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Old Southwest Gayborhood Walking Tour Sheds Light on Roanoke’s LGBTQ History

Rachel Barton | October 31, 2017

Almost every major city in the country has a gayborhood: In Manhattan, it’s Chelsea; in Baltimore, it’s Mount Vernon; in D.C, it’s DuPont Circle. In Roanoke, Virginia, the historic gayborhood is Old Southwest—a quaint neighborhood replete with pastel Victorian mansions that borders Downtown. Not many people in Southwest Virginia are aware of Old Southwest’s rich queer history, but the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ History Project is working to change that by providing a free Old Southwest Gayborhood Walking Tour every couple of months. The tour debuted in September, and has since attracted Virginians interested in learning more about Roanoke’s queer culture.

What is a Gayborhood?

The history of gayborhoods—residential areas where LGBTQ people have historically congregated—began after WWII, when millions of gay men and women began “coming out” and moving to major urban centers like New York City and San Francisco. During the 1950s and 60s, communities of out queer people faced housing and job discrimination. They struggled to find landlords who would rent to them and businesses who would hire them. Thus, they created separate communities—often in inner-city neighborhoods with declining property values—where they could work and live openly. They started their own businesses and bought their own properties, creating a distinct queer culture.

During the 1970s, the gay liberation movement helped gayborhoods grow rapidly, spurring a wave of “gay gentrification.” Gay men and lesbians fixed up dilapidated properties and made inner-city neighborhoods more appealing to capitalist enterprise. In the 1990s, city governments, heterosexual families, and other not-queer institutions began to reclaim gayborhoods and reintegrate them into the city at large. As this trend continues, and as mainstream society grows more accepting of LGBTQ people generally, distinctly gay places are rapidly disappearing.

The modern identity of gayborhoods across the country—including Roanoke’s historic gayborhood, Old Southwest—is in flux. Over the years, Old Southwest has transformed from a ramshackle part of town to a neighborhood on the rise, attractive to young middle class families and trendy businesses. This redevelopment risks overshadowing the neighborhood’s history. The Old Southwest Gayborhood Walking Tour is one form of resistance.

The Old Southwest Gayborhood Walking Tour

On the walking tour, participants see a side of Old Southwest unfamiliar to most brought to life with archival photographs, census data, and excerpts from oral history interviews. They learn about Old Southwest’s beginnings as a wealthy suburb build primarily for railroad elites in the late 19th century. They also learn about Old Southwest’s decline during the mid-20th century, when property values plummeted, mansions were cut up into small apartments, and the neighborhood was populated primarily by young single tenants and all manner of “unsavory” characters (according to the city’s white, middle class sensibilities).

The neighborhood’s decline peaked in the early 1970s, coinciding with Roanoke’s gay liberation movement. During this period, young gay men and women moved to Old Southwest, taking advantage of low property values and building queer community in the foothills of Appalachia.

The tour is organized by broad themes—the first is LGBTQ activism. Roanoke’s first gay activist organizations were founded in Old Southwest. The Gay Alliance of Roanoke Valley took shape in an apartment complex on Albermarle Avenue in 1971. The Free Alliance for Individual Rights was founded in an apartment on Mountain Avenue in 1977. Roanoke’s first lesbian organization, First Fridays, also materialized in Old Southwest in 1980.

These organizations helped build a foundation for gay and lesbian liberation amidst Roanoke’s conservative political and social environment. They made newsletters, hosted community events, and were integral to creating queer community in Southwest Virginia. On the tour, participants get to see these apartments as they look today—now fixed-up and seamlessly integrated into the middle-class character of the neighborhood. Nonetheless, their queer historical significance is the highlight.

The tour also explores the theme of survival—how queer people lived and worked in the gayborhood. One stop—a former brothel on Highland Avenue—speaks to the plight of a trans sex worker named “Samantha” who faced discrimination from Roanoke’s lesbian and gay communities in the early 1990s on account of her occupation and desire to wear drag.

Other tour stops at Roanoke’s Highland and Elmwood Parks discuss the significance of cruising to the local gay male community during the latter half of the 20th century (before the popularity of social media and online dating sites antiquated the practice) and the police harassment that targeted cruisers and gay sexuality generally. For queer people living in the gayborhood, creating separate communities could be both liberating and harrowing, empowering and oppressive. The walking tour reifies these multifaceted experiences.

The final tour theme is urban development and historic preservation. On several stops, the tour group visits historic sites that no longer exist or have since been transformed into something new. On one of these stops, the group looks down on Roanoke’s oldest gay bar—The Trade Winds. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, The Trade Winds was the only gay bar in Southwest Virginia, and a gathering point for gay men and lesbians throughout the region.

Now it is a vacant lot on the edge of Old Southwest and Downtown, but tour participants can imagine what it must have been like living in the gayborhood and walking to The Trade Winds weekly for drinks and entertainment. In an open letter pinned to the gay newsletter The Big Lick Gayzette in 1971, activists from the Gay Alliance of Roanoke Valley described The Trade Winds as “our only home.” Though it has physically been erased from the landscape, the tour reanimates its lofty significance, calling into question why so much of Roanoke’s queer landmarks no longer exist.

These three themes serve to paint a broad picture of Roanoke’s historic gayborhood, Old Southwest: its identity as a community center for early gay and lesbian activists; its identity as a place of work, strife, empowerment, and survival for working class queer people; and its identity as a community in transition—from a rundown inner-city neighborhood to a burgeoning locale for middle class families and young professionals.

As Old Southwest continues to change, The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ History Project hopes to keep its LGBTQ history on the map. If you are interested in learning more about Roanoke’s gayborhood, check out the upcoming tour schedule at the project’s website.

Photos courtesy Southwest Virginia LGBTQ History Project