Photo: Patrick J Hamilton
“Gay bar:” two simple words that are not, at all, simple to fully explain. And two words we’re seeing, not in the glint and glitter of Pride plans, but in headlines that speak of 49 of our own dead.
I’m not entirely sure our straight friends really understand what a gay bar means to members of the LGBTQ community… what it took to walk into one for the very first time, what it felt like to be there, how the people we met shaped our loves and lives.
Our bars were very often tucked into the parts of town where no one wanted to go at night, partially to preserve our anonymity, to remove us from the attention of a curious and not always friendly world. Unfortunately, that also meant we were easy pickings for police who need to make their monthly quota of tickets, and it also meant we were an easy target for the homophobic locals in our isolation.
It was the place we returned home from to worried mothers and answered the question, “Where were you?” with the simple and elusive, “Out.” Actually, far from out, usually, during those first visits.
And so it was also a place we went when we were keeping a secret. It was a place where we relied upon strangers to keep those secrets: from mothers and fathers and classmates and bosses, a place where we ducked in from parking lots hoping passing cars did not see us… to out us, later, at school, or hurl a slur, bottle or Big Gulp cup our way, as sometimes— often— happened. It was a place where, if you unexpectedly saw a coworker, you either hid or made an unspoken pact about seeing each other there.
It was also not a place you could talk about being when you returned to school or work on Monday.
It was a place where bartenders knew us by name, not just by beer label or cocktail selection, and helped us find apartments and comfort and company. It was a place where we all fell in and out of love with those men behind the bar, then became friends with them, in bonds that lasted far beyond where we lived or when we lived there.
Orlando was a violation of this complicated place where you just didn’t at first, stroll into, casually. You sat in a hot car for hours in the parking lot, then drove back home. And you did that for sometimes a summer of Saturdays. When you finally crossed the threshold, either alone or in the company of friends, or a regular who could “get you in,” you did so with sweaty palms and heart racing, sick with terror and lightheaded with giddiness. And then, in sheer shock, seeing a giant room of “you.” I remember thinking, in a moment like that, “I am not the only gay man in Miami.”