As a first year reporter at the Roanoke Times in 2003, I divided my time between weekend night shifts and clerical duties. In December, I was assigned to cover a “progressive Christmas party” in which each course took place at a different house.
Near Round Hill, I met the Valley View Mall Santa Claus and a man named Joel Tucker, who owned the house where that particular course took place. That night, I got a call from copy editors, who had ID’d Joel as a victim in the homophobic Backstreet Cafe shooting three years earlier. I called him to confirm, and he did but asked that we not print that information in the story, since 1) that experience had devastated him, as he’d been closeted prior to the shooting but was essentially outed against his will when his name was listed among the victims in news reports, and 2) the info was completely irrelevant to the light’n’bright story I’d reported. I agreed with him, and successfully fought a battle that went up the chain to not include that factoid in the story.
Twelve years later, I spent portions of the summer and fall of 2015 trying to convince Tucker to finally tell his story for a feature I was writing for the Washington Post. At the last possible moment, he agreed, and I was blown away as I heard him describe the night of the shooting and his 15-year journey that followed.
When I heard about the Orlando shootings on Sunday morning, my mind immediately went to the Backstreet Cafe and to Joel. I re-read that 2015 story and posted some thoughts on Twitter. Later that afternoon, I received a request from the Washington Post to try and interview some of those linked with Backstreet about what had happened in Orlando. I reached out to Joel, and he responded almost immediately. He retired in April, and after nearly 16 years dealing with what happened that night in 2000, he felt ready to use his voice.
I feel honored to have met Joel and helped to document parts of his journey, albeit in a limited way. I can’t express how it makes me feel to have had the chance to speak to him and provide a platform for his words, especially those aimed at the survivors of the Orlando tragedy.
“I learned from my experience, of being shot on a Friday and being so paranoid I ended up at work on Monday morning with a bullet in my back, I learned you’ve got to get up and you’ve got to keep moving and not let this destroy your life. This could have destroyed me, and it did not. It made me stronger. It can destroy you, but you’ve got to be strong and know that God left you here for a reason.”