The first gay bar I ever went to was called the Cabaret.
It was kind of a dive, and had a dance floor the size of a postage stamp. (They eventually expanded it, but the Cab that I remember best involved a sardine-like dancing experience if the song was any good.) There were drag queens, and occasional musical acts, and strippers from time to time. But what it mainly was was a place full of other gay guys.
The first time I went was at the behest of the guy I was attempting a long-distance relationship with, who was paying me a visit. I was only 19 at the time, so a fake ID had to be procured (I think I borrowed someone’s, but that detail is lost to memory). I actually ended up having a pretty lousy evening, as he spent the whole time dancing with someone else. (The less said about that idiotic stab at romance, the better.)
However, he got me through the door. Chances are I’d have made it there eventually anyway, but I’ll give him credit for giving me enough of a push to step into the gay world in a way I never had before. My first tentative stumbles in that direction had been entirely virtual, facilitated by Internet Relay Chat (which is where I’d met him). As my eyes were getting used to the light after exiting the closet, I looked around blinking and realized I had no clue about what it meant to be an out gay man.
The relationship was soon over, but I made my way back to the bar.
Over time I came to make friends with a group of young guys like me who showed up there regularly, too. One of them had a family I came to spend so much time with, it may as well have been my own.
This past weekend, a violent bigot with an assault rifle entered a gay bar and murdered at least 50 of the patrons there. While the victims may not all have been gay men (I know of one woman at least who died, who worked there as a bouncer), it was gay men who were specifically targeted. The father of the murderous shit who did this is on record describing his son’s disgust at seeing two men kissing.
He didn’t attack a random target, but a venue that catered to gay men in particular. It was gay men that he wanted to kill, and gay men that he killed in large number.
It is fine on a certain level to describe the attack as against American values and freedoms, and against American people as a whole. The violent thug who perpetrated it hitched his wagon to Daesh’s train of violent thugs, and clearly wanted to align himself with a movement that despises America. Fair point.
But he chose gay men, during Pride month no less. He chose us because he hated us. And that fact matters.
Being a gay man, at least back in the 90s in the Midwest, meant a fair amount of navigation. It’s gotten better since, I see, and it was a lot better then than it was in the decades before. But it was still fraught.
How comfortable could you be, letting people know you were gay? How safe, in certain places and certain gatherings? And if you were maybe not sure if that other guy was gay, was it worth the risk of asking if he wanted to grab coffee sometime?
Not so in a gay bar. There you could kiss your boyfriend without worrying who saw you. If a straight guy happened to be there, it was his problem if he didn’t want guys flirting with him, not yours. It was safe.
Even now, if I feel like belting out showtunes and not giving a damn if I’m flaming like the Human Torch, there’s a piano bar not far from me where I can do so with abandon. It was at a gay bar two years ago that my husband and I rung in the New Year with two of our (straight) closest friends, marking the advent of 2015 while listening to a torch singer. Find us a reliable overnight babysitter, and there’s a decent chance we’d find ourselves at a place like Pulse if we felt like driving to the nearest big city.
The worthless bastard who did this did it in the place where we go to be ourselves.
Anyone who opts to offer commentary yet chooses to ignore that very important fact doesn’t deserve our respect, let alone our attention.
Last year I desperately wished I had some way to make it back to New York for Pride. After all, we had so much to celebrate.
The Supreme Court had told us that our relationships were equal under the law after all. Even though the state where I live had passed marriage equality by referendum, reading Justice Kennedy’s decision for the entire nation made me choke back tears. I knew Pride would be bursting with joy.
My own history with the celebrations dated back several years, and was connected to another Supreme Court decision. Lawrence vs Texas had just been decided, and suddenly our private lives could no longer be used to prosecute us anywhere in the nation. I was getting over a somewhat painful break-up, but I figured if not that year to go to the parade, then when?
And that’s where I met my husband.
