On the outer edges of Orlando, near SeaWorld and Universal Studios, Club Revere sits at the back of The M Hotel. A little less than a year old, it’s the newest gay club in Orlando. Tonight, on the first Saturday after the Pulse club massacre, Club Revere is holding a fundraiser for the victims.
Outside of the club, several deadpan security guards stand bathed in the rainbow lights coming off of the Orlando Sling Shot. Security is tight tonight and that means everyone, even the performers, must pass a metal detector and have their bags searched.
“You gonna expose me for the woman I really ain’t!” says Imani Valentino, a petite drag queen in the throes of mock scandal. Everyone laughs and waits patiently as a security guard sifts through the high heels, wigs, and dresses that stuff her suitcase. Inside, lip-synching drag queens and kings dance in a spotlight while yet another drag queen does the rounds with a donation basket for the Pulse victims.
At the bar, two men and a woman, all wearing rainbow-colored Mohawk wigs, serve about two dozen guests. One of the bartenders, David Pippinger, says that business has been down this week. “There are a lot of vigils and people are going to the vigils instead of coming out and partying, but it’s getting better every day.” David believes people are thinking more about the future now than they were when the tragedy first struck. “The big thing is going to be when we have our pride parade in Orlando in October, and of course there are still Pulse employees who don’t have jobs to go to now. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
John and Josh, a couple from Tampa, drove an hour out of their way to be at Club Revere tonight. They had attended a vigil closer to home, but said it didn’t feel like enough to connect with a community in need. When I asked whether they knew anyone who died in the attacks, their response was a qualified yes. “I knew some of them even if not closely. I’d seen them around a lot. Everyone knows everyone at these clubs.”
Indeed, the victims do not seem very far away. Kurt, the master of ceremonies, wears a shirt emblazoned with a photograph of two of the victims and the words “R.I.P. Simon and Roy,” Kurt’s nephews. “Our next performer,” he announces, “is working through some pain tonight so give her some love. She lost her son. Imani Valentino!” The drag queen who had everyone in stitches at the security check struts out into the spotlight with her arms in the air. She dances gracefully, gymnastically in memory of Eman Valentino (his stage name). The collection bucket quickly fills up and the crowd cheers with a new energy.
Nine miles east, Parliament House, the oldest gay club in Orlando, holds its ground on the infamous Orange Blossom Trail. Its location is formerly a cause and now a relic of the subversive reputation of this part of town. When it was founded in 1975, gay clubs weren’t exactly welcome in downtown proper. Tonight, it’s overflowing. The parking lot is at capacity. Guests pour through the theater, the patio, and the resort area. A man in a rainbow shirt is performing an enthusiastic dance routine in front of the club while a crowd cheers. Behind the crowd, the Parliament House sign reads “We are Pulse. Unbreakable.”
Tonight’s theme at Parliament House is “Pornicopia” and behind another extensive security check involving more metal detector wands and an armed guard, four male adult film actors dance on platforms for the crowd’s delight. The dancers are a huge hit with women and men alike. In the corners of each room, emotional support sentinels wear all black clothing and little white buttons that read “Counseling & Support.” Smiling patrons wearing “Free Hugs” signs around their necks stand nearby. One of the staff tells me that at exactly 2:02 A.M., they’ll be turning the music off to observe a moment of silence for the victims.
Fortunately, the emotional support sentinels don’t seem to have much to do. The crowd is laid-back and shows no sign of anxiety. Nadine, who says that she’s been going to Parliament House for about 23 years, believes that Omar Mateen, the shooter, was neither a terrorist nor out to commit a hate crime. “He felt ashamed of himself and he felt he needed to die and take out other people he thought were sinners, I guess.”
Bob, a middle-aged man behind the counter at The Store, has been working in and around Parliament House for over thirty years. “It’s safer to be here or in any gay club now even with the occasional crackpot than it was twenty years ago.” He explains that even the Southern Baptist church showed sympathy with the dead after the Pulse attack. “We used to have rednecks come in here and shout things at us and harass us. They don’t do that anymore. The whole city supports the victims.” A young Latino couple waiting at the cash register shouts “Yes!” in agreement. “It’s much safer now!” they nod.
Four miles further east, just outside of downtown proper and only a few blocks from Pulse, Southern Nights graces Orlando’s milk district. Only here does the post-traumatic anxiety finally become palpable. In addition to metal detector wands and the most thorough bag check I’ve had all evening, two Orlando Police Department squad cars stand guard in front of the club. “This level of security is normal for downtown,” says a tall, muscular security guard who identifies himself as Bob, “but it’s new for Southern Nights. It’s going to stay, though. I don’t think people would feel comfortable coming here tonight if we weren’t all here doing this.”
It’s Girls Night at Southern Nights and in stark contrast to Parliament House and Club Revere, the majority of the clientele are women. A pretty young woman named Tiffany approaches the security check flanked by two of her friends. They all sport identical blue bandages across their arms. “Memorial tattoos,” they explain. Several downtown tattoo shops are offering tattoos in exchange for donations. Tiffany and her friends tell me they’re nervous, especially since they lost a friend who was a bouncer at Southern Nights, but the increased security and police presence makes them feel more comfortable.
Inside, the mostly lesbian crowd dances and sways near the stage where a burlesque show is taking place. A dancer holds up a fistful of tips and smiles while the master of ceremonies explains that the next dancer to hit the stage was meant to be at Pulse the night of the shooting, but had gone out to get sushi instead.
“Shout out to everyone who is here tonight!” The MC calls. The crowd cheers. “And shout out to everyone who is not here tonight because they are scared. We are all a little scared. And that’s okay.”