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Exploring Roanoke’s Queer Past

Posted By Haleigh Ardolino, Roanoke College Class of 2019, Wednesday, November 9, 2016

VAM will present the Downtown Roanoke LGBTQ History Walking Tour as part of our 2017 Annual Conference in Roanoke in March, 2017.


How well does history relate to the present? The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project was founded over a year ago and is continually researching the history of LGBTQ+ individuals and organizations in Southwest Virginia. Our mission is to gather and understand the struggles the LBGTQ+ community has faced over time. The project has gotten a lot of support from the community, which has allowed us to build an archive, develop an online exhibition, and in September 2016 we launched a walking tour. VAM conference participants will have the opportunity to take that tour this coming March.


Since September, the History Project gives a monthly tour to reveal how the LBGTQ+ community has been oppressed through Roanoke’s past and even into the present. Our goal is to reach out to the community to share these struggles.


The tour is based on three types of research: published records, which share the community’s stories; unpublished material donated to our archive; and oral history interviews. The project has conducted nineteen interviews with members of the LBGTQ+ community as of October 2016.

Personally, I took the tour led by Rachel Barton, a volunteer with the History Project, on October 23. On this tour I learned who the LBGTQ+ community really is. The answer is: kind friendly people. To elaborate, one part of the tour featured an oral history interview with Daniel Jones in 2016 in which he recalled a little tidbit about the second oldest gay bar in Roanoke’s history, The Last Straw. He stated,


“You knew the people who ran the place, who worked there, and they were always friendly. It was very much a home bar. You went there and you knew a lot of people, and it was comfortable, and you could just go there and relax.”


I got the feeling that being gay is just a label, and those who are afraid to accept it are unaware of what it means to be an outsider. I hope that anyone who takes this tour leaves with a reflection of themselves. and a better understanding of their own relationships to the LGBTQ+ community.


So in the end, the fight for equality and acceptance begins with history itself. To support LBGTQ+ issues today, we need to first expose ourselves to queer history, and to share this history. Regardless of whether or not you love history, history is ours. It is what binds us together. We all have a say in our history. It shapes how we communicate with the past, present, and the future. If we do not grasp the need to understand it, history will be forgotten and therefore our future will also be impaired. History is not just your individual history, i.e. gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or even your country’s history. We are all connected, and history shapes who we are. And this is why it should be of the utmost importance to learn about other cultures and other people’s histories because it is our combined history.


For more information about the Downtown Roanoke LGBTQ History Walking Tour, the tour operates rain or shine once every month, and it’s free, just RSVP. Feel free to check out our website at Or like us on Facebook.


Haleigh Ardolino is a member of the Roanoke College Class of 2019, and a work-study research assistant as part of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project.

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Tags:  Annual conference  History  LGBTQ  Pride  Roanoke  Roanoke College  VAM  Walking Tour 

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