Gays in Roanoke used to hide who they were — until a deadly bar shooting changed everything (Washington Post)

The yellow mums appeared at Backstreet Cafe’s door well before people began arriving for the vigil. John Goodhart Sr. sent the flowers, as he did every year on this day, with a note: “Never forget. Never again. NEVER.”

It was his way of paying tribute to his Verizon co-worker Danny Overstreet, who was killed 15 years ago at a gathering spot for gay people in a closeted city.

Backstreet was a gay bar at a time when the sexual orientation of its customers remained hidden — a haven for an underground culture. Its role in Roanoke was exposed Sept. 22, 2000, when Ronald Edward Gay, a former Marine who had been taunted for his name and hated it, walked in, ordered a beer, spotted two men embracing — and opened fire. He killed Overstreet, 43, and wounded six others, including Joel Tucker, who had to deal with more than just the bullet wound in his back.

“When it happened, I was not out to my family,” said Tucker, who was then 40 and worked, as he still does, for United Parcel Service. “I was not out to my job. I wasn’t out to anybody except my very close friends.”

Back then, few could have predicted the seismic changes that were coming to the country, to Virginia and to Roanoke — on same-sex marriage, on gays serving in the military, on the emergence of openly gay athletes, chief executives and celebrities.

Backstreet’s identity has shifted, too. It is managed by Deanna Marcin, who was a married man named John Marcin before divorcing and becoming a transgender woman. The bar still caters to outsiders in this city of nearly 100,000 in southwest Virginia, but they are mostly punk rockers and metalheads, rather than gay men and lesbians.

Read more about the transformation of individuals, a bar, a street, a city and the country in my story for the Washington Post.