Since then, we’ve marched in parades a couple more times in New York or Boston. It’s actually become something of a running joke that we show up in a city during Pride and don’t even know it until we get there. As we were driving into Boston to get measured for the suits for our (second) wedding, we noticed all the balloons and people wearing rainbow colors and laughed when it dawned on us that it was Pride weekend and we’d totally failed to notice.
As same-sex marriage has become more normative, and gay families more common, there’s been some discussion about making Pride celebrations more family-friendly. It’s a tension I’ve felt myself. On the one hand, Pride means go-go boys and flamboyant drag queens and why should our scene be painted in more muted shades? On the other, I’m not 100% sure I’m ready to explain to my first grader why some guy is kitted out like a horse. (Look it up.) Like any movement that faces questions of assimilation vs identity, ours has to figure these growing pains out.
We hadn’t planned on attending Pride events this year. We have made plans to do so next weekend after all.
The Cabaret closed years ago. I took my husband back for a trip to the city where I used to live, and it was gone. Guess those renovations didn’t pay for themselves after all. And it was hardly perfect even when it was open. It was a little bit seedy, and I didn’t always have a great time when I was there.
But it was my space to go when I wanted to dance to extended remixes of Pet Shop Boys songs. (I can still lip sync all the vocal cues from “Absolutely Fabulous.”) It was my place to go when I wanted to gather with my friends, and crowd around a drag queen while her favorite ABBA song played and she stood in the spotlight. It was my place to go when I wanted to kiss my boyfriend at midnight at New Year’s Eve while a crowd of other couples like us did the same. When I remember being young and carefree and trying to figure out who the hell I was, it’s where I remember myself being.
I’ve never been to Pulse. But I’ve been to countless places like it, because those are the places I go when I want to be surrounded by people like me. And it’s why I spent yesterday messaging and texting everyone I’m still in touch with from the old bar to tell them I still love them.
The gay community is resilient. We weathered closets and plagues and discrimination. But this was an attack against us, plain and simple, and I will not see that fact erased or denied.
The thing about terrorism is that it ultimately fails. People still run in Boston and people still buy kosher groceries in Paris. Pride parades still went on yesterday, and they’ll still continue for the rest of the month and in the years to come, even if I never attend another one myself.
But we’re showing up next week anyway. One more family won’t hurt.
This was beautiful.
I’ve been shellshocked since I woke up yesterday and heard the news. I’m not sure why, but of all the mass shootings that have occurred over the past few years, this is the one that felt the most “any one of those people could have been someone I loved.” More than the shooting at Newton, more than the shooting at the community college in my home state, more than the shooting at the mall in my home town.
I’ve felt these tears pushing at the back of my eyes, but they haven’t come out. THere’s been this numbness there too, and overtime I think about why the tears won’t come, it’s with this detached, clinical inner eye. I attended a vigil last night, and I was sure that would help. And it *did* help. It reminded me how much stronger my side is than that one guy in Orlando.
It was also helpful in honing my anger, an anger I hope to make use of as I confront people with the power of political celebrity who have seen the past X number of years telling the world that because of marriage/bathrooms/their very existence that those who are LGBT are somehow a danger, and yet yesterday when offering condolences had the audacity to blast platitudes of mourning while pretending there was no connecting thread between all of the victims in Orlando.
So yeah, last night helped. But even though I got to yell and scream and laugh and howl and hug, I couldn’t cry.
Now, reading this, I am crying, and I can’t stop. Im in a fucking Starbucks, typing and wiping these tears streaming down my face, and I’m reading and re-reading this essay. I really, really needed this.
Thank you Russell. Thank you so god damned much. You are amazing, and perfect, and the best writer I have ever known, and even if I had your talent as a writer I could never put into words how much I love you.
Beautiful Russell. So sad, and so beautiful.
Thank you for this. Thank you so much for this, and for your beautiful light. Part of me feels like I should just stop here but I do, also want to share what’s been going on with me, and this feels like a safe place to do it. If I screw anything up, I apologize.
