On this day: Ronald Gay blames rampage on teasing

Ronald Gay backstreet cafe

On July 24, 2001, a Virginian judge sentenced Ronald Gay to four life terms over a shooting at the Backstreet Cafe gay bar that left one man dead and six injured.

Ronald Gay told arresting officers he was tired of teasing over his surname.

Despite being found legally fit to stand trial, Gay was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the Vietnam War.

“He had a lot of flashbacks,” brother William Gay told reporters.

“He was a gunner protecting convoys. One day a truck blew up and his buddies were on it. He was in charge of picking up body parts.

“He always said it was just his job and he had to do it but I know it bothered him.

“If only someone would have gotten to him before. The signs were there.”

Divorced six times, an alcoholic and drug user, Ronald Gay arrived in Roanoke, Virginia about a year before the shooting. He had a lot of issues.

Gay complained that other soldiers teased him about his name during the war. One officer apparently delighted in asking his platoon ‘Who’s Gay?’

When Ronald answered as required, ‘I’m Gay, sir’, all the other soldiers would erupt at the hilarity of it all.

Ronald Gay also took offence to his sons changing their names by deed poll, one to his mother’s maiden name of May.

The Backstreet Cafe shooting

On September 22, 2000, Ronald Gay approached a 17-year-old kitchen hand putting bins on the footpath outside a downtown Roanoke bar.

“Can I ask you something?”


“Is there a gay bar around here?”

The teenager suggested The Park, a bar about six blocks away.

“Thank you. I’m going to waste some f_ggots.”

Although the kitchen hand thought the man was probably joking, he went inside and called the police, who headed for The Park. But Ronald Gay went instead to the Backstreet Cafe. He bought a beer. It was near closing time and the club was winding down. Gay saw John Collins, a local car salesman hug his friend 43-year-old Danny Overstreet.

Ronald Gay pulled out his gun and started shooting. Danny Overstreet died immediately and when the shooting stopped, six others including John Collins lay injured.

John Collins

A week later, John Collins lay in a hospital bed with a colostomy bag at his side, wondering if his colon would ever function again.

He told a reporter that he was outed by the shooting.

“I feel like now I have no job. It’s going to be extremely difficult to work with the same guys who just last week were saying ‘Look at this hot girl, and that one’.

“I was living a lie. I know what they think of gay people. But I had to put food on the table.”

But there are good people in the world.

Workmates of John Collins told the same reporter they had done some soul-searching following the shooting and realised, gay or straight, John was still the same man they liked before the shooting. His boss described him as a ‘good, dependable, loyal employee’.

“If you can come here and do your job, I don’t care if you’re black, white, pink, gay or straight.”

Ronald Gay died of natural causes on January 20, 2022.

Read also: On this day: Pulse, the Orlando nightclub shooting

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