Thirteen minutes. That’s the amount of time that passed between the moment police arrived to take a report from a bar employee in Roanoke, VA, who called 911 — after a man asked for directions to a gay bar, flashed his gun, and said he was “wasting faggots” that night — and the the moment when the shooting at the Backstreet Cafe was called in to police. When Ronald Gay stopped to ask an employee at the Corned Bee & Co. Bar for directions to a gay bar, flashed his gun, and declared his intentions, it was between 11:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Police arrived at Corned Bee & Co by 11:39 p.m., and by 11:46 p.m.
The shooting at the Backstreet Cafe, a gay bar in downtown Roanoke, was called in to police at 11:51 p.m. By then Danny
I thought about the Roanoke bar shootings and Danny Overstreet’s death when I heard the news about Richard Jewell’s death and remembered the bombing of the Otherside Lounge in Atlanta, GA, because both reminded me of how we’re often not safe in our own community spaces, and are targets for attack simply for being in a place that’s known to “cater to homosexuals.” But the more I read, the more I was struck by what Danny Overstreet and Ronald Gay had in common.
They couldn’t have been more different, actually. By all accounts, Overstreet was a well-loved member of his family and community. At work, as an operator for Verizon, he was known for his fabulous potato salad, his pink cubicle, and his timely advice to co-workers who were due for another visit to the salon (advice they no doubt trusted because Overstreet was a trained beautician). And while he wasn’t politically active, he was unashamedly open about who he was an unabashedly flamboyant at times. He performed in drag occasionally, as a character named “Iwanna.” And he regularly visited the Backstreet Cafe, not to drink, but to visit with friends and socialize. And that’s what set him on a collision course with Ronald Gay.
They should have had little in common, the killer and his victim. Ronald Gay, according to family and friends, was a troubled and troublesome as Overstreet was warm and friendly. A five-times-maried-and-divorced Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress disorder, a drinking problem, and a penchant for violence, Ronald Gay began hearing taunts about his name in middle school, where he was called “faggot” by his classmates. Those taunts apparently followed him most of his life, even when he joined the U.S. Marines. An ex-wife said that Gay often complained about how the meaning of his name had been changed from “happy” to “homosexual” by gay activists, and some of his children were reported to have changed their names because of the same taunting that troubled their father.
When Gay was caught, he not only confessed that he was on a mission to get rid of “faggots” but that he’d stalked another gay bar in 1986, and planned to burn it down, but failed in his attempt. On September 22, with a different weapon, he was somewhat more successful.
Gay no doubt had other problems, besides PTSD he was also said to have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. But before Vietnam, alcoholism, and mental illness ahd taken their toll on him, Gay encountered homophobia. He met it in the schoolyard, and it followed him from there. No doubt sometimes it was more present in his head than anywhere else, but a real seed was planted and grew. Gay even watered it himself, with religion. He spent much of the day before the shootings reading a bible at the motor lodged he checked into, made cryptically biblical statements to those around him, and later called himself a “Christian soldier.”
By the time Ronald Gay walked into the Backstreet Cafe, bought a beer, and sat down at a table with Danny Overstreet and his friends, the gun hidden beneath his trench coat had been loaded a long time. And when Danny Overstreet stood up to give a hug to his friend, John Collins, he stepped into the line of fire.
Danny Overstreet (1957 – September 22, 2000) was a gay man from Roanoke, VA. He was shot to death on September 22, 2000, when Ronald Gay opened fire in the Backstreet Cafe after seeing John Collins and Overstreet hug one another. Earlier that evening, Gay asked for directions to a gay bar, and said he was hunting homosexuals.