I told several straight people today, “It’s like if you hated Catholics, and you went into a church and started shooting.”
It’s not exactly like that – the minute I said it the first time I started thinking of why it isn’t like that in several crucial ways – but once they believed me, I could see their faces change. And what I saw on their faces then is part of what I am feeling now.
On a lighter note, I’ve found, with the first graders and of like ages I know and have seen at Pride, that they have zero discomfort over a guy kitted up like a horse – though their assumptions about why are quite different from my own. Kids understand dress-up long before they understand grown-up sex.
As for my personal experience, far less profoundly expressed than yours, I discovered gay bars about 16 months into my schooling at McGill (what a waste of 16 months!), when a friend was like “WHY ARE YOU NOT LIVING IN THE GAY VILLAGE YOU DUMMY AND ALSO YOU SHOULD COME CLUBBING WITH ME *THIS WEEKEND*?” He was right (though I liked my neighbors and my shops, so I didn’t move), and I never felt as safe as I did in a gay nightclub. Straight clubs- no matter how delightful – were dangerous, both physically and socially. At gay clubs, or bars, or cafes, the worst thing that might happen *inside* was some guy being mildly irritated because he’d thought I was a guy and now I wasn’t and bah. MILDLY. (Outside was a different matter, of course – but it was worth the sometimes gauntlet of homophobes, to get in, and plus if you did get attacked or harassed, you knew there were people who would have your back.)
LGBTQ clubs and party spaces and sit around and drink or just talk or have a sandwich spaces – whether they were labeled gay, lesbian, or takes-all-comers – were safer than straight spaces and safer than political or “support” spaces (with the exception of the ACT UP folks, many of whom I also saw in the clubs – they were always kind), because no one – NO ONE – ever even lost their cool about not being able to pin down my gender or my identity in them.
I loved that Montreal scene so much. I was never loud. I was never the center of a circle of yelling people. But I was IN the circle, and I was safe in the circle, and years later I still occasionally get random promoter emails in French telling me about one or another huge party happening at one or another club, and I smile, and I remember how safe those completely insane parties – parties that would have scandalized everyone I knew back home who wasn’t also secretly wishing for them – actually were.
When I travel alone, I always make a point of finding out where the LGBTQ clubs and bars are, and finding one that feels like home, and spending hours and hours there. It makes me feel safer. It has always made me feel safer. I trust if we are fierce enough, and stubborn enough, and THERE enough, and loved enough, and love enough, and yeah, yell enough –
someday it will make me feel safer again.
Great piece Doc!
Holy bananas, IRC! I met my husband over IRC in 1999! Just him, me, the entire dialup internet and half a continent of distance.
My first club is called the Saloon and it’s still open. Serious dancing place. Coming of gay age in the aughts was kind of anticlimactic to be honest. The bars were vibrant at first but the iron grip of repression had long become very feeble and accordingly the community was expanding (and diffusing) as a result. Thus my early memories of the bar were of how various sub-areas of the bar were for sub-groups of gay people and their interests but by the time I arrived on the scene it was mostly over and they were just wearing away the last of the veneer. The Saloon is still a fine place to dance and pay a moderate price for an extremely strong drink (seriously, rum and coke at the Saloon means a glass of rum and then they wave the coke at it and toss a lemon wedge in. What is it with gay bars and titanically strong drinks?)
The bars are changing in earnest now. They’re safe spaces for ladies so in Minneapolis the ladies come in great droves. Some of the largest bars have been almost entirely taken over by straight girls (especially bridal groups). The community could kvetch about it but the bald facts are that the community doesn’t need that many bars and without the straight girls they’d go out of business. Interestingly enough you have started seeing straight guys working and visiting the gay bars too. They both, the workers and the visitors alike, are a new breed of guy: entirely unconcerned with gays, generally flattered at being hit on, friendly but simply uninterested (aka straight as hell) and disgustingly attractive. It’s like seeing the shining future writ on the walls of those tacky dear clubs. That’s something the verminous attacker and his backward ideals can’t quash. They’ve lost, they’ve lost for some time now.
