Sonja Ingram, Associate Director of Preservation Field Services, interviewed Dr. G. Samantha Rosenthal, Associate Professor of History at Roanoke College, and co-founder of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project. Dr. Rosenthal is also the author of Living Queer History, Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City, which tells the story of the LGBTQ community in Roanoke. The book includes over forty interviews with LGBTQ elders from the Roanoke area.
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I am a 39-year-old white transgender woman. I grew up in upstate New York and I lived in New York City in my twenties. As I write in Living Queer History, when I was 31 my straight marriage fell apart, I came out, and I left New York all within a twelve-month period. I moved down here to Roanoke, Virginia which I now call home. I am also an associate professor of history at Roanoke College, and co-founder of the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, a community-based queer public history initiative that we started in 2015.
I have read some of your articles, and I just ordered your book, Living Queer History, Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City. I was able to read a snippet of it online, and by reading this small part I could tell that your book is an honest and unapologetic look at LGBTQ history in Roanoke. Were any parts of the book difficult for you to write?
The hardest parts to write were the personal stuff! I decided early on in writing this book that it had to be a genre-bending book, because queerness doesn’t fit within any simple boxes. I wanted to write a history book, but I also wanted to write a book about historical theory—how we do history, and how we think historically—and I also wanted to include the memoir component to examine how doing queer history has changed me—the way I understand myself and my relationships forged through the History Project.
Reading about the richness of LGBTQ history in Roanoke surprised me. Do you think most Virginia cities and communities have similar history and culture that has yet to be explored?
Yes I do. I often get asked what makes Roanoke so unique. I usually respond that I don’t think Roanoke is very unique at all. The only thing that is unique is that we’ve been doing a community-based queer history project here for the past seven years. But if you did a project like this in another city or town or region of the commonwealth, I believe you would also find a book’s worth of stories about local LGBTQ history there. We already know from research conducted by our project as well as others like the William & Mary LGBTIQ Research Project and the Tidewater Queer History Project that there are vibrant queer histories in places such as Norfolk, Richmond, Lynchburg, and even in rural areas where we have focused our attention such as in Floyd County.
I really enjoyed reading some of the oral histories of LGBTQ people from the Roanoke area that you and the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project have done. Were there any that stood out to you as exemplary or surprising?
To date, we have conducted over fifty, hour-long interviews with LGBTQ community members in Roanoke and around Southwest Virginia. Living Queer History focuses quite a bit on several of these interviews, especially interviews with Black LGBTQ Roanokers and interviews with our trans elders, including former sex workers. Although we have also built up a substantial physical archive of old newsletters and printed materials from Roanoke’s gay community from 1971 to the present, this print archive often fails to represent the histories of more marginalized LGBTQ people such as queer and trans people of color and sex workers. Oral histories are an essential methodology for capturing these stories and restoring these folks to the center of the narratives that we tell about local LGBTQ history.
Is there anything else you would like to say about your book, the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, or the LGBTQ history of Roanoke?
Readers interested in Virginia’s history, as well as the practice of historic preservation, will find lots to chew on in Living Queer History! Not only does the book profile LGBTQ history in a perhaps surprising part of the commonwealth (and the country), but my book also raises questions about how we do history in ways that are equitable and just and include all community members in this process.
Historic preservation in the U.S. has a long history of prejudice towards saving buildings associated with white male elite communities. Those methods aren’t necessarily the right tools for documenting and interpreting LGBTQ histories. In Living Queer History I argue that in order to preserve queer communities and our historic spaces, we need to think less about the buildings and sites themselves and more about the ways that queer communities rely on ongoing spaces for world-building and survival, [and question] how we preserve queer histories in a way that maintains queer control over these spaces, and that fosters renewed spaces of belonging and togetherness for our communities in the 2020s.
For more information and to contact Dr. Rosenthal see https://gsrosenthal.com/. For more information on her book, see Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City, and for more information on the LGBTQ community in Southwest Virginia see http://lgbthistory.pages.roanoke.edu/.
Thank you Dr. Rosenthal for answering a few questions for us!