Last update:
April 7th
2001

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The Vigil

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Danny Overstreet Danny Lee Overstreet

1957 - 2000


"Don't grieve like those with no hope"

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the vigilA week after uniting in celebration for the annual "Pride in the Park" festival, gays and their supporters in Roanoke, Va., find themselves uniting again, this time in mourning and outrage after a lone gunman opened fire in a gay bar, killing one and injuring six others.

Candles flickered along Roanoke's Salem Avenue on Saturday night as more than 300 people gathered to express their grief -- and their determination to fight the hate that killed Danny Lee Overstreet.

"I'm not going back. I didn't come to Roanoke to hide in the closet," said the Rev. Catherine Houchins, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge, a congregation with a large gay and lesbian membership. She urged the people in the tearful crowd: "Don't grieve like those with no hope."

The shootings in a Roanoke gay bar prompted waves of outrage among gays and lesbians and others across the nation.

People began arriving at 7 p.m. -- some striding up alone, some in small groups, others in a contingent of 15, who walked from Highland Park in Old Southwest accompanied by the rhythm of mournful drumming.

By 9 p.m., the crowd spilled onto Salem Avenue, forcing Roanoke Police to cordon off the block. Organizers began the formal ceremony by asking anyone who didn't want to be photographed by the news media to step to the back of the crowd.

It was an indication that many gays and lesbians still hesitate to acknowledge their sexual orientation -- for fear of how their families, their employees and strangers will react.

But few people stepped back. Instead, many stepped forward, held hands and sang spirituals.

The scene provided a hopeful ending to a day full of painful emotions and questions.

Saturday morning at Hale's Exxon at the Plantation Road exit of Interstate 81, manager Tom Hale and his customers talked about the shootings. Most people were saddened, he said, but at least one person expressed support for Ronald Edward Gay, charged with first-degree murder: "It's a shame he didn't have more bullets."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Hale told him. "We all have a right to live. Nobody in that bar was causing any of us harm last night."

in prayerAll day long, people came to mourn at Backstreet Café.

Nancy Dancy, 43, wanted to come to the bar Friday night, but her friend Gayle Beverly, 57, preferred to watch the Olympics. So the two stayed away, and now they feel as violated as if they'd been there.

Dancy said gays and lesbians "don't hurt anybody. We don't press ourselves on anybody. We just want a place where we can go and feel comfortable and not be harassed or chastised or put down."

Sam Garrison, a Roanoke lawyer and gay activist, said Friday's shootings should prod legislators to add sexual orientation to Virginia's hate crimes statute. National activists said the shootings offer more proof that stronger federal laws are also needed.

More than 300 people turned out for a candlelight vigil in Roanoke on Saturday night to protest the shootings. "When Ronald Gay opened fire at the patrons of the bar, he was clearly trying to send a message that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people are not entitled to the same rights as other people," Dan Hawes, of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, told the crowd. "But you are sending a much stronger message here tonight. The community will not be victims in downtown Roanoke, and we will stand together until Roanoke is a hate-free community." At a press conference on Saturday, Roanoke mayor Ralph Smith and city manager Darlene Burcham denounced the attack. "We do not want this to reflect upon our community at all," Burcham said. The sodomy convictions of ten men caught cruising in a Roanoke local park in 1998 are currently being appealed.

The crowd Sunday night came to grieve, share information, vent anger -- and talk about how to stop the hatred and violence that left one dead and six wounded this weekend in Roanoke at a bar frequented by gays and lesbians.

It was the second night in a row that gays, lesbians and heterosexuals gathered in large numbers to talk about Friday night's shootings. More than 150 people tried to cram into a Kirk Avenue church with a capacity of a few dozen people. Twenty minutes into the community forum, the word came that the city fire marshal had asked the meeting be moved outside Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge.

loveOverfilling a venue is "a good problem to have," Dan Hawes, an organizer with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, told the crowd as it reconvened in the street in front of the church. He said it was a sign that people are ready to come together and fight for change.

And he said it's not just happening in Roanoke.

"This is starting to bust out all over the country," Hawes said.

Sunday in San Francisco, the gay pride rainbow flag that flies over the Castro district was lowered to half staff in memory of Danny Lee Overstreet, who died in the Roanoke shootings that police say were motivated by anti-gay feelings. Hawes said people across the nation are prepared to hold vigils to coincide with a large ceremony being planned for Thursday night in Roanoke.

Mourners overflowed from the Oakey's Vinton Chapel, about 800 people in all. Once the chapel was full, the remaining 300 people stood outside in the warm sunset.

Inside the chapel, tears flowed as Misty Overstreet said the eulogy for the man she said was like her older brother and great friend.

"He was taken before his time in a way no man or woman should have been," she said. "Danny was there for all of us, and he still is there for all of us."

Men hugged men. Women hugged women. Men hugged women. Many wore white ribbons, which have come to symbolize innocence.

The Rev. Catherine Houchins, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge, which has a large gay and lesbian membership, presided over the service.

"What's happened in the city of Roanoke is horrible. What's happened to you and your life because you knew Danny is horrible," Houchins said during the service. "But we have to block the hate of the world with love."

a wall of mournersThe shock of the slaying is being felt all around Roanoke, some said.

"It's the non-gay community, too, that's grieving," said Richard Ward, who stood as part of the Hate Free Roanoke Task Force. "It's not just one orientation; it's all orientations."

Many who never heard Overstreet's name before it became national news attended the funeral.

Donald Hitchcock with the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., was on hand for the week, helping people understand the crime and keeping people focused on the message of ending them.

As the mourners were preparing to leave the service, Bishop Anthony Hash of Christ the Good Shepherd American Catholic Church called on the approximately 300 people who remained outside to join in a circle for prayer.

"Lord, we thank you for the courage to stand up as people against hate," he said, while beseeching God to heal those injured physically and psychologically by the shooting.

The crowd spontaneously burst into song afterward, singing the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome." Smaller circles of mourners hugged, cried and continued to sing the hymn "We Are Standing on Holy Ground," and John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."

Talk of Overstreet and his exuberance continued throughout the songs and chants.

Ann Hines, who knew Overstreet for more than 20 years, was in the crowd.

"He had a laugh you couldn't forget. A smile as big as the outdoors. I've never seen him angry," she said.

"I know one thing -- he's smiling right now."

New Yorker and actor Paul Lucas has a personal reason to try to organize a vigil soon. He was "Jinx" in the play "Forever Plaid," performed at Mill Mountain Theatre in 1995. Lucas said he and fellow cast members went to Backstreet Cafe often while in Roanoke.

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Credits:

Photos by Roanoke Times.

Several reports contributed to this memorial, from:

The Advocate (c)2000 Liberation Publications Inc. - Southern Voice Online - Associated Press - The Roanoke Times - Roanoke7, Inc.

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We have to block the hate of the world with love

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