I’d bet good money that this fanatics’ kid will exit the faith before he hits his mid-twenties. I’d bet less but decent money that within a generation there’ll be a gay kid or two descended from him. I am certain that all will look back on him with revulsion, embarrassment and disgust. And I have no doubt* that as he’s turning on a spit in agnostic hell(?) those facts are what the little demons will be playing on the wall projector for him.
*I lie, agnostics are nothing but doubt.
Great piece, Russell. Trying to get my Southern straight boy head around the significance of a place like Pulse is an ongoing project for me, and writing like this is how I’m getting there.
Oh Russell. I’m so glad you wrote this. I love you.
A lovely piece.
Wonderful piece, Doc.
Spent most of the day in charge of my approaching-three granddaughter in Fort Collins: bicycle to Lee Martinez park, play with the other kids there, bicycle to Culvers for lunch, rest of the afternoon working through the amazing things an almost-three kid thinks of to do in her house. She thinks black men are fascinating. She loves the lesbian couple and their kids. To borrow from Denis Leary: “You know what my approaching-three granddaughter hates? Naps. French fries. End of list.” Instant antidote to all sorts of pessimism.
Thank you. This is beautiful. My heart aches. I read a post on OT earlier about the same subject and was saddened to see the comments spiral downwards. I hope that we all can find peace.
It is true that life always goes on, but the sadness is squeezing tears from my heart.
I’m really sorry this has happened. But thanks for writing this, Russell.
Thank you for this piece, Russell. I read a list of names and obituaries of those killed last night. Most were so young with so much promise. Many were there with their partners or husbands and died together. Heart-breaking. Just heart-breaking.
For all the progress that’s been made over the past few decades, the hatred is still out there and we’re called upon to fight it.
This is so beautiful and powerful. Why isn’t it on the front page?
“Since then, we’ve marched in parades a couple more times in New York or Boston. It’s actually become something of a running joke that we show up in a city during Pride and don’t even know it until we get there. As we were driving into Boston to get measured for the suits for our (second) wedding, we noticed all the balloons and people wearing rainbow colors and laughed when it dawned on us that it was Pride weekend and we’d totally failed to notice.”
I would guess that the year you drive in and say, “Oh…they still do that?” will be the year that full equality will have been achieved. Hoping that day is not far off.
Thank you so much for writing this. My closest female friend is gay and visited my husband and me a few weeks ago. She is politically conservative – like super duper conservative and though she is out is still a little self loathing, which hurts me because I love her. (In fact, she didn’t believe in same sex marriage until maybe…five years ago.) When she stayed with us, she made some politically inflammatory comments, trying to get us to debate her and I didn’t take the bait…until the last night she stayed with us. She said something about Hillary trying to take away our rights and how gun control was wrong. At this point, I lost my sh*t – I was previously married to a violent person who once shot at me. He missed, but the point is – he was nuts and shouldn’t have been able to buy a gun, much less the two he owned and brandished around our home like he was in a Western. She knows this and should have also known better than to makes such foolish statements about gun control…especially to me. I have always supported her – how could she not support me? While I apologized the next morning for being passionate about my position (she did not apologize in return, but said I was entitled to my opinion…really? Thank you!) she headed back to her state and we have barely communicated since.
And then Orlando happened. How I have wanted to go with my feelings and reach out to her and remind her that I still believe in a world where hatred has no place and tolerance is abundant……………..I have not. Maybe I’m not a good friend. Maybe I’m hoping that she sees just why gun control is necessary. Maybe I hope she will reach out to me. Maybe we can meet in the middle…
I’m glad you wrote this post and that I found it…this has all been heavy on my mind.
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