by Lauren Gutterman
Living Queer History is no ordinary academic monograph. Part history of LGBTQ+ life in Roanoke, part account of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project’s founding and activities, and part memoir of G. Samantha Rosenthal’s own coming into her identity as a transgender woman, the book makes the case for queer public history as an activist project. As Rosenthal writes of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, which she co-founded, “We are not so interested in museums or in plaques or in state recognition. We are invested in making spaces.” The group’s evolving team of hundreds of undergraduate students, faculty, activists, and community members have recorded more than forty interviews with LGBTQ+ elders to date, but their work focuses on bringing LGTBTQ+ people together and claiming public space on the ground in Virginia today. As the Austin LGBTQ+ Oral History Project begins to take shape, Rosenthal’s Living Queer History has much to teach us.
Reversing the stereotypical rural-to-urban queer migration narrative, Living Queer History begins with Rosenthal’s account of moving to Virginia from New York City in 2015 to join the faculty of Roanoke College. While Rosenthal—then recently divorced and newly queer—feared that she was heading for a “future in the supposed wilderness of Bible-thumping, Confederate-worshipping, white supremacist, gay-bashing Appalachia,” she discovered instead a “hidden queer and trans mecca” that allowed her to come into herself, define her identity, and find a supportive community of friends and loved ones.
This happy narrative is not intended to over-simplify LGBTQ+ life or erase the differences between LGBTQ+ people in Roanoke. Throughout the book, Rosenthal makes clear that white supremacy, patriarchy, and transphobia have shaped LGBTQ+ communities and divided queer people in this small city. Reckoning with, rather than ignoring, the ways inequality has defined LGBTQ+ spaces, past and present, is key to her vision of queer public history. “There is no unified public memory in Roanoke, just as there is no unified LGBTQ community,” Rosenthal writes.
While the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project has only existed since 2015, Roanoke’s queer history is not new. In Living Queer History, Rosenthal traces Roanoke’s reputation as the “sin city” of Southwest Virginia, beginning in the late nineteenth century, when the creation of a railroad junction there attracted thousands of migrant workers. This predominantly male population created a bawdy homosocial culture and attracted a new professional class of sex workers to the city’s racially segregated saloons and brothels. In the early twentieth century, despite reformers’ demands that local leaders crack down on the city’s illicit sexual cultures, police records reveal that practices of prostitution, pornography, and sodomy continued unabated in the city. Still, it was not until after World War II that three Lebanese-American brothers opened the first gay bar in Southwest Virginia: the Trade Winds. During this same period, gay cruising areas emerged in a downtown park and Greyhound bus station and the surrounding neighborhood, known as the Old Southwest, soon developed a reputation for “socially unacceptable behavior.”
By the 1970s this fledgling gay culture had grown to include a number of gay bars and discos as well as gay rights groups. These liberation era spaces and organizations catered predominantly to cisgender, white gay men. White lesbians developed their own separate organizations and events, while Black gay men and women favored a different set of bars that were not explicitly gay. At the same time, a distinct queer population of Black trans sex workers were taking space and holding business in the city’s historic Market Square. As these visible queer communities emerged, the police department’s vice squad began to entrap gay men and trans people for engaging in public sex, and urban planners began an effort to “reclaim” the city center for straight white families in anticipation of Roanoke’s 1984 centennial. The HIV/AIDS epidemic only exacerbated the city’s crackdown on queer life. By the end of the 1980s, the queer spaces in the city that had once been most visible—the red-light district of Market Square and the Old Southwest gay neighborhood—had been remade, in part through their designation as historic landmarks, which enabled city leaders to both monitor them more closely and push queer people out.
