Why does Orlando feel so personal to me and other gay people?

My time in gay bars gave me the confidence to cozy up to frat boys like my dear friend Scott (on the left).
My time in gay bars gave me the confidence to cozy up to frat boys like my dear friend Scott (on the left).

If you know me, you know I'm the least likely candidate to talk about how important the bar experience is to LGBT people. I can't remember the last time I was in a gay bar. Actually, that's not true. Last November my husband and I flew to Puerto Rico for a few days to celebrate our 25th anniversary. After dinner one night, we decided to explore the Condado Beach area and stumbled across a tiny, hole-in-the-wall bar. There was a little rainbow decal on the door. We thought, why not?

We pulled open the door and stepped inside. We were the only ones there. The bartender gave us a little shrug and said that it was too early and suggested we come back later. It was 10 o'clock. “How much later?” I asked. He smiled, perhaps trying to lessen the blow. “At least two hours.” Ouch. We thanked him and left.

Back on the street, I asked Ken if we should go in search of another bar. He asked me what I wanted to do and I told him that I would be happy to head back to the hotel and climb in bed. He waggled his eyebrows and happily agreed. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I meant to sleep. That's my last experience with going to a gay bar. Not exactly memorable. What is memorable is my first experience with going to a gay bar.

It was 1984 and I was a freshman at Western Kentucky University. My friends were determined to smuggle me into Warehouse 28 in Nashville (aka the wear-me-out house). At around an hour away, it was the closest (and biggest) gay bar to campus. I had my doubts about the whole venture. First, the plan was for me to use Richard's ID. Richard was a dancer, who was fit, tan and blonde. I was none of these things, but I did have highlights. My friends were convinced that, in the low light of the bar, I would pass. Second, Richard was going with us. He was going to use his ID to get in the bar, and then send it back out with another friend for me to use.

Third, I wasn't sure I wanted to go. Or rather, I was afraid to go. Afraid someone might see me walking into a gay bar. Afraid some boy might talk to me. Afraid no boy would talk to me. Afraid I'd be stuck sitting in a car in the parking lot of a gay bar, while my friends danced the night away. The whole plan seemed doomed from the very beginning. The smart thing would have been to stay home. I went anyway.

When we got to the bar, my friends left me waiting in the car. A few minutes later, Jim returned and handed me Richard's ID. He told me to be sure and smile when I handed it to the guy at the door, and to have my money out and ready, and to act like I had been there before. I was terrified. Jim pulled me out of the car and marched me to the door.

"Haven't I already checked you in?" the doorman asked me. I mumbled that I had forgotten something in the car. "Why isn't your hand stamped?" I just stared at him. I wasn't Richard. I wasn't fit, tan and blonde. And I had clearly never been here before. Jim elbowed me in the ribs and pasted a giant smile on his face. Shit, I had forgotten to smile. Was it too late? The doorman handed the ID back to me. "Sorry, but I can't let you in," he said.

Crushed, I turned to leave, but Jim didn't budge. He slung his arm around my neck. "Look," he said, "he's not here to drink. He just wants to dance with a cute boy." I blushed, afraid of being outed, even as I stood in line to get into a gay bar. Time seemed to stop, while the doorman considered this new information. The people behind us in line started to get restless. After a pointed look, the doorman took my money and stamped my hand. "No drinking!" he yelled over his shoulder as Jim pushed me into the bar.

The thump, thump, thump of the music hit me first. And then—guys. There were so many guys, I didn't know where to look. Where they all gay? Our other friends saw us, squealed and came running over to give me a hug, as if I had just achieved some major milestone. Maybe I had. I gave Richard back his ID and he gave me a light peck on the cheek. I smiled. Jim pulled me into a hug. "Remember this moment," he whispered, "because that's the way you need to smile next weekend when you hand the doorman your money."

Warehouse 28 became a weekly pilgrimage for me and my friends. We’d leave Bowling Green around 8 or 9 and stay at the bar until it closed at 4 AM. I did eventually learn how to smile at the doorman and act like I was supposed to be there. And I did find the courage to dance with cute boys and laugh with my friends. For six hours each week I was a loud and proud gay man, long before I knew what Pride was.

Eventually something miraculous happened: that sense of self-worth and confidence that I had at the bar started to follow me home. Somehow, in six-hour increments, I had found the courage to finally be myself. I’m not sure any of that would have happened if I hadn’t found a safe place to figure out who I was.

That’s why gay bars are so important, and why the attack in Orlando has been so devastating to me and my LGBT friends. If we aren’t safe in a gay bar, then where are we safe? Where do we get to discover who we are? To gain the confidence we need to live our lives as our authentic selves? I’ve been trying to come up with a metaphor for my straight friends to help them understand how violated I feel, but I haven’t been able to do it. I thought about comparing it to being attacked while you are in church, but you aren’t born religious. Being gay is actually more fundamental to my identity than my personal, religious beliefs.

So instead of explanations I will ask for tolerance. Allow us time to grieve, to claim this tragedy as our own. Share it with us. Help us to believe that our safe place will be safe again. Because right now, it doesn’t feel that way.

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