The following is an excerpt from Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City by Gregory Samantha Rosenthal.
Living Queer History tells the story of an LGBTQ community in Roanoke, Virginia, a small city on the edge of Appalachia. Interweaving historical analysis, theory, and memoir, Gregory Samantha Rosenthal tells the story of their own journey—coming out and transitioning as a transgender woman—in the midst of working on a community-based history project that documented a multigenerational southern LGBTQ community. Based on over forty interviews with LGBTQ elders, Living Queer History explores how queer people today think about the past and how history lives on in the present.
A Sexual History of Roanoke’s Urban Renaissance
Walk around downtown Roanoke on a Saturday evening in the summertime and feast your senses on this heteronormative tableau: white middle-class men and women stroll up and down Market Street; downtown bars brim with homogenized bros, the dark, dank interiors smelling vaguely of craft brew and Old Spice; former sorority girls spill out onto the sidewalk in front of Sidewinders and Corned Beef & Co. LGBTQ people are here, too, if perhaps less conspicuously.
Roanoke is a diverse city. Indeed, we are told that this is among the charms of downtown. But I find it hard to navigate these streets—I don’t feel like I’m blending in at all. People are staring at my face or at my long legs; some train their eyes for just a bit too long. Something about the overall tableau is predictable. Is this really Roanoke, or is it Asheville or Greenville or some other small, gentrifying Southern city? We are told that this is what we should want—the progressive profitability of sameness, the calming illusion of safety, the superficial façade of historicity.
Civic boosters say that Roanoke is experiencing an urban renaissance. They are excited about our small city becoming the next Asheville. But what does that really mean? More hipsters, more beer, rising rents? The counterpoint to Roanoke’s ascendance is and has always been the persistence of so-called undesirables, including LGBTQ people like myself who do not conform to heteronormative, capitalist expectations for appropriate urban behavior. And in contrast to the moralism of Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg an hour to our east, or the small Appalachian coal towns dotting the mountains at our west, Roanoke is and has always been Southwest Virginia’s sin city.
I find it hard to navigate these streets—I don’t feel like I’m blending in at all.
Roanoke is odd, permissive, and teeming with debauchery. It is a sexual city. It is a fundamentally queer place. Roanoke is a hub that has attracted queer and trans people from the surrounding region for over half a century. I feel these histories within me as I navigate these downtown streets. LGBTQ histories reside, hidden to most observers, on street corners and in alleyways, invisible behind the city’s heteronormative façade. I want people to know that this place was queer, or still is, or can be. It does not have to be so clean or so charming. I wish Roanoke was just a little bit more queer.
But Roanoke’s LGBTQ histories are submerged underneath a century of denial and, at times, outright efforts by the city to erase and make memory-less our former spaces of belonging. When a group of students from Roanoke College ventured downtown in early 2017, digital audio recorder in hand, to interview one of the most famous trans sex workers in Roanoke’s history, the first thing this person let loose on them was a genealogy of queer belonging that placed her own life, and the larger story of Roanoke, Virginia, at the tail end of a two-hundred-year history, belying the common assumption that LGBTQ people here have no past.
She spoke of her “great-grandfather, who was the son of a plantation owner and a slave” and her grandmother, “the product of a slave and a plantation owner,” stating that “I am very proud [of] my great-grandparents who came out of the slave era.” She told the story of her grandparents, the first in her family to attend college, and then her parents, and then her childhood: “I started singing in the church when I was four years old.” All of this came tumbling out of her mouth in just the first two minutes.
I want people to know that this place was queer, or still is, or can be.
We’re not supposed to know this story. Christy, an African American former transvestite sex worker, was arrested dozens of times in the 1980s and 1990s. She is perhaps an unlikely community historian. But in a remarkable oral history, Christy recites not just a genealogy of her own existence but the story of Black people with roots in Southern soil, a story that takes the listener on a journey from slavery to the present day, linking racism and the criminal justice system with LGBTQ rights and transgender community formation. Christy shows us that it is possible to queer the history of Roanoke, Virginia. There are people, places, and memories that remain here, and with careful attention we can bring them back to life.
The pages that follow offer a new history of Roanoke, Virginia, one that takes its cues from sex workers like Christy, and also gay cruisers and lovers of love—Virginia is for lovers, after all. A Black trans sex worker shows us where to begin, and the voices and lived experiences of sex workers and so-called sodomites end our story. In between, this sexual history of Roanoke explores a central tension in the city’s identity: Roanoke as Magic City versus Roanoke as Sin City.
In the late nineteenth century, Roanoke was one of the fastest-growing cities in the New South. Its spectacular growth earned it the moniker Magic City. Civic leaders would have us believe that the magic is still at our fingertips. On the other hand, Roanoke as sin city is where men have engaged in public sex, queens have fought back against the police, and sex workers have turned tricks on the public square in the heart of downtown. When you put these histories—magic and sin—side by side, you get “magic tricks,” a phrase I use to describe the fertile historical and contemporary interrelationships between urban processes and sexual practices. Sex, work, policing, and urban planning have all made, and continue to make, Roanoke’s urban growth possible. Indeed, municipal attempts at “cleaning up” the city, often accomplished through the twin arms of urban planning on one hand and antiqueer policing on the other, have been the main driving force behind both Roanoke’s urban renaissance and much of its LGBTQ history.
There are people, places, and memories that remain here, and with careful attention we can bring them back to life.
The phrase “magic tricks” is also an ode to the powerful, yet unsung agents at the heart of this Appalachian urban fairy tale—including the Black transfeminine people who turned tricks on Salem and Campbell Avenues at night. Black trans girl magic is at the heart of all that has ever made Roanoke a Magic City. City officials may scoff at this characterization, but Christy knows it is true. As she herself once said, “I may not know where the bodies are buried, but I know where the underwear fell.”
The hidden history of Roanoke is a love letter to lost queer worlds.
Gregory Samantha Rosenthal is Associate Professor of History at Roanoke College and co-founder of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project.