I spent last Saturday night at a gay bar. Packed tightly with hundreds of my brothers and sisters at Metropolitan in Williamsburg, I felt very much at home. There was cheap beer in plastic cups and breezy smiles on sweaty queer faces. The DJ played Beyonce's "Hold Up" and we knew all the words. The cute guy from earlier on the patio was giving me eyes while I pretended not to notice, averting my grin towards my new Puma sneakers.
As I blushed and cooed along with Queen B in messy faux patois, I had the same, semi-lit revelation I've had many times as of late: Thank god for this place. Thank god there's somewhere we can all feel safe to dance together, to wear whatever and to hear the music we like. Somewhere our preferences rule, we can flirt without fear, and be fully ourselves around the best kind of people: People who know the lyrics to every Lemonade album cut.
In that moment of rapture, though, all of us at Metropolitan were blissfully unaware of the horror unfolding in a similar bar 1,000 miles south in Orlando. Gay bars are a place where queer people can forget about the real world but the next day we'd all wake up to a crushing reality, the horrible news from Pulse that would forever taint that night with despair.
And while I reveled in a state of joyous unknowing at Metropolitan that night, I haven't always felt this lovey dovey about gay bars. In fact, I basically shunned them for most of my adult life both as both a patron and, perhaps more pertinently, as a DJ.
I came out at 16 but until the far end of my mid-twenties, I distanced myself from the gay community. As a bullied middle schooler-- shy, a little effeminate, highly sensitive-- I learned early on how to compartmentalize my gayness, both externally and internally. It felt like a necessity at the time to hide the parts of myself that got me picked on: my affinity for tight jeans and my mother's Hermes scarves, for Britney's choreography and Justin's butt. I learned to present a version of myself that raised the least eyebrows.
I'd covered up so well, in fact, that by high school I'd become oblivious to where the mask ended and my real self began. So even after coming out, I clung tightly to a label I'd bestowed upon myself when, on a balmy August Thursday in 2004, I blurted out to my family that I was gay. I shared this news with a caveat: No one had to worry because I was "Not Your Typical Gay Guy."
I'd like to pause here to assure you that I understand how ridiculous that sentence sounds. But to me, at 16 and the only out guy in my junior class, it somehow felt like an essential addendum to my sexuality. I wanted everyone to know that while I was a man who is sexually attracted to other men, I wasn't Stanford-on-Sex and the City, Pink-Tank-Top, Elton John, Fire Island Gay.
I wanted my mom know that she didn't have to be concerned -- I was still the same son I was when I'd dated my long-suffering 10th grade girlfriend. I wanted my straight guy friends to know that I wasn't a threat -- I wouldn't try and make out with them and I still preferred 50 Cent to Cher. Mostly, I wanted to console myself and grasp at a solid identity, however convoluted, during a time when my real one felt perilous.
In hindsight, this is all fucking hilarious. I am, after all, a proud wearer of many pink tank tops and Cher, as we know, is Goddess amongst humans. But after years of shame, of feeling that my gayness and the feminine aspects of my being were something negative, "Not Your Typical Gay Guy" was a comfy new closet. I wasn't like "them." I liked Hip Hop. I didn't have a gaggle of gay friends. I was "Masc" (which, LOL). And I sure as hell wasn't going to any damn gay bars.
In fact, all through my college years and into my early twenties, I went to maybe two gay bars, and I was dragged kicking and screaming. Once there, I turned my nose up: I stood in the corner in my Carhartt overalls (which looked super gay, in spite of myself), ignoring my fellow homos, serving a bad attitude and covetously eyeing the exit. Ironically, unwarranted elitism is a very bad gay cliche.
When I started DJing, this judgmental posturing followed me right into the club. I had a plan: I was going to be New York's premiere Gay DJ who never DJ'ed in gay bars. "Not Your Typical Gay DJ," if you will. Every time I was offered a gig at a gay bar, I'd respond flippantly, "No thanks! I don't really DJ gay stuff." I actually wore this as a twisted badge of honor.
I had it all rationalized too. I didn't see myself as having any issues with being gay. I was out, I lived in New York, I wore very short denim cut-offs and my family had accepted me. I saw it as a matter of fact: gay bars were not as legit as mainstream clubs. The places my straight DJ friends spun at were the real deal, and spinning in gay bars -- with their cheap booze, twirling fairies and shitty sound systems -- would be prohibitive of the "cred" I sought.
The hilarious part is that, in addition to being a hip hop head, I also worshipped all the music we deem as classically "gay," the stuff that gay bars are made of: Kylie, Madonna, Christina, you name it. But, like in middle school, I had that aspect of myself roped off. "I'm a Slave 4 U" was for my earbuds on a run, Jay-Z and Avicii were for the club. In that mode of thinking, DJing in straight establishments was a very logical path. It also proved a very lonely one.
Mainstream nightlife is built, like many things in our society, around facilitating straight sex. Clubs cater to straight guys who can spend money on bottles which they hope will attract girls they can fuck. There might be a stray gay here or there but everything about the venue, from the clothes to the culture and indeed, the music, is meant to house a very straight, guy-girl dynamic.
It's not that everyone I worked with was overtly homophobic or that I tried to hide my gayness at work. It's just that in my confusion, I had unwittingly cornered myself into servicing a world that had no place for me. Just as I'd groomed the most digestible version of my 13 year-old self, I learned the set that netted the club the most money, which often meant the most basic, all encompassing, Bro & Bachelorette-pleasing one I could muster. No frills, no edges, very limited Kylie. I got very good at it and I also grew very resentful of it.
