Roanoke's Gay Bar Scene Will Never Be the Same
It's the end of an era for a bar culture that survived a mass shooting and 35 years of social change.
The Park stands as one of the few gay nightspots remaining in Roanoke. All photos by Suzie Kelly.
On a Friday night in September 2000, a former Marine who had drifted into Roanoke walked down Salem Avenue and into a gay bar, where he ordered a beer and then proceeded to open fire.
He killed Danny Overstreet, 43, and injured six others. Ronald Gay later claimed he targeted the bar after a lifetime spent being jeered for his surname. He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and is now serving four life sentences.
The shooting galvanized Roanoke and triggered an outpouring of support that in retrospect looks like a pivotal moment in changing attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals. The Backstreet Cafe reopened its doors just a week after the shooting, and then remained open for another 17 years. It finally closed at the end of 2016, only to reopen a few weeks later as the Front Row, a sports bar with punk and metal shows at night.
In truth, Backstreet had long since ceased to be a gay bar. A variety of factors, from social media and hookup apps to a rapid shift in societal attitudes to become more accepting to the LGBTQ community, has caused a sharp decline in gay bars across the country, and Backstreet was no exception.
Another long-running gay nightspot located three blocks up Salem Avenue also has evolved. The Park opened in 1978, when disco was still hot in Roanoke. The dance club remained under the same ownership until 2013, when it was sold off. However, the non-profit Roanoke Pride continues to operate the Park as a dance club, event venue and community center.
When the Park opened in 1978 and Backstreet in 1982, their section of Salem Avenue, which marks the point where downtown Roanoke gives way to industrial buildings and the railroad, was considered edgy and maybe even a little dangerous. Then, that stretch of Salem Ave was home to a string of rock clubs, gay bars, and more than a few purveyors of black market wares.
Today, that one-time urban frontier has been transformed by the restorative magic of historic tax credits and Millennial living trends into a hip neighborhood inhabited by craft breweries, Crossfit gyms, a tequila bar, a restaurant named for longtime Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer, and a variety of apartment complexes built into former warehouses and auto dealerships.
The Park and the former Backstreet Cafe link the Salem Avenue of 2017 to its older, wilder self of the early 80s. In an era when many individuals were closeted, these places offered the chance to be oneself, in a variety of flavors. They became destinations not just for LGBTQ individuals in Roanoke, but for those in eastern Central Appalachia who were willing to drive hours to an urban center to find acceptance.
The Park was the danceclub, a space for celebration and exuberance and showing off and shaking out the sillies.
Backstreet was the place to go when you wanted to have a conversation, shoot pool, play songs on the jukebox. In interviews, oral histories and casual conversation, nearly everyone describes Backstreet the same way: a neighborhood dive where everybody knew your name and the bartender knew your beer.
The Park and Backstreet were not unique as the Roanoke's only gay bars, but they stand out for their stability over decades.
"There are a lot of places that have opened and closed briefly," says Gregory Rosenthal, a history professor at Roanoke College who helped spearhead the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project. "The places with longevity were the Park, which opened in 1978 and was owned by the same two people for 35 years; the Last Straw, open for 20 years; and Backstreet, which opened in 1982."
MUNCHIES contacted both the owner of the Front Row and the former, longtime owner of the Park. The owner of the Front Row does not wish to be associated with his bar's past, while the Park's former owner was amicable but did not follow up on an interview request. Partly out of respect to the closeted era these bars represent, MUNCHIES is not identifying either by name.
Roanoke's gay bar history extends at least back to 1953, when Trade Winds opened. For three decades, the bar served as an LGBTQ destination, appearing in gay travel guidebooks that functioned like a rosetta stone for people on the road. Roanoke's location at a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains makes it an urban center for a significant area of eastern Appalachia: People travel here for retail shopping, medical needs, public services, and culture. For that reason, Trade Winds—and nearby city parks, which became cruising sites—also attracted a steady flow of people from large rural swaths of surrounding Southwest Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
Yet the gay bars served only a small section of the regional LGBTQ community. The same social restrictions pressing against women and minorities applied to the world of gay bars, too.
"These are largely white spaces, largely male-dominated, largely people with means," Rosenthal says. "It's really a small percentage of the LGBT community."
