The first time I ever went to a gay bar I drove to one that was two hours away, hoping no one there would know who I was. I was, of course, still closeted. I sat inside this little dive bar across from a wall full of cardboard cutouts of rainbows and stapled-up flyers for drag shows that had already happened. I sipped on my cocktail and made light small talk with whoever was next to me, but mostly I was just watching everyone. Watching them laugh and dance. Kiss each other on the cheek when they said hello or goodbye. Studying their interactions. Curious. Jealous. It wasn’t technically my first time in a gay bar, but it was my first time choosing to be in one. On two prior occasions I had gone to other gay bars with a group of friends, but in both instances I was terrified of being outted and was utterly miserable the entire time. Not this time, though. This time, I was just observing and letting myself take it all in. Eventually, I went back to my car and sat there in silence, attempting to process this strange combination of fear and excitement. I ended up repeating that trip more than once, easing into the idea that this might be a safe space for me. That I might be able to let my guard down a bit. Slowly, I grew more comfortable with the people there and, little by little, more comfortable with myself. Before I ever even felt safe enough to be out as a gay man to the people who knew and loved me most, I found safety in a gay bar. In a gay bar, I found hope.
I have heard comments from several straight people that make it clear to me they don’t understand this. They’ve spoken of this tragedy in a way that demonstrates they think a gay bar is just like a straight bar or nightclub. As if this shooting could have happened at any bar where kids where drinking and partying. Well, I think it’s very important to acknowledge that it did not happen at any other bar. It happened at a gay bar. Because there were gay people inside. Gay people who are marginalized by society in a way that results in statistically higher rates of depression, substance abuse, self harm, suicide, and homelessness as a result of rejection from their families and communities. Gay people who are, in other words, already vulnerable. But in a gay bar we’re not supposed to be. In a gay bar, we’re supposed to be safe. That’s our one piece of the world where we get to be the majority. Where our existence is normal and validated. Where our love is accepted. The very fact that this was at a gay bar and not some non-gay establishment is precisely what makes the whole tragedy more traumatizing. Because that’s the one place we’re supposed to be able to be ourselves without fear of the judgment or danger that may come from being too effeminate or not conforming to what society expects of us. Gay bars were the first place I learned it could be safe to let my guard down. Meaning, there’s literally nowhere I would have been more vulnerable. This wasn’t just a mass shooting in a public venue. It was an invasion of a sacred space.
The first time I went to Pulse it was after a date with the guy who would become my first out-of-the-closet boyfriend. I had never been out with a guy publicly before, so I remember every detail vividly. We drove in the same car. That sounds silly, but just that small detail was in and of itself a huge deal. I was in a car with a boy, dressed cute, and about to go out together publicly on a date. That had never happened for me before! He valet parked the car, which made me feel a little fancy. Not because Pulse was at all fancy, but because I probably would have just parked on the street a few blocks away and walked. But he valeted and opened my door. Swoon. We were there for his friend’s birthday party, and he was so excited to introduce me around. I was on cloud nine the whole time with constant butterflies in my stomach. We held hands for the first time there in Pulse. In some weird twist of fate the very last time I was at Pulse was also with this same guy, years after we had broken up but remained close friends. I’ve been to Pulse so many times for so many occasions and have countless memories there. Dancing, drag shows, romance, drama, laughter, happiness, freedom.
I know every square inch of Pulse. The floor plan is so clear in my mind that when I later heard stories from friends or on the news of people describing their experience of the shooting, I could picture it all vividly. The different rooms and bar areas, the front entrance, the stage, the back patio, the front bathrooms, the back bathrooms, the parking lot, the sidewalk outside, the Wendy’s across the street. In all these stories of running and hiding, I could imagine exactly where they were. How could this happen in a place I knew so well? How could this happen in one of our safe places?