I def wasn't meeting any guys, either. I was way too busy shucking and jiving straight girl requesters as they'd flutter their eyelashes and stroke my back, hoping to get the song they wanted. What's the least awkward way to let a lady club-goer know that it it's going going down like that this time? "Girl, don't worry. I want to hear "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" too!" I'd respond in the queeniest voice I could muster. I even once did the entire "Single Ladies" dance in the booth, just to send a message.
Once the whole gay thing registered, some of these girls would try to "Gay BFF" me, which, as we know, is the worst. Other times, they'd look perplexed, turn and leave, a preferable response. On a certain level these were funny stories for brunch the next day. On a deeper cut, it was an isolating and depressing, harkening back to feeling like a freaky, closeted middle schooler who didn't belong. Even if I did see a guy the club who I thought was cute, I had to play every gay's least favorite game, Is He Or Isn't He? Most of the time, I'd just drop it.
There came a point with all of this where I considered quitting DJing entirely. I was struggling financially, I found the patriarchal world of straight nightlife despairing, and I wasn't having fun anymore. It was right then that a gay promoter-- we'll call him Eric-- who I'd turned down gigs from multiple times in the past, offered me a slot at his big Friday night gay party at a bar in the East Village. At first, as was my steeze, I was reticent. I called friends and wondered whether I should do it, whether I should "compromise."
Luckily, I'd just read Alan Downs' book, The Velvet Rage, which had been handed to me my one of my few gay friends. Rage began to open my eyes to the scope of my internalized homophobia, how you can be out of the closet, in cut offs, sucking dick and still experiencing shame that might keep you away from a gay bar (or for some, spending too much time in one). But finally, after years of fighting, I decided to say "fuck it," and I said yes to the gig from Eric.
I showed up to the bar the night in my Carhartts, fully ready to hate everything. Upon walking in, I immediately seized up at the bartenders in their muscled tank tops and drag queens finishing their make-up in pocket mirrors. I said "Hi" to everyone and rolled my eyes behind their backs like the bitchy queen I was pretending not to be.
But as the party filled up and I knocked back a few drinks, I began, slowly but surely, to unclench. Like most good things in life, it started with the music. I quickly realized I could play literally everything I loved, shit I'd reserved for dancing in my room and never played at my straight gigs: Scissor Sisters "Invisible Light," Janet Jackson's "Together Again," Nicki Minaj's "Stupid Ho," Madonna's "Deeper and Deeper." "Oh wow, this is actually super fun," I remember thinking, watching an entire room of cuties twerk to Beyonce's "Grown Woman."
As the night progressed and the 'Yonce deep cuts flowed, I found myself enjoying DJing for the first time in a long time. I felt in-sync, I felt safe, I felt like I could could follow my instincts and play the music I wanted to. A cute guy in a tank top came into the booth to requested a song. I thought: "Ohemgee. He's flirting with me and I don't even have let him know I'm not into because I actually am into it!" He touched the small of my back and it was awesome.
As the club wound down and I cued up Robyn's "Show Me Love" to rapturous response, I was changed and I was dumbfounded. The whole thing felt a little like I was coming out, this time as a proud Gay DJ. Everything I'd been shamed and bullied for -- Britney Choreography, tight jeans and, of course, being attracted to other dudes -- was celebrated here. I felt excited by my new wokeness, sure, but also a little twisted. How didn't I get this before?. What had I been hiding from this all all these years? Hot guys dancing to Beyonce? What was my fucking problem?
I left the bar determined to take a hard look at myself. I started with taking as many gigs as Eric threw my way. And I decided to to approach gay bars with an open mind and open heart, not as the wounded teenager who deemed saw his femininity as a flaw. It dawned on me that by avoiding these places, I'd closed a part of myself off to the part of myself that needed community, camaraderie, understanding and acceptance in a place where everyone was like me and from people who were like me.
Moreover, I'd denied myself the ultimate privilege of seeing a cute guy from across the room and feeling secure to assume he was gay. This might seem like a little thing, maybe this is all an obvious "duh" for some people, but it felt huge to me. It was a rebirth, a real Ray of Light moment where I let a lot of bullshit go. In a way, DJing in gay bars freed me. They are now my absolute favorite place to spin.
After my night at Metropolitan last weekend, news has slowly began to trickle out that Omar Mateen, the shooter in Orlando, might have been -- to exactly no one's surprise -- a gay man. It's rumored that he frequented Pulse and had a Grindr profile. And while I can't personally speak about the specific conflict that devoutly Muslim gays must suffer with, I do know a thing or two what gay bars can come to represent when you're dealing with internalized homophobia.
It is important that, within the gay community, we talk about self-loathing and how we treat and view each other as gay people. We need to discuss the consequences of the years we've all spent thinking there was something wrong with us, not good enough, that being gay is a burden that might render us inherently unlovable. If we don't, as we saw tragically as Pulse, there are consequences, even in 2016 when things can sometimes appear placid on the surface.
And look: Gay bars aren't perfect. There's exclusivity within the LGBT community, there are insidious body ideals and our hookup culture can be dangerous when fully unchecked. But gay bars are still the one place in this world where queerness flies the most free. And while that might terrify from some people, both gay and straight, it's also why we must protect gay bars as safe places with life and limb. We can never let Orlando make us feel inhibited from celebrating ourselves, from keeping these institutions alive and from going hard to Beyonce in pink tops at them during Pride this weekend.