Ripples emanating from the Stonewall uprising of 1969 created an efflorescence of gay culture in Roanoke. Its second gay bar opened in 1973, the first gay discotheque in 1975. LGBTQ individuals began to move into Old Southwest, a historic district near downtown, making it Roanoke's first gayborhood. By the time the Park opened in 78, the Star City was home to six gay bars. The Park quickly made an impression, and for the next few decades, lines at its door often stretched around the building into the parking lot. That's not to say there wasn't pushback and hostility: Barbara Maberry, who grew up in Roanoke, remembers people in passing cars shooting BBs at those standing in line during the '80s.
Sometimes it was the owners themselves pushing back.
"Some [of the gay bars] were run by straight folks, some run by gay folks," Rosenthal says. "We have some really rich oral histories. Murphy's Super Disco was run by a straight family. They couldn't handle the gayness of what they had created, even though they were convinced it was an economic niche. We heard stories about employees shining a flashlight on you if you were dancing too close."
The late 70s marked the high point, and by the mid-80s the scene had dwindled to the Park, Backstreet, and the Last Straw. Additionally, however, there was Macado's, a family-friendly restaurant with quirky decor—think 3 Stooges mannequins flying a plane hung from the ceiling—that spawned a regional franchise. A gay scene formed around the restaurant's bar, likely sparked by a gay activist who bought most of Macado's kitschy decor for its owner.
Even after their peak, those spots remained important for those seeking to explore their identity in a supportive environment. Sue Stroud moved with her family to Roanoke in 1984. By the early 90s, her marriage was on the rocks. After the divorce, she started working through her feelings with a therapist, and in early 1994 she visited Salem Avenue.
"First I went to the Park," Stroud says. "I was all by myself and went up on this raised platform they called 'the meat rack.' I was so scared that I left by 11. Some time after that I went to Backstreet and the bartender and I talked a bit. Then O started meeting people."
Backstreet became her place. "The Park was so loud you had to scream at people if you want to talk," Stroud says. "I enjoyed Backstreet. We sat down there, shot pool, played the jukebox, drank beer. If a new person came in, I'd always walk up to them and start talking."
Stroud was at Backstreet the night of the shooting. She'd noticed the gunman walk in the door, but hadn't yet approached him before he opened fire on the room.
Much of Roanoke's LGBT community was still closeted at the time of the shooting. Some of the those were injured were outed in the ensuring media coverage when they were identified as shooting victims. One man was so terrified of losing his job that he went to work the following week with a bullet in his back, trying to act like nothing had happened.
It was in the years after the shooting that Deanna Marcin first came to Backstreet. Like Stroud, Marcin was coming off a divorce. She began to explore her identity as a woman, and the people she found in the bar supported her through her gender transition. In 2006, Marcin was hired as a bartender and then quickly became bar manager. She spent the next 11 years struggling to keep it afloat.
"Back in the 80s and 90s, it was a happening place," Marcin says. "The owner really didn't have to do anything except buy the beer. Before the internet became popular for dating, folks in the LGBT community had only a few places to go to meet others. With society changing as a whole to be more accepting, they didn't really need a specialty or niche bar for themselves, especially in Roanoke, a smaller city."
Marcin tried karaoke, underwear nights, joining a multi-bar pool league, and eventually metal and punk shows. The extreme music shows took off, bringing in business but changing the bar's customer demographics. And on nights when there wasn't a show, Backstreet sat empty.
It's less a surprise that the owner reworked Backstreet's name and business model than that he didn't do it sooner. As part of the change, Marcin was shown the door. The metal and punk shows continued, while Marcin found a new job working with a booking agency. She currently books the Coffee Pot, another historic bar on the other side of town, as well shows at other venues.
Stroud recently moved into a retirement home. Nearly a quarter century after she came out as lesbian, she still hesitated to come out to her new neighbors, at least for a while. She says she misses Backstreet, and she's concerned that the decline of gay bars is closing off an avenue for young people who still need a supportive environment.
"Gay bars are important," Stroud says. "I'm glad the Park is still open, because it's a place that young people can go and be themselves without fear of someone attacking them."
Roanoke learned the value of that firsthand in 2000, and the June 12, 2016, shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub reinforced it.
The Backstreet era has ended, but the renovations and renaming at the Front Row have not changed the feel of the bar much at all. Even on a night when a half-dozen death-metal and grind outfits are rattling the walls, there's still the same bar, the same pool table, the same windows and brick walls.
And on nights when there's no band playing, it's still the same old neighborhood bar where you can sit down and have a beer and a conversation.