A Brief LGBTQ+ History of Roanoke
Roanoke is a welcoming and compassionate city that embraces the diversity of our residents. This includes our LGBTQ+ community.
LGBTQ+ people have been part of our community ever since Roanoke’s founding in the 1880s. Newspaper reports and police records from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reveal a history of Roanokers who engaged in non-normative gender presentations and sexual activities. Let's take a look at some history:
- A visible community formed here in the 1960s, anchored by the region’s first known gay bar, the Trade Winds, which opened on Franklin Road in 1953, and at Elmwood Park which by the 1960s had become a well-known gay cruising locale. The first gay liberation organization in the city, the Gay Alliance of the Roanoke Valley (GARV), was founded in 1971. They were followed in 1977 by the Free Alliance for Individual Rights (FAIR). Both organizations advocated against the harassment of gay men by bar owners and by the police department.
Transgender Roanokers also became increasingly visible in the 1970s. A group of primarily white trans women attempted in the late 1970s to organize the region’s first chapter of Tri-Ess, a pioneering national trans organization. Trans sex workers, on the other hand, including many Black trans people, held significant ground around the City Market building at that same time. A gay nightclub scene flourished in downtown Roanoke in the late 1970s with as many as five different venues known for their gay clientele. These establishments were advertised in locally published gay newsletters such as the Big Lick Gayzette and the Virginia Gayzette. In late 1978 The Park, which today is the only nightclub that remains from that era, opened to rave reviews.
Lesbians in Roanoke formed their own organization in 1980. Their group, First Friday, met once a month in people’s homes—frequently in the Old Southwest neighborhood where many gay men and lesbians lived. Old Southwest became, by the late 1960s, a so-called “gay ghetto” or what today we may call a gayborhood. Many gay and lesbian homeowners restored old buildings in the neighborhood and contributed to its late-twentieth century renaissance. The neighborhood continues to have a disproportionately high LGBTQ+ population.
- In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis hit Roanokers hard. The first local death from AIDS was reported in 1983. By the end of the 1980s, dozens of cases were recorded in the Roanoke Valley. Gay activist groups such as the Blue Ridge Lambda Alliance (BRLA) and the Roanoke Valley Chapter of the Virginia Gay Alliance (VGA) organized the earliest AIDS advocacy and care work. Out of these efforts emerged important organizations such as Blue Ridge AIDS Support Services (BRASS) and the Roanoke AIDS Project. Today, the Drop-In Center carries on this important work in our community.
In 1990 a coalition of gay and lesbian groups formed the Alliance of Lesbian and Gay Organizations (ALGO). In September of that year they put on the city’s first Pride festival in Wasena Park. Meanwhile the city’s first explicitly gay church, Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge, moved into their first permanent home in the late 1990s just down the street on Kirk Avenue from the city’s first explicitly gay bookstore, Out Word Connections. The 1990s also witnessed the emergence of the region’s first gay youth groups, including OutRight.
In September 2000, an anti-gay shooting at the Backstreet Café on Salem Avenue took the life of one person and wounded six others. This hate crime shook the city and opened a new chapter in our LGBTQ+ history. The twenty-first century has witnessed the emergence of new organizations and initiatives, including the region’s first LGBTQ+ community center, the Roanoke Diversity Center, which opened in 2013. City voters elected the first openly gay official in 2018 with the election of Joe Cobb to the Roanoke City Council. The city also witnessed the emergence of our first explicitly Black LGBTQ organization, the House of Expression, in 2019.
Many challenges remain for LGBTQ+ Roanokers and the City of Roanoke is committed to working with the LGBTQ+ community on tackling these challenges together.
LGBTQ+ Services in Roanoke
- Roanoke Diversity Center
- Roanoke Pride on Facebook
- Youth SAGA of Roanoke
- LGBT Young Professionals of SW Virginia
- Ladies & Gents of the Blue Ridge - Transgender Alliance
- Planned Parenthood- Gender Affirming Hormone Therapy
- Teen Connections: LGBTQ-inclusive Youth Leadership Program