conservative views.
“We’re just down the road from Jerry Falwell — who’s dead now — but his son is in Lynchburg, which [was] the base of the Moral Majority and the base in many ways of a national anti-gay movement — it started in the late ‘70s,” Rosenthal says. “Right at that time, the city in 1979 was in pursuit of supposedly [a] very progressive approach to remodeling downtown.”
That “progressive approach to remodeling” was more of a polite cover; the process purposely pushed the LGBTQ+ community out of Roanoke. Many of its safe spaces were lost during this time, such as an area near Elmwood Park that gay men used for cruising since the 1960s, which was turned into a cul-de-sac and now a pedestrian mall. Urban restructuring also saw the city cracking down on the Roanoke City Market building, which had once been the “meat market,” aka the heart of the sex work district.
“We’ve interviewed three trans sex workers who used to work down there in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” notes Rosenthal. “Roanoke was well known regionally. People came in from all over to hire trans sex workers downtown, so the market was really well known for that and all these official documents talk about it — like having to clean up that space.”
Now, gentrification is playing the part of the once city-mandated ostracization of the LGBTQ+ community. Old Southwest, a historically gay neighborhood, has been experiencing steady gentrification since the ’70s when “a mix of white gay men and straight people [started] coming in and buying up old buildings,” says Rosenthal.
“The reason the neighborhood became a gayborhood was because of how deteriorating the housing stock was and slumlords, so these people wouldn’t rent to gay people,” Rosenthal notes. “And in the ‘70s, you started to get this organized push to buy up some of these old mansions that had been cut into apartments and turn them back into single-family homes and make this a posh neighborhood.”
But Roanoke’s queer community wouldn’t let a push to the outskirts of town curb their activism and visibility. The community wasn’t historically “underground,” notes Rosenthal. In fact, many of the prominent gay groups of the ’60s and ‘70s made sure they were seen and heard, despite some of the smaller identity groups falling to the background.
“In the ‘60s to ‘70s is when one of these first gay groups — which are mostly white gay males groups — came about, and they were splashed all over the front of the local newspaper,” Rosenthal tells GO. “It’s really well known that these groups have formed and were having demonstrations and fighting against the police and stuff. And the lesbian group in the eighties was in some ways a bit more planned, [but] even some of the leaders of the group who we’ve interviewed struggled with being closeted at work, which you could still be fired for up until, like, a month ago.”
Because of that fight, queer visibility in the area is well-known and growing today. Roanoke boasts the Roanoke Diversity Center, a community center that has been around since 2013. The city also has an explicitly gay church that the community can find space in to worship how they choose to. The vice mayor, Joe Cobb, is openly gay. He was the first openly gay person ever elected to the city council — instated just two years ago.
Still, Rosenthal notes, many of the non-white, non-cis LGBTQ+ communities are still marginalized.
“I think that there are lots of subgroups of queer folks who are more marginalized, like Black folks,” they say. “I think that queer women are less visible than gay men. We have one major trans group here and then some other things, but I think trans people are visible, although marginalized from some of the mainstream groups. It’s fractured like any community anywhere, I think.”
That “fractured community” is still working to piece itself back together so that all queer voices — no matter their intersections or identities — can be heard moving forward. In fact, Roanoke is as strong an urban center as any, and it still beckons new queer people to its spaces. Whether they grew up in the surrounding conservative areas or are simply looking for a spot with more possibilities for dating, the city continues to draw in an LGBTQ+ population. The hope is that they continue building a community on the foundation of their elders to ensure everyone is welcome in the updated version of Roanoke’s queer community.
“Scholars have talked about a great gay migration that took place in the ‘70s,” says Rosenthal. “It’s all these people coming out and being like, ‘Well, dang, I need to get my ass to San Francisco and New York or whatever.’ And Roanoke experienced that, I think, and still does. People growing up in Wytheville or in Bristol or in Martinsville or something like that will be like, ‘You know, I need to get my ass to Roanoke.’”