Rosenthal helped to launch the collaborative, community-based Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project with an understanding of the ways historic preservation efforts have been used to erase queer histories and displace queer people. The organization does not merely aim to document the past, but to make queer life more livable in Roanoke today and in the future. With this goal in mind, the project’s members have hosted a range of community-building historical events including a recurring #MakeRoanokeQueerAgain Bar Crawl that includes a tour and discussion of the city’s historic gay bars. The bar crawl, Rosenthal argues, challenges the erasure of LGBTQ+ history from the city’s contemporary landscape by making these historic gay spaces—some of which have been entirely destroyed by urban development, while others have now become straight bars—queer again. Other events have included “story circles” which bring together LGBTQ+ elders to share memories and talk about their lives, and “gay reenactments” of historical events such as a 1983 lesbian frisbee tournament, and a 1978 roller-skating party organized by an early gay rights group. Through these activities, the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project aims to make queer history, in Rosenthal’s words “a living practice.”
Throughout the book, Rosenthal is refreshingly and painfully honest about the problems the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project has encountered and the ways in which the group has fallen short of its goals. Despite the Project’s emphasis on democratic decision making (they work by consensus and have no board or elected leaders) Rosenthal has played a dominant role because of because of the resources and privileges she has as a professor. The group has also long been white-dominated. Early on, the Project’s members were inattentive to racism and racial differences within Roanoke’s queer history and failed to recognize the significance of Black LGBTQ history in particular. Since then, the Project has struggled to incorporate the voices and experiences of Black LGBTQ people without tokenizing or taking advantage of the time and energy of the few Black members involved and without reproducing narratives that associate Black queerness with crime and violence.
Bringing together multiple generations of queer people has created different challenges. The project has brought to the fore historical struggles over the category “lesbian,” and Rosenthal has wrestled with how to make space for bisexual, queer, trans, nonbinary, and pansexual people in doing lesbian herstory today. In contrast to those who have mourned the supposed disappearance of the category “lesbian,” Rosenthal observes that while “one formation of historical lesbianism is on its way out…newer forms, utilizing new terms and concepts, are alive and well.”
Tracing transgender history in Roanoke has brought to the fore similar issues, revealing generational divides over the word “queer,” differences of opinion over the ethics of drag performance, and discomfort with the role of sex work in Roanoke’s trans history. Rosenthal has also struggled with how to negotiate differences between communities of cross-dressers, drag queens, and explicitly trans-identified people in the past and present. She asks: “Can we see transgender history as a shared narrative, as something that binds us together? Or is ‘trans’ simply a porous contained, a leaky vessel unable to hold such wildly disparate lives?” Ultimately, she defines trans history in a capacious way, and holds out hope that it can reveal connections and overlaps between these groups of people.
In addressing these complex issues, Rosenthal resists the reader’s desire for easy answers or simple steps to take in preserving local LGBTQ+ histories. The book is hardly a “how-to” manual, but it provides an inspirational example of the tangible differences LGBTQ+ public history projects can make in the lives of queer community members across multiple generations. Living Queer History provides a model of how we can collectively make the past usable—not for academic institutions or urban developers—but for queer people today and in the future.
Although the Austin LGBTQ+ Oral History Project is only in its early stages, already we have encountered issues that echo those of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project. While we have conducted interviews with a racially and ethnically diverse group of LGBTQ+ folks, white voices still dominate. In our interviews and meetings, divisions between LGBTQ+ generations and demographic groups have emerged, revealing long-lasting wounds within and between LGBTQ+ communities in Austin. Using UT’s resources to support this project, while ensuring that it serves the broader LGBTQ+ community in the city is also an ongoing challenge.
Despite these struggles, building a usable queer past, one that addresses the needs of LGBTQ+ people today feels urgent. As Austin’s population continues to grow and gentrification changes the city’s character, spaces of significance to LGBTQ+ history, like those on Fourth Street, are already being erased. Meanwhile, Republican state leaders have made clear their opposition to LGBTQ+ people, and waged an unrelenting attack on the state’s trans youth, in particular. It’s my hope that in preserving LGBTQ+ histories and teaching students about this past, we can find ways to sustain and celebrate queer life in the city today and for the future. Let’s keep Austin queer!
Lauren Jae Gutterman (she/her) is Associate Professor of American Studies, History and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also a member of the LGBTQ Studies Advisory Council.