Have you ever kissed someone in public? Not necessarily with a lot of people around, but in a public place nonetheless? Maybe on the street outside their house while saying good night after a date? Maybe you have more self-control now, but I bet at some point you might have even been that young couple making out at the movie theater or in the park, too. How many scenes can you conjure in your mind right now from movies or TV shows that involve some dramatic public display of affection? These romantic and innocent moments seem natural to us. As long as they’re between a guy and a girl. The truth is, there aren’t public spaces for queer affection. It’s too dangerous. So, it might sound trivial to say I’ve kissed and danced with other guys in gay bars before… but where else could I have possibly had that opportunity? Where do gay people get their butterflies and romance, if it’s not acceptable in public? That’s part of the power of safe spaces. And a gay bar is, of course, so much more than just that, too. When I say it’s a space where you’re free to be who you are, I don’t just mean it allows you to grind up on other guys. I mean that in that space you don’t have to be anything you’re not. The false masculinity that you wear outside of those walls to protect you from danger or judgment can momentarily be let go. In a gay bar, I’m free to be feminine in a world that tells me I shouldn’t be. I don’t have to think about speaking in a deeper voice, making sure my wrist doesn’t go limp when I’m talking with my hands, or whether I crossed my legs the way a girl does versus the way a guy does when I sit down. In a gay bar I’m free to speak how I speak, dance how I want to dance, wear what I want to wear, and simply release that death grip I’ve been conditioned to have on a toxic false masculinity. Even as an out and proud gay man, I still have to negotiate my gayness for the sake of other people every single day. How gay can I be with these people? Will my gayness bother them or change how they act around me? Will it put me in danger? Will knowing I’m gay make them less receptive to what I need from them in my job? Remember, I work on military bases every day… so I often feel the need to butch it up when my professional hat is on. I told a colleague recently that I didn’t feel like coming out to a particular group of Airmen we were talking to, and she was stunned by my phrasing. It had not occurred to her that “coming out” was a continuous thing. Sure, I came out years ago. But I also have to continue coming out to new people all the time. Even when people suspect you’re gay, they feel they have the right to know for sure and you can tell they’re waiting for you to say something to confirm it. When I’m in a gay bar, though, that armor can come off. The unfiltered me can be released. I don’t have to worry about not being “masc” enough. I’m with my people. My tribe. My community. I’m safe. And when my family didn’t understand my gayness or sent letters to me in the mail with anti-gay Bible versus listed out, it was my chosen family of LGBT people in gay bars that accepted me as I was. In that space, I was safe.
What’s happening in a gay bar is often so much more than just drinking alcohol. It’s people finding acceptance and love and freedom. The happiness and drama and sadness and fun times that many of my straight friends have experienced in countless places nearly everywhere they’ve gone nearly every day of their lives has for me and my friends taken place mostly in about five locations. That’s where we had permission to live our public lives. That’s what makes a community like this so close. That’s where we laughed, loved, cried, fought, flirted, made amends, fell in love, and let ourselves be.
I know some of the people who were taken from us this weekend, but my heart breaks for all of them whether I ever met them or not. My family is broken and hurting. And I ache for them all. I’ve never cried so much in a two-day period. I’m not much of cryer, but everything seems to be setting me off now. As I was walking down 14th Street in DC to a coffee shop to write this post, I overheard two middle-aged women complaining that people were probably going to start attacking the 2nd amendment now. They were upset because they felt sympathy not for the victims but for the guns. I’ll never understand that. It caught me so off guard, that I suddenly realized tears were rolling down my face as I walked next to them. I wasn’t crying audibly, but I was devastated to hear where the focus of their concern was. Hearing me sniff, I think, their conversation stopped abruptly and one of the women whispered jokingly to the other, “Better hush, I think that’s one now.”
Meaning me. A gay.
Our society may often feel like it’s progressing toward justice on these issues. And many of us may feel more empowered than before to live freely in straight spaces. In some parts of the country the straight spaces have become safe enough that even the gays there might think the gay bars are irrelevant. But they’re not. And they’re certainly still needed in other parts of the country. In some rural part right now, there’s another boy like me, driving two hours away from where he lives just to escape the family and churches and communities that have told him he’s not good enough. Just to glimpse what life can be life. Just to feel safe for a couple of hours. And even in progressive cities like DC, there may be a boy walking down the street after learning his friends have been murdered who overhears two women mock him and defend their right to bear arms. The fight is far from over. And gay bars are far from irrelevant.
My heart is with the place I called home for several years. With the community who helped me learn to love myself. With the community that gave me some of my best friends in the world. I love you dearly and I’m with you now in spirit.
As I close, I have some other pictures and tweets I wanted to share and one final note about gay bars:
I’ve had lots of laughs, drinks and dances in gay clubs. And I won’t minimize the importance of those things. But to also bring home my point of this being more than just a bar, but about tribes and communities… here’s a brief list of things I’ve done in gay bars that had absolutely nothing to do with “clubbing”…
- Political debate watch parties
- Talent competitions
- Drag shows
- TV viewing parties
- STD testing
- Charity fundraisers for HIV research and awareness
- Charity fundraisers for LGBT suicide prevention
- Transgender ally training for first responders
- Lavender Faith (LGBTQ+ spiritual community group meetings