After Orlando, Gay Bars Will Never Feel as Safe as They Once Did

Inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on May 7.

Pulse Orlando / Facebook

On Friday night, like most Friday nights, I went to a gay bar. My partner, who I met there seven years ago, came too, along with four of our closest gay friends. We piled into a banquette, our arms instinctively wrapping around one another to make the best use of limited space. We smiled as other friends—bar regulars like us—stepped through the door, trading streetlamp dullness for disco ball splendor. We kissed them, sometimes on the lips, and shouted stupid sassy greetings over the dated pop playlist. We tipped the drag queens, a little extra because it’s Pride. I drank too many “gay strength” gin-and-tonics, I got very drunk, and I danced—happily, lasciviously, recklessly—with my people until three in the morning. To say that I went home afterward is misleading: I was already there.

On Friday night, we felt safe, confident in the still-rare sense of total freedom—from evil eyes, from family friendly etiquette, from people who might want to kill us—that this space, the gay bar, afforded.

On Saturday night, that confidence was broken.

The worst mass shooting in American history just happened at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida. At least 50 of my family members are dead. Many more are wounded. Those who escaped report having to crawl over the still-warm bodies of the slain—friends and hookups, exes and frenemies—as they fought their way out of the massacre. Some have recounted thinking the initial shots were the ultra-real bassline of a hot new song. That horrific misdirection was only the first of the night’s violations.

By all accounts, Pulse was a typical gay club of size: chintzy-chic décor, go-go dancers and drag shows, three distinct music areas with names like “Jewel Box” and “Adonis Room,” and theme nights like “Dorm Wednesdays” and “Platinum Fridays.” Saturday was “Upscale Latin” night, a detail that should be marked as we mourn with the local community. Online reviews describe Pulse as a friendly place that welcomed different ethnic and gender constituencies, as clubs in smaller cities often must—they become catch-all gathering points as matters of need and of business. Following in the historical tradition of the gay bar, Pulse also served as a true safe space, a semi-private realm in which sexuality, identity, and desire could be explored and tested apart from the complications of the outside world. “#PulseNightclub was one of the first clubs where me and many of my friends felt comfortable enough to be ourselves. My heart hangs heavy,” said one patron on Twitter. That comfort—that special, crucial annex of reality that allowed for meeting, mixing, and expression—has been violated.

Pulse lies a little off the main nightlife strip in Orlando—it’s the kind of place you might go with a group after a bar crawl to dance out the night. It doesn’t really get going until later; a lot of people will end up there eventually. However, there’s almost certainly a well-based drink special in a plastic cup waiting for you if you arrive early enough, not to mention free cover. Timing is everything. Pulse closes at 2:30 a.m.; the shooter began his work a little after 2, peak capacity on a weekend summer night. A man on TV just said, “I don’t even know if my friends are alive.” “50 people!” he repeats, incredulously. Numbers, the killer reminds us, mean little to an assault rifle. The notion that the sheer mass of our bodies might offer some form of protection—violated.

Another violation: Barbara Poma, one of Pulse’s owners, says she named the bar not after the throb of an EDM remix, but to memorialize the heartbeat of her brother, John, who died from an AIDS–related illness. “[Pulse] is John’s inspiration,” she told USA Today, “where he is kept alive in the eyes of his friends and family.” If I believed in hell, I’d want there to be a special place in it for those who murder children in the sepulcher of their ancestors.

And then, on top of everything, it is Pride. The fact that this murderer sullied our home and mowed down our brothers and sisters this month may, save for the basic destruction of human life, be the greatest violation of all. We do not yet know if Pride itself is what motivated him on Friday. It could have been a reported allegiance to ISIS, an institution known for tossing gay men off roofs; or, perhaps more acutely, it could have been rage at seeing two men kiss in Miami a few months ago, as the killer’s father recounted. I don’t really care. The effect is that there are now armed guards on Christopher Street and security scares in San Diego and frantic meetings around the country on the subject of how to keep all the newly married couples from getting shot while they are out to celebrate. In the season of Stonewall’s anniversary, this man has succeeded in giving the gay bar—wellspring of our liberation—the aura of a death trap.

President Obama is right that it is a “heartbreaking day” for us queers. This criminal did indeed target a place—and by extension, all such places—where we come together to find “solidarity and empowerment,” “to speak [our] minds and advocate for [our] civil rights,” and, more importantly, “to dance, sing, and live.” This is hardly the first time such places have been attacked, to be sure. But we used to expect it. We thought we were past all that.

“I was just dancing, I had just taken the first sip of my drink,” Christopher Hanson, a survivor, told NBC.

“They were just dancing. Just there to dance with their friends,” my friend, with whom I have often danced, wrote on Facebook.

After the investigation is complete, after the dead have been named and the grief somewhat dulled, I will go back to the gay bar (we have to), and I am sure I will dance again. But I will never do it as freely as I once did. None of us will. And that’s a violation that cannot be undone.

Read more in Slate about the Orlando shooting.