Friday, September 10, 2010

10 years later: Candlelight Memorial for Backstreet Shooting Victims

Ten years ago Ronald Edward Gay, a 53-year-old, mentally unstable drifter, tired of being teased about his name, told witnesses at a downtown Roanoke bar that he was going to "waste some faggots." He walked the few blocks to the Backstreet Cafe, a local LGBT watering hole, burst in and opened fire, randomly shooting seven people as they celebrated a birthday. Danny Lee Overstreet, 43, died at the scene.

In the wake of the shooting, a candlelight vigil was held at the scene of the shooting on Salem Ave. Hundreds of people, including the mayor, city council members, civic leaders and ordinary citizens turned out at in a show of support for our community in a way that had never been seen before and hasn't been seen since. Speaker after speaker proclaimed that Roanoke was a tolerant and welcoming place and that the actions of Ronald Gay were an isolated incident by a mentally ill outsider. I remember someone being quoted in the press saying "Roanoke's not like this."

Over a thousand people, including Paul and I, attended Danny Overstreet's funeral service. Executives from Verizon, where Danny and Paul both worked, flew in to attend the service and gave employees the afternoon off so they could say a final farewell to their friend and coworker. There was talk at the time that Fred Phelps and his band of wackos from Westboro Baptist were planning to protest the service, but they were no shows.

The shooting drew national and international attention. Ted Koppel of ABC's "Nightline" came to Roanoke and held a televised town hall meeting at the Jefferson Center to talk about what this event meant to the people of this small mountain community. Religious leaders from miles around lined up to take their turn at the podium to condemn homosexuality. I remember watching them thumb through their bibles looking for just the right passage that would add just the right amount of salt to our community's wounds and thinking, "Roanoke's not like this? Yeah, right."

Danny Overstreet was killed at the Backstreet Cafe.
 The Backstreet shooting could have been -- should have been -- a turning point for Roanoke's LGBT community. There were many at the time, including me, that believed the incident would break us out of our collective apathy and be a catalyst for change in Virginia. Sadly, we were all mistaken. In the years since the tragedy, our rights have been deliberately and systematically stripped away from us while we pretended not to notice. It's as if we were collectively saying, "Getting involved is too hard. Let somebody else do it."

Ten years later, somebody else is doing something and asking you to get off your ass and do something too.

There is a candlelight memorial planned to remember Danny and his friends, many of whom are no longer with us. The gathering will take place in front of the Backstreet Cafe at 356 Salem Ave, in Roanoke. Attendees should begin assembling at 9:30 pm. The service will begin at 9:50. This event is being organized by Frank House of Roanoke Equality, Rev. Joe Cobb of MCC of the Blue Ridge and The Drop-in Center.

I encourage you all to plan on attending this event. Visit the event page on Facebook for more information. The time for change is long past. Let's not waste another second allowing our leaders -- and the bigots that we allowed to be elected -- to violate our rights. I'll be there. I hope you will be too.
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1 comment:

  1. Thank you Steven for this article. I was not here in Roanoke back then. It is so important I think,for those who were here then to look back,to remember, and to even grieve as some may need to.

    It is also vitally important to look at the present, and to ask "where are we GLBT- this, our civil rights struggle..?" Have we had enough oppression yet? Well let me say,I have had much more than enough !!


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