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Two weeks after Hershee Bar — Norfolk, Virginia's last remaining lesbian bar — closed, Old Dominion University student Kira Kindley led a small group to its doors.

The stop — part of the Tidewater Queer History Project's fall walking tour — was an especially somber one. The bar's decorations had been stripped from the walls and piled in the middle of the dance floor, waiting to be carted out. Everyone on the tour was crying.

On other walks hosted by the project, Kindley said presenters included locations, long since repurposed or demolished, that had once served as key gathering sites for Norfolk's lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans communities. The project would try to bring those locations to life, sharing information and soliciting stories about what those spaces had been like.

"I'm struck with the image of these women 20 years ago, 30 years ago, enjoying the night and each other exactly as they are now," she wrote in a passage that she later featured on her podcast. "People talk freely while the performers play. They visit with each other. They call across the bar and tease each other. And when a sweet, slow song starts playing, they get up and hold each other and dance."

But for tour members who had been to Hershee Bar, there was no need to imagine. The place had always been full of life, right up until its last night on Halloween. It was forcibly shuttered after the property owner sold the building to the city.

While visiting Hershee for her 24th birthday, a little more than a week earlier, Kindley found herself scribbling notes, and in doing so, capturing one of the final joyous gatherings to be held there. She watched a group of older lesbians gather to listen to two local performers, and teared up when the singers began a rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine."

"I'm struck with the image of these women 20 years ago, 30 years ago, enjoying the night and each other exactly as they are now," she wrote in a passage that she later featured on her podcast. "People talk freely while the performers play. They visit with each other. They call across the bar and tease each other. And when a sweet, slow song starts playing, they get up and hold each other and dance."

Since taking a course on queer history at ODU, Kindley has constantly looked for opportunities to share stories explaining what it was like to be LGBT in Norfolk back in the '70s, '80s and '90s. She's one of many students at ODU who have combed through archival writings and photos in hopes of connecting younger generations with the community's past. In doing so, she's helped create a record of the community's present-day struggles. Her podcast, Our Own, is named in honor of Our Own Community Press, a gay publication that served as the area's primary record of LGBT culture between 1976 and 1998.

According to Cathleen Rhodes, a women's studies professor who teaches queer studies at ODU, that publication is one of the only resources available to students who participate in the Tidewater Queer History Project. The project, supported jointly by the university and the community, formed in 2015 with the hope of digitizing library copies of Our Own. Since then, the project has expanded its scope, conducting oral histories with local residents and creating walking tours like the one Kindley led in November.

Rhodes has spent the majority of her life living near Norfolk. She started the Tidewater Queer History Project because she wanted to help students, and herself, connect with previous generations of LGBT people.

"It was just really important to me to see what queer lives had been like before," Rhodes said. "In our birth families we get things passed along by word of mouth, or documents or objects get left to us by families if we're lucky, but we don't really get that in terms of sexuality or gender identity or gender presentation, even."

The same year that Rhodes started the Tidewater Queer History Project, another professor 300 miles away from Norfolk launched a similar effort.

Gregory Rosenthal, a nonbinary history professor at Roanoke College, led an LGBT history tour in New York while receiving their doctorate in history from Stony Brook University. However, they did not become interested in documenting LGBT history until they left the Empire State. Just a year after coming out, they accepted a job at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and began reaching out to local LGBT organizations to learn more about available community resources. The Roanoke Diversity Center soon invited them to host a talk where residents could brainstorm potential subjects for a community history project. From that meeting, the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project was born.

"When I was moving here from New York, I had these stereotypes — as any New Yorker would who had never been to the South — of it's going to be hard to be an LGBT person here. I feel more happy as an LGBT person here than I did in New York."

The Southwest Virginia project now offers monthly walking tours, online archival exhibitions and an extensive collection of oral histories. Audio of those interviews is available online; they have also been preserved, along with transcriptions, in the Virginia Room — a collection of historical and genealogical resources housed at the downtown Roanoke Public Library.

"When I was moving here from New York, I had these stereotypes — as any New Yorker would who had never been to the South — of it's going to be hard to be an LGBT person here. I feel more happy as an LGBT person here than I did in New York," Rosenthal said. "The history has revealed to me that Roanoke has long been, at least for the last 50 years, this kind of magnet for trans people, gay people, within a whole three hour radius."

In recent years, Rosenthal said a number of universities and communities, both in Virginia and outside of it, have created projects that aim to preserve LGBT history for future generations. At William and Mary in Williamsburg, the LGBTIQ Research Project works to chronicle stories across the state. Elsewhere, in Birmingham, the non-profit Invisible Histories Project is preserving records of LGBT people in Alabama and beyond. Invisible Histories plans to hold its first Queer History South conference in March, which will bring together public historians, researchers, activists and others who are documenting LGBT history in multiple southern states.

