Why queer clubs and gay bars are more than just places to dance and drink
In the immediate aftermath of the Orlando shooting, President Obama’s remarks were met with criticism from many corners, as they do, but there was a particular comment that seemed to really upset a lot of straight people on social media. This bit really got some folks’ panties in a bunch:
The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked was more than a nightclub—it is a place of solidarity and empowerment…
Some people had a real difficult time understanding why anyone would refer to a gay bar as a place of empowerment. It’s really hard for most straight people to understand just how isolated and alienated queer kids feel their entire lives. We take a lot of flack, particularly white male queer people, from people of color whenever we draw parallels between our struggle for acceptance and equality with the struggles that racial minorities face. There are more similarities than some people want to admit, but they are correct that there are differences. And one of those differences is that isolation.
A member of a racial or ethnic minority growing up in a racist society is never told that other people like him or her do not exist. At all. Usually a person of color is aware of the existence of other people of color if for no other reason than the rest of their family is also a member of that racial or ethnic minority. They may live in a neighborhood where other members of the minority are neighbors, classmates, and so on.
Not queer kids. Until very recently, queer kids were pretty much guaranteed to grow up being told and shown again and again that every human is straight. Little boys are teased about having a crush on any girl or woman other than a close relative that they get along with. Little girls get told they will be a mommy some day. Every book, movie, television show, family anecdote, et cetera shows us again and again that every boy grows up to have a girlfriend, eventually a wife, and will become a daddy. And they tell every girl that she will grow up to be some boy’s girlfriend, then some man’s wife, and eventually will have that man’s babies.
And anyone who doesn’t do those things? Well, there’s something wrong with them! Unattached characters of either gender appearing in stories and shows are usually treated as the comic relief or as tragically alone. Lonely spinsters that everyone feels sorry for or eccentric bachelors that no one takes seriously are the least horrible futures that society tells us await us if we don’t fall in love with a person of the opposite gender and settle down.
That’s the initial indoctrination. The first level of lying, if you will.
As we get older, we start noticing other fates for men and women who don’t fit into the coupled hetero ideal. They aren’t just taken seriously and pitied, it’s worse than that. Some of those oddballs may indeed have special friendships with another person of the same gender, but that always ends in death for at least one of them. If one survives, it is as a broken creature, forever haunted by guilt and despair because of it.
The lies that we are told is that queer people don’t exist, or at least they don’t exist naturally, and those few queer people that do come about however that happens, will live lives that are filled with loneliness, despair, pain, suffering, and death. But it is a pain, suffering and death that they deserve because they are monsters.
When you are told those lies again and again; when you are made to feel like a freak any time you behave or feel anything other than what is expected; when you are not allowed to see any examples of queer people who aren’t object lessons who deserve pain and suffering—you believe it. Your parents, your teachers, your church, your neighbors, your classmates, and your siblings have all told you the same thing again and again your entire life. It must be true! There must be something deeply wrong with you, and that wrongness means that you can never be happy, never be loved, never know joy, never be accepted.
And you’ve been made to feel miserable any time that any hint of your difference has manifested. You have probably developed crushes on members of your own gender, but realized that the other person didn’t feel the same way. Or if the affection was returned, you both lived in terror of what would happen if anyone found out. If anyone has found out, there were some sort of bad consequences. One or both of your were beaten. You were forbidden to see each other. One or both of you might have been sent away or simply kicked out of your home by your parents.
So, the first time that we walk into a gay bar is usually a revelation. There are other people like you there! More importantly, you find people like you there who seem to be happy. The first visit may be a short one because you’re nervous and not sure what to expect. Or it might be that the atmosphere or theme of the place is catering to a different subset of the community than you identify with. But when you find a place that you can feel comfortable in, you see that there are people there who are living lives other than lonely and tragic. There aren’t just sexual or romantic relationships, there are friendships. People share drinks and a laugh when their life is going well, they share drinks and hugs and commiserations in times of sorrow.
And while you may not be a person who particularly fits in at the bar scene, there is still a sense of community and belonging that you can find there. One that many queer people never experienced before that.
My first few experiences in gay bars didn’t go terribly well. The first place I went to was more of a leather bar and I felt as if I’d stepped into a foreign country. My bright colored nerdy t-shirt didn’t help me fit in, but more importantly, I didn’t understand any of the non-verbal signals that were going on all around me. My second gay bar was filled with loud music that I had never heard before, and everyone was dressed in far more fashionable clothes than I could pull off. I felt like a very ugly duckling surrounded by a sea fashion models and body builders.
For me, the bar that clicked was the old Timberline. It was a mix of lesbians and queer men—a lot of people wearing cowboy boots and blue jeans. Country music was played there, and twice a week there were classes in line-dancing and two-stepping. Same-sex couples danced arm in arm, circling around the dance floor to the kind of music that I had grown up with. It wasn’t every queer person’s dream, but to those of us who are came to Seattle from the south or from rural communities just about anywhere, there were enough cultural touchstones to our childhood to make being an openly queer man dancing with another man feel like a magic transformation where the impossible suddenly seemed within reach.
That’s another reason the shooting hurts so much. Even though I haven’t been inside a gay bar in something like 14 years, the images of wounded people being carried out of the club not by paramedics, but by other people who were clearly part of the bar crowd was worse than a punch in the gut. One of our places was no longer ours.
I’ve rambled enough about this. We grew up being told we were monsters who should either not exist or be invisible. We grew up believing we would never have friends who would accept us for who we really were. We grew up believing that not only would we never find love, but that we didn’t deserve any form of happiness at all. For many of us, a queer club was one of the first places that we learned that all of those things were lies.
And it wasn’t just me who experienced that: