I remember the first time I ever walked into a gay bar. I was in my 20’s and I was completely panicked. I didn’t know what to expect. Who I would see. What I might feel that could possible be more strange than this constant feeling of questioning.
From the outside, you may have never noticed this place. It was in a strip mall on the corner of town. No rainbows, no markings to tell you that you were, in fact, at a gay bar – the name “gay bar” itself still registering as a bit of a shock factor at the time. The door covered in black left so much to the imagination as I looked at the clientele quietly wandering toward the door, separately – even though I had seen them arrive in the car together. I sat in my car, sweating. “What does this mean” I thought, as I summoned enough courage to open my door and fumble through my wallet for my ID.
As I opened the door, the thump of the bass felt familiar. The smells, too. I was in college after all. Bars were very familiar to me. This bar was smoky and dark, with the only light coming from the bathrooms to my right. There was an additional layer of familiarity somehow. It felt like everyone knew everyone else, except for me – this new kid wandering into the unknown.
While the sounds were the same, I looked around at this whole new world with shock and awe. It wasn’t a bunch of drunk girls dancing in groups of 10, taking over the dance floor. There was laughter. Bright colors and smiles from people as young as 20 up to 60 wandering around the tight room, about the size of a restaurant in an airport. Tables hosted couples, gay couples – some of the first I had ever seen in real life. They sat close together and I noticed a certain intimacy. I could tell they did not take these moments for granted, knowing that they rarely enjoyed that kind of proximity in a public place. Even holding hands in the parking lot was forbidden for fear of being outed.
For a moment, I felt safe. I felt my own anxieties relax as I realized that I was around people who wouldn’t judge these feelings swirling around in my head. There’s something about being around people who you feel safe with and the first time you really feel it, you’ll never forget it. That’s a feeling that’s hard to explain to someone who is not gay. It’s something the average person doesn’t “get” about gay bars. They’re a safe haven, like some people think of their home, church or a particular club they belong to. They’re a place where people in the LGBT community and our allies can be who they want without the glares and stares that are too common in the outside world.
Only in the context of my own secrets could I really understand what this safety meant. Having experienced the feeling of wondering if someone would accept me because of who I love. Asking my own mother, with tears in my eyes as I could barely breathe, if she could love me any way. My secret was safe in this crowded, dark bar and I would find myself seeking out that safe haven many times as I’ve gotten older – trying to find my place in a community, my safety in the crowd of people just like me.
That safe haven is temporarily displaced. The recent shooting in Orlando, killing 49 and injuring 50, has made a mark on our community – regardless of motivation from terrorism or hate. These are our sisters and brothers, the people we make eye contact with across a crowded room to nod and smile – a quiet acceptance of who they are and their life. An acceptance that’s powerful. An acknowledgement that is rare in a world where we’ve fought for equality for so long.
It’s an attack in our home. A disruption to our safety. This tragedy resonates deeply with me. I think of all the nights I’ve spent in a crowded gay bar across this country. The joy. The safe harbor, or so I thought.
I think about the rippling effect of each of these lives. If you really want to talk about viral, think about the resonating impact of these lives. These 99 lives were attached to at least two parents each. Some with children, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles… Thousands of lives directly impacted by this violence. Each of their faces momentarily featured on a news cast. Their story barely told.
Last night, as I was preparing for the week I went online to look for a BBQ chicken recipe. I feel guilty. That I’m living my life normally when such a tragedy just occurred. That I’m not doing more. I know we’re all wondering what to do.
It’s time to love. It’s time to love past the assumptions of communities and the hate that’s too readily available. To give acceptance readily and openly. To teach our kids to love people despite their differences and teach them that everyone is equally deserving of our love and respect.
I wish we didn’t have to be brave, but we have to do that too.