Why it matters that the Orlando massacre happened in a gay bar

Why it matters that the Orlando massacre happened in a gay bar
“Gay bar:” two simple words that are not, at all, simple to fully explain. And two words we’re seeing, not in the glint and glitter of Pride plans, but in headlines that speak of 49 of our own dead.

I’m not entirely sure our straight friends really understand what a gay bar means to members of the LGBTQ community… what it took to walk into one for the very first time, what it felt like to be there, how the people we met shaped our loves and lives.

Our bars were very often tucked into the parts of town where no one wanted to go at night, partially to preserve our anonymity, to remove us from the attention of a curious and not always friendly world. Unfortunately, that also meant we were easy pickings for police who need to make their monthly quota of tickets, and it also meant we were an easy target for the homophobic locals in our isolation.

It was the place we returned home from to worried mothers and answered the question, “Where were you?” with the simple and elusive, “Out.” Actually, far from out, usually, during those first visits.

And so it was also a place we went when we were keeping a secret. It was a place where we relied upon strangers to keep those secrets: from mothers and fathers and classmates and bosses, a place where we ducked in from parking lots hoping passing cars did not see us… to out us, later, at school, or hurl a slur, bottle or Big Gulp cup our way, as sometimes— often— happened. It was a place where, if you unexpectedly saw a coworker, you either hid or made an unspoken pact about seeing each other there.

It was also not a place you could talk about being when you returned to school or work on Monday.

It was a place where bartenders knew us by name, not just by beer label or cocktail selection, and helped us find apartments and comfort and company. It was a place where we all fell in and out of love with those men behind the bar, then became friends with them, in bonds that lasted far beyond where we lived or when we lived there.

Orlando was a violation of this complicated place where you just didn’t at first, stroll into, casually. You sat in a hot car for hours in the parking lot, then drove back home. And you did that for sometimes a summer of Saturdays. When you finally crossed the threshold, either alone or in the company of friends, or a regular who could “get you in,” you did so with sweaty palms and heart racing, sick with terror and lightheaded with giddiness. And then, in sheer shock, seeing a giant room of “you.” I remember thinking, in a moment like that, “I am not the only gay man in Miami.”

In college in Providence, I regularly snuck downtown to a bar entered from an alley, with no sign, on a second floor so no one could see in… not that there was anyone on those streets downtown, back then, to see. My straight friends went to the main street and sat in street-level pub windows, doing the very same things we were doing in our downtown bar, for better or worse… hoping to not get carded, flirting, pining, drinking, commiserating with friends, laughing with friends, forming cliques, forming bonds, trying to get a phone number, trying to get laid.

But the first gay bar I ever went to was Miami’s Uncle Charlie’s, a concrete block bunker of a space set squarely on a gravel parking lot on a busy street dotted with car dealerships. There was an entrance door, and the required emergency exits. But no windows. Yes, I’m sure to keep the thumping music from spilling out, as it did when the doors opened and closed, but also to protect us, to insulate us, like a fortress of sorts. But protective walls are also exceedingly isolating.

On a college trip to New York City, I was taken to the legendary West Village Gay bar, Julius. My very first thought: “There are windows. You can see out! You can see in!” The thought came with a liberating joy, not fear. The sunlight falling inside wiped away that fear, and with it, the shame.

It seems fitting that same bar was where, with my friend Matthew and thousands of our closest new friends, we toasted marriage equality when it finally came to our entire nation. The sunlight was streaming in then, too.

Those blank walls and painted-out windows, in some ways, also taught us shame… that we needed to skulk, to hide, to disappear, to apologize for congregating. But the windows of Julius taught me something else, and in that moment, I think I first, and in many ways, best discovered the feeling of coming out, not to family but to the world. That bar taught me not to hide, taught me not to give a damn if a woman on the street caught me checking out her shoes or her boyfriend as they walked by the bar. And not worry if someone saw me inside. You know, being gay.

It makes me mad now when new bars open, with painted-out or bricked-over windows. Privacy is one thing, but we need to stop hiding.

