Roanoke's First Pride Festival

Roanoke Pride is twenty-five years old this year.  I have been reminiscing lately about the first Pride Festival in Roanoke. This takes us all the way back to 1989.

What I remember first is the church, MCC of the Blue Ridge, being just a few years old and Roanoke's LGBT community was being devastated by the AIDS epidemic. We, as gays and lesbians, felt the whole world was against us (which it pretty much was) and it was a time I was no stranger to marches on Washington, DC, carrying a sign in one hand, shaking a fist with the other. Groups like "Act Up" were doing all kinds of public demonstrations interrupting plays, operas and whatever else they could interrupt in order to raise AIDS awareness which it seemed no one in the straight community had any interest at all in talking about, except for our then few straight allies which included my mother.

My best friend I had in all the world had died just a couple months before Roanoke's first "Gay Pride" as we called it then. I was also living with my grandmother who was dying with cancer so with her illness and the death of my best friend from AIDS, I was a very upset and angry 26 year old.  

I had been to a couple of Gay Pride events in Washington, DC and to me at that time, it seemed Gay Pride was just an excuse to bring the LGBT community out into the open for one day, put on a big, outlandish show then go back into hiding the next day. Little did I know Roanoke would ever have such an event and if we did, I felt the city would then do something to make sure we didn't have another one.

The LGBT community and the Roanoke City Police Dept. were at extreme odds with each other. You could even say gay people hated the police, I know I did.  This dislike was not unfounded. The Police Dept. in Roanoke were constantly sending undercover officers to mall bathrooms, parks or wherever else they felt gays would cruise and these officers would actively "come on" to anyone they suspected for being gay and when the suspect made a move towards them, the officer would arrest them. Most of these cases were published in the Roanoke Times revealing the name of the person arrested thus pretty much destroying their life. True, they shouldn't have been cruising bathrooms or parks, but the police only arrested gays and if they found straight people making out in a park, they would merely tell them to leave. It was just a gay witch hunt and we were powerless to do anything about it.

Because of these tactics by the police, Roanoke City and the Roanoke Police Dept. were considered our enemy. We even had a code name for the police calling them "Miss Alice". So whenever we saw the police coming, we would say "Oh here comes Miss Alice! Straighten up or else she will get lovely with you."  At times an undercover officer would try to infiltrate The Park (Roanoke's gay night club for anyone who may be reading this not from Roanoke) but this basically turned out to be futile because word would travel fast throughout the bar this person or that person was "Alice" so beware. We sent a few pissed off undercover cops packing out of the bar in those days. They would realize their cover was blown and they would go skulking off as we all laughed and gloated over our short-lived victory.

When word first hit us Roanoke was going to have a Gay Pride Day, I remember my first reaction being a sarcastic "Really?" I even remember telling some people at MCC, "Well I hope they have plenty of room in the jail because every damn one of us might get arrested." I even asked my mother if she thought we'd all get arrested and she said something like, "Well if we get arrested, there will be a mother and son locked up with every queer and drag queen in Roanoke."  

When the time came, we all gathered in Wasena Park to have our Gay Pride Day. It wasn't a very big affair though we were stunned as to how many did attend. It wasn't even considered a festival back in those days. I don't recall having sales vendors at the first Gay Pride but I remember a lot of simple folding tables set up with literature about AIDS awareness, safe sex awareness and political pamphlets. Of course there were free condoms galore. There was a small stage set up and I remember a few drag queens performing and we had a key-note speaker.

MCC had a small church service and I remember singing to a playback on cassette tape from a boom box set up on a table. I think I sang something like "Love In Any Language" because it was a popular Christian song at the time. I sang a lot of Sandi Patty back then, not because I especially like Sandi Patty but her stuff was in my key. This was long before I started producing my own tracks to sing with so I had to basically sing what I could get. Most of the time I was accompanied by a pianist but we didn't have a portable keyboard so I was relegated to the playback on the old boom box.

To our surprise and relief, we didn't get arrested and we felt like our small Gay Pride Day was a success and considering the climate against the LGBT community in those days, it was a success. It was a pretty short Gay Pride Day. I think it may have been just a few hours on a Sunday afternoon starting around noon and ending about five. Of course The Park had a big party that night.

Looking back, those times seems so simple and even our concerns and what we concerned ourselves with seem laughable considering how things have changed.