UPDATE: Joel and Gordon’s story aired June 26, 2016, on NPR’s Weekend Edition.
The shooting at the Orlando, Florida, nightclub Pulse on June 12, that left 49 dead and 53 wounded, while unprecedented in scale, is certainly not the first time a killer has chosen to target the LGBTQ community. Anti-LGBTQ violence has a long history in the United States, and in this special StoryCorps production (excerpted from our latest podcast, StoryCorps 473: Upstairs, Backstreet, Pulse), we look back at another high-profile incident.
On September 22, 2000, 53-year-old Ronald Gay entered the Backstreet Café, a gay-friendly bar in Roanoke, Virginia. According to police accounts, Gay had set out that evening in search of gay people to kill, and after seeing two men inside the Backstreet Café embrace, he pulled out a 9mm gun and began firing. Gay ended up killing Danny Overstreet and wounding six others.
One of those shot was Danny’s friend Joel Tucker who was there with his partner and friends drinking beer and playing pool. At the time, Joel was not out as a gay man and recalls in a StoryCorps interview that he regrets telling a newspaper reporter that he was at the café at the time with his girlfriend. While initially not realizing what was going on, Joel remembers seeing fire come out of the gun, and when it dawned on him that there was a man shooting at people, he screamed for everybody to get down. “It was just like seven shots, seven people. Then he just walked out the door.”
Joel (above left) came to StoryCorps with his long-time friend Gordon Blake (above right) in Hollywood, Florida, days after the Orlando massacre to share some of the emotions that flooded back to him after learning about the killings at Pulse. Gordon, who was supposed to meet up with Joel and their friends at the Backstreet Café that evening in 2000 but did not make it, joins with Joel in offering advice to the survivors:
“You have got to be strong. Don’t let something like this ruin your life because it could’ve ruined mine…This was one person who hated and I have seen hundreds of people who love. And I think love wins.”
This story is excerpted from a special StoryCorps podcast featuring another previously unheard piece from a witness to the devastation that followed the June 24, 1973, fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Until the killings at Pulse, this blaze, which took 32 lives, was believed to be the largest single mass killing of gay people in U.S. history.
Click here to listen to StoryCorps 473: Upstairs, Backstreet, Pulse.