When I was 18 years old, I had my first kiss with a woman in the bathroom of an LGBT club.
After months of secretly watching The L Word in my dorm room (and one thigh brush in a women’s studies class), I’d asked some friends to go to the ‘gay village’ with me in my college town “just because.”
And there, while the music from my first drag show boomed through the walls, Jess and I locked lips. Everything was different after that.
Early Sunday morning, 30 people were held hostage in the bathroom of an LGBT club more than 2,000 miles away from the one where I shared that sweet and nervous moment.
While they cowered in fear and blood, Omar Mateen was “cool and calm” negotiating with police over their lives.
Mateen entered Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida with an arsenal of weapons. He then used an AR-15 to murder 49 innocent people and injure another 53. Five of them remained in “grave” condition Monday afternoon. We now know most of the deceased’s names, and moving details of their tragically, violently abbreviated lives.
Yesterday, President Obama called Pulse—now infamously known for the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history—"more than a nightclub.”
Gay clubs are places, he said, of “solidarity and empowerment, where people have come together to raise awareness and speak their minds and advocate for their civil rights.”
Yes, they are those places. They have to fight hard to survive, in an age of apps, online dating, and rising rents. And thank goodness they do.
Early Sunday morning at Pulse, friends and lovers were drinking, dancing, and catching up when Mateen entered on his murderous mission.
Soon those same patrons ran, screamed and cowered in fear as more than 100 of them were peppered with gunshots.
The safety of the space that was home to frivolity just minutes earlier had disappeared completely. A dancefloor, likely filled—as so many are—with piña coladas and music and flashing lights, was suddenly home to a cacophony of cellphones ringing as family tried to reach the dead. Paramedics asked the living to raise their hands from underneath their friends’ and partners’ corpses.
“Gay bars and clubs are supposed to be our safe haven,” Vinny Milack-Carrasco, 48, told The New York Times at the Stonewall Inn on Sunday evening. “I’ve never felt threatened here, but now I’m looking over my shoulder.”
Stonewall has long been the mothership, the mecca, for queer Americans looking to remember the rebellion that changed history in June 1969.
A police raid that sticky summer evening, as now-68-year-old rioter Martin Boyce told NPR last month, “sounded like screaming and real cries of agony and desperation finally being released.” Boyce said that “what we used to normally do at the time was look at the raid, see people coming out, who got arrested, and be glad it wasn’t you.”
The community had for years endured violence in the form of police raids on gay bars and in the middle of the street.
“It was so much violence up to that time on the part of the police, so much discrimination,” Boyce said. “We bore it all. We didn’t think we could have a riot. We didn’t think we could change anything. But that night was so different.”
On New Year’s Eve of 1966, police attacked revelers at Los Angeles’ Black Cat, bashing them on their bodies with billy clubs. Another bar that night, New Faces, was hit when some ran to safety there, writes Slate’s June Thomas. A bartender suffered a ruptured spleen and was charged with assaulting an officer.
“The New Year kisses led to six men being charged with lewd conduct. All of them were found guilty,” Thomas wrote.
This charged political history has taken place alongside thousands, maybe millions, of people finding themselves and finding each other, in the very same places.
LGBT bars have been where, over rainbow floor tiles, I’ve whirled to Robyn and Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. But they were also the home of my first kisses, first dances, and first phone numbers received and given as a queer woman.
As soon as I left those rainbow and glitter-filled hallowed halls, I faced catcalls and harassment for just holding hands with a woman. Being outed meant that I could also be fired. In those spaces, I was able to be myself without fear and without terror.
Sometimes they were the places where I traded numbers I knew I’d never act on. Sometimes they were the beginnings of friendships over drinks. Sometimes they were where relationships began.
These were the only places where I felt safe and whole and known, and the fact that I never had to hold Kat or Stephanie or Michelle or Natalia as they bled to death feels now like a matter of luck and nothing more.
