Roanoke’s LGBTQ+ women’s history being documented, shared thanks to history project

Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 5:42 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - This Women’s History Month, we’re sharing the stories of women across our hometowns and the ordinary and extraordinary ways they influenced their communities. That includes women of the valley’s LGBTQ+ community.

There’s been a new, concerted effort to preserve their stories and document this rich history.

“We’re going to cross the street- safely!” said Alice Svetic, as they crossed Salem Avenue away from the City Market Building, toward the railroad.

Svetic is recreating the walking tour she would have hosted just a few days prior, has snow not canceled the planned walk.

“It used to be The Last Straw which opened in 1973 and it was the second gay bar in Roanoke’s history,” they said, pointing to a brick building now housing a church.

On this sunny spring day, Svetic shares stories of the LGBTQ+ women and the spaces they’ve claimed throughout the City.

“It just gives you, like, this immediacy to what used to be there and what is now there,” Avetic said.

Once relegated to memory only, a local initiative is sharing these stories in a broader way, showing community and resilience throughout Roanoke’s history.

“And so I feel like that’s a story that has never been told, but needs to be,” said Dr. G. Samantha Rosenthal from her office.

Rosenthal is a history professor at Roanoke College. She’s the author of Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City.

It is both a collective and deeply personal story.

“Many people felt like this is not a community with a history,” Rosenthal said. “And so it’s about showing that, no, LGBTQ people have been here for a long time. And we can use all of these tools to document that story.”

These tools include oral histories, photos, articles, documents and pieces of queer life over decades.

They are collected through the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, cofounded by Rosenthal in 2015.

“The first gay bar we know of opened in the early 1950s,” said Rosenthal, gesturing to a sign with the history on the office wall across from her.

The history project has documented a timeline of queer community and organizing - starting with the Trade Winds Club, which sat on the corner Elm Avenue and Franklin Road.

“There were gay guidebooks back in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, before the internet, and they’d be published in New York or San Francisco and list gay places around the country that you could go to,” Rosenthal explained. “And the Trade Winds was listed in there from the very beginning. So Roanoke was on the map of national LGBT knowledge.”

But many of Roanoke’s earliest gay spaces catered mostly to men. For women, safe spaces were mostly underground.

“And it really wasn’t until 1980, that the first lesbian organization was founded here, called First Friday,” said Rosenthal. “And they were legendary!”

“I think our legacy is just the importance of community.”

Kathryn L. Beranich is a filmmaker who used her own experience as a First Friday member as the focus for her documentary.

She used skills she picked up on the job as WDBJ7′s first female photographer and director.

“I knew that I had to be 150% I couldn’t just be just as good as the guys,” she recalled. “I had to really stand out big because women weren’t doing it at the time, you know.”

First Friday was a group in which Beranich could relax, make friends and find community.

They were best known for summer retreats, drawing women from around the region for community and fun.

“It was wonderful until they found out that we were lesbians and they would tell us we couldn’t come back. So no, we didn’t let that stop us. We would just find another place. And we did that for more than 10 years,” she said. “...It’s certainly changed my life and the lives of many of the women who are involved. It’s so important to be there for each other.”

Her photos, stories and documents are part of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ history project’s archives, much of which is housed in the Virginia Room through the Roanoke Library system.

“They recognize the value of our contributions to the community as a whole and to our community in particular,” Beranich said. “And it just, it tickles me!”

Svetic wraps up a tour of downtown Roanoke’s historically queer spots at Elmwood Park.

“We’re standing kind of at a point of intersection for a lot of different things,” they explained.

Those contributions are now shared through historical walking tours led by volunteers like Svetic who retraces the steps of women who came before, paving a clearer way for those to come.

“It’s actually a very powerful experience to encounter that history and realize, you know what, southwest Virginia has a place for someone like me,” said Rosenthal.

Beranich’s documentary, The Unlikely Story of the Lesbians of First Friday, will be shown in Roanoke at the Grandin Theatre April 6.