Ask most people what Virginia is known for, and 9 out 10 will say History. The majority of that history is colonial, revolutionary and civil war. During the past few decades, more Virginians have become interested in mining and sharing stories from their own distinct people, heritage and current culture: Indigenous / Virginia Indians, Black / African Americans, Hispanic / LatinX Americans, Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans and LGBTQAI+.
Meet G. Samantha Rosenthal, Ph.D (she/they), Virginia educator, historian and author. Samantha’s interest in LGBTQ+ and Virginia Queer history has been her passion and a driving force with her work. We asked Samantha to share a bit about her life and the importance of sharing LBTQ+ stories and history with others.
Will you share a little bit about yourself, where you grew up and what experiences led you to focus on the work you do?
I spent my childhood in upstate New York, raised in an upper-middle-class white Jewish-American family. History was not of particular interest to me as a young person, and neither was queerness. As I write in my book Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City we had a family member die of AIDS in 1989, but this story was hidden from me for most of my life. It was only in 2014, when my marriage fell apart and I came out at the age of 31, that I learned about him. This makes me think about how LGBTQ history has touched all of our lives, but often we are ashamed or evasive about sharing these stories. I moved to Southwest Virginia in 2015 and immediately began working with local communities here to document, preserve, and interpret LGBTQ histories because I know that this is important work in my own transition as a queer and transgender woman newly relocated to this area. Of course, now I have been here for seven years, and Roanoke, Virginia is most definitely my home.
The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project is centered on important and interesting work. Please share more about the organization’s efforts and your work with the Roanoke Public Libraries?
The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project began in September 2015 at a meeting at the Roanoke Diversity Center, our region’s LGBTQ community center (which itself opened in 2013). Eighteen people attended that initial meeting and set the course for the growth of the project, including that we should create a physical archive of LGBTQ materials as well as conduct oral history interviews with LGBTQ elders. To create the archive, we decided to partner with the Roanoke Public Libraries. Their downtown branch is home to the Virginia Room, a regional archive, and they were willing partners from the get-go to help collect and preserve any LGBTQ historical materials that we found. As of today the LGBTQ History Collection at the Virginia Room holds seven archival boxes of materials we have collected ranging from 1971 to the present, including an extensive collection of newsletters published by gay and lesbian organizations here over the past fifty years. In addition to the archives and oral histories, the History Project also conducts free monthly walking tours, puts together exhibits, holds intergenerational social events, and works on LGBTQ youth programming.
Can you share a few examples of your biggest challenges and successes, while researching and sharing LGBTQ+ history and stories?
As I write in Living Queer History, probably the greatest challenge for the project has been grappling with the legacies of racism and white supremacy within LGBTQ communities and history. As a white person myself, I began doing this work with a racial myopia—thinking that LGBTQ history was about gender and sexuality, but not about race. The truth is—and especially here in a place like Roanoke that has been shaped by the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and redlining for over a century—race is a huge part of how LGBTQ people have experienced the past. The first gay bar in Southwest Virginia was initially for white people only. Roanoke’s historic gay neighborhood was for most of its history for white people only. So, over the past seven years we have endeavored to decenter what I call in my book “the whiteness of queerness” and we want to especially move Black LGBTQ voices and stories to the fore. Today this takes many forms. For one example, we now partner often with groups like the House of Expression, Roanoke’s first Ballroom house, as they prioritize the wellbeing of Black LGBTQ+ Roanokers through their important work, and we aim to support them.
On the other hand, the greatest success of the project has been to animate a multigenerational cross-section of queer and trans people here through the work of doing queer history. To date something like three-hundred people have participated in the project in some way. This includes not just elders but also primarily young LGBTQ people who have found community through our project. Living Queer History includes the stories of friends and lovers who met through the History Project. Doing queer history has the power to transform our relationships with one another and help us to build and maintain new spaces of belonging and togetherness as queer people in the twenty-first century.
You’ve done a great deal of research and interviewed many people to gather stories and history. Can you share a few which you found particularly profound and powerful?
For me personally, the most profound interviews and research have been the ones that focus on the lives of transgender women, because they have taught me a lot about what it is to be a trans woman in Southwest Virginia. This is useful knowledge to me as I live my own life in these same spaces. In Living Queer History I focus a lot on the life stories of three Black transfeminine people (who are all former sex workers, as well). As multiply marginalized persons, especially within the majority white, cisgender, middle-class historical LGBTQ spaces, these stories represent a different way of thinking about queer pasts, presents, and futures. These women’s stories suggest that LGBTQ history is not just about gay bars or Pride, but it is also about police brutality, the criminal justice system, racism and discrimination, the informal economy, and access to the ‘technologies of femininity’ needed to transition and live or work as women. These stories don’t just challenge what straight cisgender people think about Virginia’s queer communities, but I think they challenge also what many LGBTQ people think, as well.
What is it you love most about living in the Salem / Roanoke area?
I live in Old Southwest, Roanoke’s historic gayborhood. I have lived in this neighborhood now for seven years and love it. I love that it is a socio-economically mixed neighborhood with cross-class community formation possible on every block—with rich white gay men living in single-family mansions literally next door to a crowded apartment building filled with young and old queer and trans tenants. We need each other, and we need to care for one another, and Old Southwest feels like a place where we can do that important work. Recently I bought one of these big old crumbling houses in the neighborhood to turn into a twenty-first century queer collective house.
Beyond our neighborhood, Roanoke city is a great place to live. We have an incredible local Black history here, and there are individuals and organizations working to document and tell the stories of all Black Roanokers. We have vibrant immigrant communities and an incredible array of grocery stores and restaurants representing global cuisines. We have a parks system that is over a hundred years old including miles of access to the Roanoke River, and we literally have mountains and hiking trails within the city limits. I also love that Roanoke is a geographic hub. We are the largest city within a two-hour drive in any direction and this means we are intimately connected with rural queer kin, with our Appalachian neighbors, and with other queer communities across North Carolina, West Virginia, and beyond. Roanoke is a queer gathering space for our little corner of the world.
When traveling outside your home town in Virginia, what are a few of your favorite places to stay, eat, shop and play?
As a queer transgender woman traveling in the commonwealth, I often look for queer communities wherever I go. I love connecting with my queer farmer friends in Floyd County, or hiking and camping with friends in the New River Valley and the Alleghany Highlands. I have spent time with the folks at the Lynchburg Diversity Center. And in Richmond, whether it’s partying at Babe’s (one of the few remaining historic lesbian bars in the U.S.), swimming in the James River on a cute date, or taking an LGBTQ history bus tour with The Valentine museum, I feel deeply connected with Richmond’s queer pasts, presents, and futures. And in Norfolk, I encourage folks to check out the Tidewater Queer History Project. I also love to camp at First Landing every spring and swim in the ocean.
You can order and purchase Samantha’s book Living Queer History from your local book store, or online here from Bookshop.org, where proceeds go towards helping locally owned book stores.
Visit the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project website and social channels for more on their archives, oral histories, walking tours, exhibitions, podcast, library and events.
Learn more about Virginia LGBTQAI+ history from our 50 Years of LOVE: A History of LGBT Travel in Virginia story.