City examines its attitudes after shooting at gay bar

Sunday, October 1st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ROANOKE, Va. – John Collins is lying in a hospital bed thinking about the bullet that tore through the front of his stomach, ripped through his colon and shot out his hip. He is thinking about his dead friend, Danny Overstreet, whose last grasp was around Mr. Collins' legs after a gunman shot seven people in a gay bar Sept 22.

He is also thinking about his job at Berglund Chevy.

"I feel like now I have no job," he said. "It's going to be extremely difficult to work with the same guys who just last week were saying, 'Look at this hot girl and that one.' I was living a lie. I know what they think about gay people. But I had to put food on the table."

Mr. Collins and other residents of this southwestern Virginia city say they are struggling to remake their lives and their community after a man with a history of mental problems named Ronald Gay came to town and told a witness that he wanted to "waste some faggots" minutes before gunfire erupted in the Backstreet Cafe.

Police arrested Mr. Gay several blocks away and say that he said he shot patrons in what he called a "fag bar" because of his anger at a life of snickers about his last name.

Mr. Gay's brother said schizophrenia and rage at marital problems and a land dispute caused him to "snap." But no matter what sparked the shooting, the effect is being felt in this gritty former railroad town that sees itself as the "capital of the Blue Ridge."

"Southerners have pride regardless of our sexual orientation, and we don't want things like this happening," said the Rev. Catherine Houchins, pastor of the largely gay and lesbian Metropolitan Community Church.

She has led vigils mourning Mr. Overstreet's death with hundreds of participants and one oft-repeated message: "We are not going back in the closet. We are not going to walk around in fear."

For Mr. Collins, that's easier said than done.

"I'm struggling now with the idea of what I'll have to face when I go back to work," he said. "No one knew my personal business. It's a whole new circumstance on top of losing one of my best friends."

At Berglund Chevy, where Mr. Collins works in shipping and receiving, employees acknowledged some soul-searching after the shooting but said their opinion of Collins won't change.

"If you can come here and do your job, I don't care if you're black, white, pink, gay or straight," said owner Bruce Farrell, who called Mr. Collins a "good, dependable, loyal employee."

Still, Mr. Collins' whole world was shaken by the shooting.

"When I went over there, I might have been a little bouncy, for lack of a better word," Mr. Collins said about that night at the Backstreet. He had given Mr. Overstreet a hug, which might have set off the shooter. "I guess if that guy was trying to kill a queer, he found one in me," Mr. Collins said.

He now has a colostomy bag hanging from his side, and it will be months before he knows whether his colon will function again.

Freeda Cathcart, president of the Roanoke chapter of the National Organization for Women, said the city is experiencing something of a "culture clash" because of the shooting.

"You feel like you are in a small town, but ... here in the hills of Southwest Virginia, we really are a diverse community, and there is some backlash," she said.

Police say the men and women who were swaying to the rock and country tunes when gunfire sounded at Backstreet have proved to be unusually cooperative witnesses.

When Roanoke has seen bar violence before, including a shooting in a straight bar in recent years, "we just have a lot of people who say, 'I didn't see anything,' or 'I wasn't there,'" said Lt. William L. Althoff, head of the Roanoke Police Department's criminal investigations unit.

"That just wasn't the case here," Lt. Althoff said. "Here are some folks who may have some concerns in the society about labeling – 'Oh my God, what if people know I was there?' – but most of them have been willing to assist the police with prosecuting this man."

Just 24 hours after the shooting at Backstreet, about 300 people poured into the area's other gay bar, a 22-year-old, lavender-fronted establishment down the street from Backstreet called The Park. At midnight, they turned off the tunes and held a moment of silence.

"As flamboyant as Danny was, he went out with a bang, damn it," said Larry Smith, who knew Danny Overstreet since 1981. "All of us have to unite and do some good out of this. ... It's going to do nothing but make us stronger, I tell you that."

Though such defiance has been common in the days since the shooting, so too has another, more fearful vein.

"It could have been us," said the office manager at The Park, who requested anonymity. He said the club had just half of its regular Saturday clientele, which is usually split about 60 percent gay and 40 percent straight. The club requires that patrons hand over their IDs before they are buzzed through a security door.

"Everybody's concerned," said the club's owner, who also asked not to be identified. "There's very little you can do about it but think about how lucky we've been all these years."

Concern about the reduced sense of security has spilled beyond Roanoke's gay community. Ann Sheehan is a married mother of two and says she is concerned both about her gay friends and her city.

"On an intellectual level, you can say it's just one crazy lone gunman who had a tough life. But on another level, the safe places people created for themselves don't feel as safe anymore. It's going to take time to find those safe places again," she said. "We're in the Bible Belt. There are plenty of people who think God hates fags and they might be better off dead."

Ms. Sheehan said she fears Roanoke might be turned into some kind of "ground zero" for fringe Christian activists like the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., who said he planned to picket Mr. Overstreet's funeral just as his group did in 1998 after the kidnapping and death of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

Phillip Whitaker has been pastor at Roanoke's small Brambleton Baptist Church for 22 years. He said he agrees with Mr. Phelps' goals but said Mr. Overstreet's funeral is the "wrong venue" for protest.

The common theme throughout Roanoke is a turn inward. Beth Sample, the secretary at Mr. Collins' Chevy dealership, has lived in the city on and off for nearly 50 years. She said she is relieved that Mr. Gay, who had been living in the Roanoke area for about a year and is now charged with first-degree murder, is not a local.

"I'm glad he's not from Roanoke. I don't think we're that prejudiced," she said.

Then she whispered, "God, I hope not."