Monday, September 21, 2009

Roanoke Activist Frank House: One man trying to make a difference

Roanoke is the largest city in the Southwestern part of Virginia and over the last few decades it has become a magnet for LGBT people from all over the region. When I arrived here from the Washington DC metro area in the spring of 1994, I was relieved to find that Roanoke has a relatively large LGBT community for a city of 90,000.

I recently sat down with local activist Frank House at Mill Mountain Coffee in downtown Roanoke. I'd discovered his Yahoo news group, Roanoke Equality, where he has been making arrangements to help Roanoke's LGBT community arrange travel and lodging to the National Equality March on October 11 in Washington. I was so stunned to find another person who cared about the fate of our community in this politically apathetic area, that I immediately joined the news group and contacted Frank to arrange an interview.

When Frank House and his partner realized it was time to leave the crowded, smoggy environs of Phoenix, AZ, they did some research and decided to look to the North Carolina/Southern Virginia region and took a road trip east to take a look around.

Finding several quaint little hamlets along the way and ample affordable properties, Frank told me they found "nothing gay" in North Carolina, so the pair headed north into the Old Dominion. As fate would have it, they arrived in the Star City on the day of Roanoke's annual Pride in the Park festival. Frank says he and his partner looked each other and decided, "Well, this might be the closest mixture of where we want to be."

Before long the couple realized that beyond the 2 1/2 gay bars, the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and the Drop-in Center, which offers free HIV testing, counseling and education, there really wasn't much going on in for LGBT people in the valley. In the three years since moving here, Frank has gotten involved with these and other local organizations doing what he could to make a difference in his newly-adopted home town. But there was always a sense of frustration over the lack of activism in Roanoke's gay community.

Last Spring Frank heard about The Equality Forum event which took place in Philadelphia the weekend of May 3rd. He and his partner and a friend decided to attend and perhaps get some ideas to invigorate his new community back home. Frank describes standing in the the pouring rain, with no umbrella, in front of Independence Hall with thousands of people listening to San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome and other speakers.

The sense of irony and injustice of standing at the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, while being denied so many basic civil rights, combined with the passionate words of the speakers stirred such an overwhelming flood of emotions, that Frank was moved to tears. He recalls thinking, "Why am I here? I shouldn't have to be doing this."

Coming home to Roanoke, invigorated by his experience in Philly, Frank brought his newfound passion with him and organized the Rally For Equality in Roanoke's Elmwood Park on June 28th, the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

Frank is quick to point out, "I went into this with no idea what I was doing." He asked himself what he would want to see at an LGBT rights rally and made a list. He needed a permit from the city, which took about two weeks to get approved, a variety of speakers from diverse groups in the community and music. A few phone calls lead to more phone calls and within about four weeks, the Rally for Equality was born.

Frank gave the opening address to the modest crowd and introduced Virginia Senator John Edwards. Other speakers at the rally included Rev. Joe Cobb of MCC of the Blue Ridge, Len Rogers of the Stonewall Society, Rev. Steven Stanley of Christ Episcopal Church and Barbara Hale of the Roanoke NAACP. Frank also enlisted the help of the Roanoke Pride Committee, and Molly McClintock of Equality Virginia in putting the event together.

In the wake of his success with the rally, Frank's passion for activism has only deepened. In recent weeks his energy has been focused on getting Roanoke's LGBT community fired up for the National Equality March in Washington, DC on October 11. He's been hard at work organizing transportation and lodging, talking to people, handing out fliers and doing everything he can to motivate the valley's queers to take an active interest in their own fates.

Unfortunately, Frank's efforts to charter a bus and reserve a block of rooms in Washington did not muster enough support to meet the minimum number required for a group rate, but he is not deterred. He keeps fighting the good fight and is continuing his efforts to rally the troops.

Frank has set up a FaceBook page for Roanoke Equality where he will continue to get the word out and continue organizing for the National Equality March. After a full and active day at Roanoke's Pride in the Park yesterday, he wrote this morning, "I've never seen so many young GLBT people at a pride ...God loves you all....please help us to attain full equality....for your future...for our future....together we can be one strong...very loud voice....we all have had quite enough hatred against us."

The Roanoke Valley needs more people like Frank House.
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  1. Thanks Steve. I am just someone who wakes at 3AM sometimes with a nagging new idea...a new passion which just won't let me alone. Do I know how to materialize it usually...?..hardly...I stumble around and wait to see what happens...ha ha. Love ya....Thanks for your help and kind words. You are the hero for what you communicate and provoke dialogue and discussion for all of us here in little gay Roanoke. That is your gift to us.

  2. You are too kind. Thank you for sharing your story with me and our community. I am truly gateful to count you as a new friend. Let's shake things up in the Star City!


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