I owe a part of my identity and the beginning of many relationships to those spaces in Austin. Probably a few hangovers, too.
Dozens of gay bars in New York City alone have attracted historical queer figures (closeted and otherwise).
Several establishments claim to be America’s first or oldest gay bar. White Horse Inn in Oakland, California turned 83 last month. Others also claim the title, including Cafe Lafitte In Exile in New Orleans and Atlantic House in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
While gay clubs have always been a place to experience peace in a world of fear, they have also been a known quantity for those who would do us harm. And the history of our battle for civil rights can in no small part be measured on our dancefloors.
In 2000, 43-year-old Danny Overstreet was killed and six others were injured after Ronald Gay shot up a gay bar in Roanoke, Virginia. Gay reportedly took offense at being teased about his name. (His ex-wife also had a same-sex relationship before their marriage.)
Gay told officials that he’d made it his mission to force all LGBT folks to move to San Francisco. He said he thought it would cure AIDS.
Other attacks, successful and not, have occurred intermittently throughout history, with what seems like less and less frequency each year.
Places like the Stonewall have gone from being sites of police raids and violence transforming into (for the most part) safe havens for LGBT folks young and old.
To everyone who’s ever shared the dance floor or bar with me at Oilcan Harry’s, or Rain, or Cheer Up Charlie’s (and many others) in Austin, Texas and to every other gay bar or club in this country: I grieve with you for the lost lives and for the victims and for the witnesses and the emergency response workers who will never be the same.
I grieve also for a lost sense of safety we will have to fight to recover in these places—our bars—that used to be somewhere we could call home.
It is 2016—so far from 1969, but maybe not so far: we still need these spaces.
“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people cannot keep each other safe on our own,” Audrey White wrote in the Dallas Morning News. “We don’t have the resources, the political power, or the cultural capital necessary to eliminate the threats we face. As we make political and social gains, the people who hate us are fighting harder than ever to block our access to equal rights under the law.”
As a 33-year-old professor at Stonewall on Sunday night, Joseph Pierce, told the Times: “This just shows that being queer and proud is a radical act and one that can still put your life at risk.”
Select communities in far-flung cities know that I’m queer. Certain friends and certain family members and certain co-workers. I’m writing this anonymously because there are many people who don’t.
But every denizen of every gay club I’ve ever entered has had my trust. Because I felt protected and safe in some of the kind and happiest places I’ve ever set foot.
All of the things I have to fear on the outside—discrimination by extended family or employers or strangers on the street—are gone once I’ve walked in those doors.
Think of this from Sunday morning: a vignette from Pulse that shows the kinship of LGBT strangers-in-a-bar at its best.
The Orlando Sentinel interviewed a man who saved another’s life by improvising a sort-of tourniquet with his t-shirt and squeezing him while covered in the stranger’s blood. Josh McGill kept the other man awake until an ambulance could get there. “Words cannot and will not describe the feeling of that. Being covered in blood,” McGill said. “Trying to save a guy’s life that I don’t even know.”
Places like Pulse are courageous just for existing in a state, like Florida (and many others), where you can be fired for your sexual identity even if you survived a mass shooting the night before. (In only 19 states and Washington, D.C., there are existing laws that prevent LGBT employees from discrimination in the workplace.)
Texas’ homophobic lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, infamously tweeted “man reaps what he sows” hours after the attack. “The one who sows to please his flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction,” the passage from Galatians 6:7 continues. A spokesperson for the Republican has said the tweet was “pre-scheduled.” He eventually deleted it altogether.
Vigils were held all over the world on Sunday night. About 500 people went to Stonewall, the world’s most famous LGBT bar, for solidarity and community on a day filled with tragedy. More will go back on Monday evening. And for many days afterward. This is where many of us need to be right now.
I know I will. These are my people, and these are my places: the two are inextricably linked. And now, more than ever we need our LGBT bars, and we need to gather in them and hold them close. Put your damn phones down, leave the house, and support your local gay bar.