The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked was more than a nightclub—it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights. —Barack Obama
Late Saturday night—or early Sunday morning—just as a deranged human being was storming into Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, armed with weapons banned in every civilized country on earth, I was sitting on a bar stool in the Shamrock, a small gay bar in Madison, Wisconsin.
There are fewer gay bars in Madison today than there were 25 years ago, when I lived there. There are fewer gay bars just about everywhere these days. Think pieces have been written about the disappearance of gay bars and queer nightclubs. Gay people can drink anywhere they want to these days—and besides, we have hookup apps. Who needs gay bars anymore?
But the Shamrock is still there, still serving, still a refuge.
My husband had a Stella; I had a club soda and a pot lozenge. We played Ms. Pac-Man, we met up with friends, we ordered another round.
Gay bars exist because they are safe places in a world that remains unsafe for LGBT [people]. —Bryan Safi
It feels wrong to write this now, at this moment, while we're still reeling. But there are fewer gay bars today because there are more places where we are safe in this world. Or more places we feel safe. Or feel safer. Just as there's no such thing as "safe sex," only "safer sex," there's really no such thing as a safe place—elementary schools aren't safe, movie theaters aren't safe, workplace holiday parties aren't safe, queer clubs aren't safe.
But today, many queer people feel safe enough to be out in our workplaces (even while it remains legal to fire people for being LGBT in 28 states), safe enough to be out in our communities (despite continued gay bashings and appalling rates of anti-trans violence), and safe enough to be out to our biological families (despite the rejection we fear and sometimes receive). The poorer, browner, and trans-er you are, the less safe you are—from bigotry, from discrimination, from bashing, from HIV, from death.
My husband and I were in Madison for a family reunion. We spent most of the day Saturday with my large extended family in a very small town, at a pool, little kids running around everywhere. We felt safe. We spent the night with our other extended family—our queer family—in a small-town gay bar. We felt safe.
The people inside Pulse were citizens of [America]. More to the point, they were emblems of it. In Pulse they found a refuge. In Pulse they found joy. —Frank Bruni
Paradise, a long-gone disco on Broadway in Chicago, was the first big gay nightclub I ever visited. I can still smell the sweat from the bodies, the booze on people's breath, and the poppers on the dance floor.
What I found in Paradise—what I found at Sidetrack, Little Jim's, the Loading Dock, Berlin, Christopher Street—was the truth. It was a truth my parents, my church, the media, and the medical establishment all conspired to hide from me. I had been told that being gay meant being alone, that being homosexual meant being miserable, that being queer meant being loveless, friendless, and joyless.
Then I walked into a gay bar where I saw men with their friends and men with their lovers. I saw men dancing and I saw men laughing. I found a community that I had been told didn't exist. I found love, I lost love, and I found love again.
This was before the internet, before there were gay characters on television who were still gay by the end of the first season, before there were gay people in movies who weren't murderers or victims, before there were gay and lesbian and bi and trans public figures, elected officials, news anchors, authors, actors, and directors.
But they're still telling the same lie. They're still telling LGBT kids that our lives are joyless, loveless, and friendless; they're still telling LGBT kids that queers are miserable. The most galling part of the lie, of course, is that the people telling it—the people who even today insist that there is no joy for queer people—are the same people working to deprive gay people of joy. It's like an arsonist telling you that your home is a sad place to live because it's on fire—a fire he set.
Young queers have the internet, and hookup apps, and role models. But they still need Pulse and they still need Paradise. They need to see the truth with their own eyes, experience it themselves, and feel it with their own bodies.
The youngest victims in Orlando were Akyra Murray, 18, and Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19. I hope they found joy before they died. I hope they knew love. I hope they died knowing the truth. I hope all the victims did.
Gay bars are therapy for people who can't afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can't go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression. —Richard Kim
Joy isn't the only thing you'll find in gay bars. You'll also find aggression, judgment, shade, prejudice, side-eye, rejection, and heartbreak. Some bars are welcoming, and some aren't. Some people are assholes, and some aren't. There are good and bad people everywhere, gay bars included. I got an e-mail this morning from a man who met his husband at Pulse. I met my husband at Re-bar. My friend Tony Hughes met Jeffrey Dahmer at Club 219.
As I write these words, there are reports that the shooter had been to Pulse before. A dozen times, maybe more. The shooter was reportedly on gay hookup apps. It's possible that this wasn't just religion and it wasn't just terrorism. It may also have been self-hatred. You'll find that in gay bars, too. You'll find the broken ones, the wounded ones, the ones who have been poisoned by religion or rejection or both. We want to believe that the hatred—and the haters—is outside and that we're safe. But some of us carry the hate inside.
Love is the cure—love and gun control and fully funded mental-health services and zero tolerance for anti-gay and anti-trans bigotry with no exceptions for "religious beliefs," sincerely held or otherwise.
No sanctuary for liars, no safe place for bigots, no refuge for haters.