When my mother and I finally had “the talk,” the one about my being gay, around our bright yellow kitchen table, she expressed one major concern: that I remained safe. Of course, she was speaking in part about AIDS, not unknown to my mother or our president at the time, but unspoken by both. But she went on, specifically, to mention bars: that she was worried about my safety.

In a bit of comic relief, she then began to share her thoughts of what a gay bar might be like, describing something that sounded like a scene from Cruising. “Like a motorcycle bar,” I think were her exact words. At the time, when Uncle Charlie’s was the bar I knew best (and long before my trips to the Ramrod and Eagle would get just a bit closer to the aesthetic of her nervous prediction) the premise seemed ridiculous.

“Mom!” I said to her, “you would love my friends from the places I go!” picturing these sun-kissed boys in their Madras shorts and turned-up Polo collars. “We are safe,” I assured her. “I am safe.” I wonder if anyone said that to their mother before they headed out to Pulse last weekend.

Sanctuary is a word sometimes co-opted by the religious, but it comes close to what a gay bar was to me, to so many, then and now. Well, not now, in Orlando.

I shared the seed of this article on Facebook, and it became one of my most Liked, most shared pieces, and often when it was shared, almost exclusively by gay men, it was introduced with fond stories of each man’s “first.” Not a lover, not a boyfriend, but a bar. They spoke with wonder, conveying the fear of crossing that literal and proverbial threshold, not knowing what would happen next, of that mix of exhilaration and dread. You could see those handsome, nervous young men of memory in each of their recollections.

If you think that a gay bar is the same as any bar, you are sadly mistaken, and then no, perhaps you do not understand, fully. That’s not to say you aren’t empathic, or joined in our mourning. And it’s not, as a Facebook friend suggested, a swipe at straight people. It’s just not the same rite of passage. And it’s why Orlando hit us so, so hard.

Even in these days of hook-up apps, where dance clubs are closing, and our bars have also become a destination and safe space for straight friends and bachelorette parties, Pulse was not “just a bar.” It was everything we all felt in those first moments and subsequent years. It was a safe space. It was a refuge. It was a place to drop your defenses, let down your guard, and yes, take off your shirt if you were young enough or tipsy enough.

Like many, I’ve never been to Pulse, but I’ve very much been to Pulse. We’ve all been, those of us in the LGBTQ community.

It infuriates me that conservative members of congress have dropped “LGBT” or “gay” from their scripted talking points in the dark days after the Orlando massacre, that some are leveraging the gay angle while others are avoiding it. But to be clear: Pulse was a gay club, and targeted because it was. And the terror that happened there was a searing, ripping violation of the one place many still felt safe.

Are gay bars Nirvana or Paradise on the inside, as the neon sometimes says outside? Of course not. We still judge, subdivisions of our own making that don’t always mix well. They are places where we have often created our own segregation, of boys from girls, feather from leather, twink from bear, young from old. It’s still the place where I heard “I can’t tell if he’s built or just fat from here” (true story: and I walked right up to him, in the best summoning of Blanche Devereaux I could muster, and said, “You will never, ever, get to find out.” I think I may have even used a slightly southern accent.)

Of course, the bar was, and still is, also the place where we were passed over, snickered at, pushed aside. We are not always unquestionably supported even to or amongst our own. But we learned from those instances, too. To be tougher. To let the opinions of others roll off our backs. Or not. That was a valuable lesson, too: to know when it was okay to feel hurt. Like it is now.

I’m sure there are many who will cringe at the comparison, and it is meant as no disrespect to the faithful who might still be reading this, but our gay bars are the closest thing we have to a church, when no church will have us… and even if they will. But it is more than that.

Our bar was never just a bar. It was community. It was where we celebrated, confessed, experimented, giggled, danced, stayed out too late, had our hearts broken, had our wounds mended, had our first kiss, our first slow dance, in the arms of a boy, a boy in our arms. But above all, it was where we met “the family you make.”

And even if the alley or street or neighborhood where the bar was wasn’t always safe, the bar always was. I sat at the kitchen table and promised my mother that.

And almost 40 years later, I can’t make her that promise any more.

That is why we grieve over the terror in an Orlando gay bar.

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