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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.