Overstreet, 43, was born near Roanoke, in Bedford, VA, and later moved to Bridgeton, NJ, where he graduated from high school. After graduation, he worked in the casinos in Atlantic City, NJ.1) As a adult, he worked as a customer service representative for Verizon, in Roanoke.2)
Overstreet occupied a pink cubicle at work, where he was known for his potato salad and – as a trained beautician – for advising his coworkers when it was time to visit the salon. Outside of work, regularly permed his mother’s hair, and occasionally performed in drag, as a character named “Iwanna.”3) Overstreet went to the Backstreet Cafe regularly, not to drink but to socialize. On the evening of September 22, 2000, Overstreet went to the Backstreet Cafe4)
Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Gay first experienced taunting because of his name in middle school, according to his brother. After graduating, he moved to Boston, MA, for work. In 1966 he joined the U.S. Marines, and was shipped off to vietnam. 5) Gay’s identification showed his residence as Citrus Springs, FL, but he had been in Roanoke for about a year. According to his family, Gay lived on disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder related to his experiences in Vietnam, and had been unable to get the medications he needed to keep his anxiety under control. One of his ex-wives said that Gay, who had been married and divorced five times, also had a drinking problem and always carried a gun. 6)
According to people who spent the day with him at the Jefferson Motor Lodge in downtown Roanoke, where he’d checked in on Friday night, Gay made several unusual remarks that evening, gay away several belongings, and behaved in ways that suggested he believed he would not return. At 9:30 p.m., Gay showered and left the motor lodge, giving his room key and the rest of his to an acquaintance, and saying that he was going to grab a hamburger and watch some fireworks. Gay added, “I may not be back.7)
Between 11:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. on September 22, Roland Gay, 53, asked a staffer at the Corned Beef & Co. for directions to the nearest nearest gay bar. The staffer gave him directions to the Park, which was on the same street as the Backstreet Cafe. Gay then showed the staffer his gun and said he was going to “waste some faggots.” The staffer had fellow employees call 911. The police arrived at Corned Beef & Co. at 11:39 p.m., and broadcast Gay’s description by 11:46 p.m.8)
Sometime after 11:00 p.m., Gay entered the the Backstreet Cafe, walked up to the bar and ordered a beer. He then approached the table where Overstreet and John Collins were sitting with Dalton Flowers.9) When Collins got up to leave, he and Overstreet hugged. At that point, Gay took out his gun and began shooting.10) Overstreet was shot in the chest. Collins was shot in the abdomen. Gay then turned and started firing at the rest of the patrons in the bar Iris Page Webb was shot in the neck. Susan S. Smith was shot in the right leg. Linda R. Conyers was shot in her right arm and hand. Joel I. Tucker was shot in the small of his back. Kathy S. Caldwell was shot in the left hand.
Gay then lowered the gun, turned and walked out of the bar. The shooting at the Backstreet Cafe was called in to police at 11:51 p.m.11)
Overstreet’s friends rolled him onto his side, because he was gagging on his only blood. Despite efforts to save him, Overstreet died within minutes of being shot, before police arrived.12)
Police picked Gay up two blocks from the Backstreet Cafe.13) He had already discarded the gun, tossing it in a garbage can on his way out of the bar.14) Gay told police that he tossed the gun in a trash can at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.15)
Police said Gay confessed to the shootings in a videotaped statement in which he said that he had shot people in order to get rid of “faggots.” 16) Gay told police that he was on a mission to kill homosexuals, and spoke of lifelong torment because of his name; a torment which caused some of his children to change their surnames.17)
The day after the shooting, 300 people gathered for a vigil outside of the Backstreet Cafe.18)
More than 800 packed the church for Overstreet’s funeral, and the attendees spilled out in to the parking lot. Fred Phelps, of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS, did not attend, despite previously announced plans to protest Overstreet’s funeral.19) After Overstreet’s funeral, over 1,000 joined in a candlelight march which followed the route Gay took on the night of the shootings.20)
Another memorial at Roanoke’s Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge was attended by more than 150, and the city fire marshall eventually asked that the meeting be moved outside the church.21)
Guilty Plea & Sentencing
Gay was charged with first-degree murder in Overstreet’s death. On October 2, a grand jury indicted Gay on six counts of aggravated malicious wounding – one for each shot fired in the Backstreet Cafe – and shooting into an occupied building. 22)
On May 10, 2001, gay pleaded guilty to first degree murder and malicious wounding in the shootings at the Backstreet Cafe. Gay declared that he had been on a “mission” he had contemplated since 1986, when he stalked another gay bar in Roanoke. He said he wanted to burn it down, but failed.23)
On July 23, 2001, Gay was received four consecutive life sentences for the shootings at the Backstreet Cafe.24)
Little more than a week after Gay’s sentencing, another anti-gay attack took place in Roanoke. Rev. Catherine Houchins and two congregants of Roanoke’s Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge were attacked after finishing a bible study and prayer service at the church.
At 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, August 1, 2001, Richard Justus and Armen Grigoryan were getting into a car after the service when they were approached by three men who began shouting anti-gay slurs at them. Rev. Houchins said she came running out of the church when she heard the shouting and noise from the attack. She sadi the men had thrown Grigoryan to the ground by then, and jumped Justus when he came around the car to help Grigoryan. When Houchins tried to call 911 on her cell phone, one of the men punched her in the face to stop her.
The men ran off after realizing that someone had called the police. Officers searched downtown Roanoke for 30 minutes, but did not find the attackers.25)