While archival LGBT projects aren't new, Rosenthal said they have normally focused on big cities, like New York, San Francisco and Chicago. But now, smaller cities and more rural communities, especially in the South, are starting to unearth their own stories. Rosenthal said researchers at universities, too, are beginning to catch up.  

"Back in the '70s, it was the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York, the GLBT [Historical] Society in San Francisco, those are some of the earliest projects that were around," Rosenthal said. "LGBT history has always kind of been pushed by the community, by the grassroots. Academia is catching on."

"Danny is Gay," photo courtesy of Kira Kindley.

In addition to preserving the work of previous generations, LGBT history projects provide students and residents with the chance to connect with community members who can provide first-hand accounts of earlier decades. The projects can also fill the gaps left behind by community divisions and prejudices. In both Norfolk and Roanoke, LGBT community leaders created publications largely centered on the lives of white gay men and sometimes white lesbians, to the exclusion of people of color, bisexuals and transgender people.

Rosenthal said the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project has taken some steps toward filling in that missing knowledge, including launching the Queer/Trans People of Color (QTPOC) Project, an initiative funded by a Southern Equality Fund grant that began in late 2017. Students chosen to participate in the project produced some of the oral histories now preserved in the Virginia Room. Most of those interviews focused on Black gay men, Black drag queens and Black trans sex workers.

Ashleigh Griffin, a Black nonbinary Virginia Tech student who served as a member of the QTPOC project, said their interview with drag queen Miss Grace Kelly allowed them to learn about what it was like to live as an LGBT person during an era when more people were emboldened to engage in active displays of prejudice. They especially empathized with one story relayed by Kelly, in which the performer threw a cinder block at a vehicle full of "rednecks" who shouted a homophobic slur at her and hurled a full beer can at her back.

"I did what I had to do," Kelly told Griffin during the interview. "When they came back around there was a car in front of them and a car behind them, so they couldn't go nowhere. So I go behind the building and I got a big huge cinder block and honey, I came around that corner and stepped out with that cinder block, threw it over my head. I had threw it so hard that the windshield fell in their lap. And I had to go to court for that, too."

"It says 'Danny is gay,' not a faggot or queer or any of those other words that our oppressors would use," Ellis wrote. "Of course I must mention that my whole attitude about labels or names have changed, and I find faggot, sissy, queer and fairy just as dear as gay, and probably even more so, as I have removed my hate feelings from those words. Danny is gay. What a lovely thought."

Griffin said one of the project's biggest goals was to find LGBT people of color who were not only willing to provide an account of their lives, but who could recruit other community members to share their stories.  At the end of the project, the team hosted an event at the Roanoke Diversity Center where participants came and answered questions about their experiences.

"We just got to ask them questions, and they got to talk about their lives — what it was like to be [a] … queer Black person at that time [in Roanoke], but also now," Griffin said.

Curating interviews with willing participants who live locally is crucial, Kindley said, especially since many of the contributors to Our Own and other Southern LGBT publications are no longer alive.

"The queer community is missing a lot of its elders because so many people were taken from us by AIDS and by the systematic neglect that LGBT people have experienced for decades," she said.

But even when first-person interviews can't be conducted, Kindley said that younger members of the LGBT community can still connect with the generations that came before them — if not through their writing, then through the reminders they left in the landscape itself.

In the first episode of her podcast, Kindley reads an Our Own essay written by Jayr Ellis. The essay discusses a sentence, "Danny is gay," that was etched into a slab of concrete sometime in the 1970s near a Norfolk 7-Eleven. Ellis, who at first took the sentence as a relic of juvenile bullying, instead turned it into an affirmation, a symbol for the eternal presence of LGBT people in every community.

"It says 'Danny is gay,' not a faggot or queer or any of those other words that our oppressors would use," Ellis wrote. "Of course I must mention that my whole attitude about labels or names have changed, and I find faggot, sissy, queer and fairy just as dear as gay, and probably even more so, as I have removed my hate feelings from those words. Danny is gay. What a lovely thought."

When Kindley found the essay, she immediately got her car and began hunting for the right convenience store. She was sure the writing would have been covered up or paved over in the intervening years, but there it was, for all to read. And since releasing the episode discussing the piece, a listener has driven out to the site and chalked over the etching in bisexual pride colors — another layer of community interaction after so many years.

"Thirty-nine years later, Danny is still gay," Kindley says in the podcast, recalling the emotional moment when she found the markings. "You can still see it, you can still touch it, and you should."

Tiffany Stevens

Tiffany Stevens is an independent journalist based in Southwest Virginia. Their work focuses on the media, the LGBT community, and the triumphs and challenges facing Appalachian and Southern residents.