FIND YOUR PACK: Queer spaces save queer lives. Rachel Robinson

In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there's a bar called the Metropolitan. I don't know how long it's been around—but for as long as I've been around, it's been gay.

In 2012, the editors at a now-defunct alternative magazine assigned me, a very green 21-year-old, to write a piece about the Metropolitan. At that time, the neighborhood was changing and the new neighbors didn't like the bar's backyard garden. They didn't like the cackling and the hooting and the hollering that went on past their bedtimes. And they did have bedtimes. The bar's newer neighbors in the apartments that surrounded the garden had day jobs, ones that started early in the morning in downtown offices. The neighbors complained to the local community board, which eventually suggested that the state liquor authority not renew Metropolitan's license.

On my quest to report on the liquor-license flap, I headed to Metropolitan's garden with a notepad in hand. I ended up talking to four gay women, scribbling down quotes about the neighbors' complaints. And then it happened—as a reporter, I couldn't have asked for better color: Our conversation was interrupted by a flying bottle of Pellegrino. It had come from the apartment next door. "They definitely have a Vespa," one woman said, "and a French bulldog." I remember looking down at the leaking Pellegrino and looking at the women laughing under the Metropolitan's twinkly string lights. I was dazzled, grateful as a reporter for the scene with the flying bottle, and grateful as a living being for them.

At that moment, something in me had started to shift. Maybe it was my terrible experiences with men that made me start to take my crushes on girls more seriously. Or maybe it was just the right time and the right place to start listening to myself. I had always known I liked girls in that way, maybe even more than boys.

The previous year, I also had to reckon with the fact that I had fallen in love with my best friend. When she asked me to sleep with her, I thought my heart would burst. Too bad she had a boyfriend. Too bad that, despite the intimacy we shared, she still considered herself "straight."

Luckily, around the same time I had my heart broken, I found a pack.

The pack's matriarchs—including a woman I worked with at the magazine—took me in. They called me "baby dyke" and introduced me to their friends at the Metropolitan, invited me to their dance nights. They encouraged me to make out with people who were going through breakups. We went shirtless at Pride and jumped in the Washington Square Park fountain. We drank mimosas in the sun until we couldn't see. For a 21-year-old in the process of coming out, stepping into a queer space with a pack meant stepping into a zone of love and acceptance.

But more than a year later, I was still reckoning with what it meant to be queer. I ended up dating a guy and lost my pack. By the time I exited the relationship, the scene had changed. Going to the Metropolitan didn't mean a garden full of gay women battling Pellegrinos thrown from nearby apartment windows. The Metropolitan remained a standby for older gay men, but the scene for queer women had moved on.

As my dear queer friend "Sadie" informed me, the scene had moved not too far away, to South Williamsburg, to a bar called the Woods. Every Wednesday night, the Woods offered a queer dance party, and it drew every boi for miles. But I was nervous about attending. Despite feeling sexually liberated, I had yet to find longer-lasting romance with a woman.

I didn't think I could do it. Women, unlike men, were intimidating to me. I figured they would be able to see through me right away—would be able to see the scared middle-school dork with fantasies of touching Scary Spice. I couldn't be Shane from The L Word. (I couldn't even be that psycho Jenny.) I was me. And I was convinced no one—especially not a woman—could ever know me and love me at the same time.

Nevertheless, with Sadie's encouragement, I came to the Woods on a Wednesday night. I clung to her, gripping a beer and standing awkwardly around her pack. Gorgeous queer women were everywhere: femmes, bois, and American Apparel's entire selection of turtleneck crop tops. I felt like a teenage Model UN delegate who had somehow stumbled upon a group of nymphs bathing in a mythological spring.

It didn't take long for one of Sadie's friends to swim up to me, circle her arms around my waist, and ask me about my astrological chart. She was beautiful, her long black hair in twists down to the small of her back. I can't remember what I said to her, but it was probably gibberish.

Then she leaned in and kissed me.

I had kissed women before, but this kiss felt different. It was torturously soft, so soft it seemed to make time itself slow down. I felt dizzy. Sadie's friend took my hand and led me outside the bar, led me past the six-foot-something Eastern European bouncer with a crew cut, and into the street. She guided my back to a wall and kissed me again, this time more deeply.

We were exposed then, outside the safety of our queer space. Anyone who walked past us could see us, but Sadie's friend didn't care. She kissed me again. It felt like breathing. Out there on the street, it even felt like having a superpower, like breathing underwater. She asked me to stay there a while, and I was terrified, but I did.

Two years, a cross-country move, and a same-sex relationship loved in public later, I ended up back in New York City to be with a relative going through chemo. Then Orlando happened. I found myself outside another storied gay bar—the Stonewall Inn—during a vigil for the dead.

I had never seen so many gay people so quiet or so many New Yorkers on a city street with nowhere to go. People walked around slowly, as if stunned, as if they had been hit with a baton between the eyes. A couple of people punctuated the silence with calls for gun control or votes for Hillary. This wasn't anything like the queer spaces that helped me come out. I felt lonely and unsafe, even though I was surrounded by thousands of people like me. I wanted to leave.

Then I saw her: Sadie, standing maybe 10 feet away. Neither of us had told each other we'd be there, and in this crowd, seeing a close friend was a statistical improbability. We moved through the crowd into a hug that gave a rush of relief, and she let me cry in her arms. I hadn't realized I had been holding my breath.

The toughest battles for LGBTQ rights were fought before I was even alive. I hadn't been born when queers fought the cops at Stonewall, when ACT UP demanded AIDS be taken seriously. Because of them, I've been able to love in public, been able to move beyond a conviction that a woman who knows me would always find me unlovable. But after Orlando, something in me feels hollowed out. My superpower feels depleted, the ability to breathe gone.

But my queer pack is still here. We're loving one another still, and harder than ever before. We take turns breathing for those who have lost their breath, and we'll continue to holler past everyone's bedtime. We will make sure that vicious loners with guns and desperate politicians won't win. We will make sure love will.