I remember the first time I went to an LGBT bar. It was, of all places, Missing in Birmingham. For me, any many in my community, the attack on the Orlando gay nightclub Pulse where a lone gunman stormed in and killed 50 people has had an almost visceral impact.
Calling what happened in Orlando the worst mass shooting in American history doesn’t do it justice. The significance of the attack lies in the detail. An attack on LGBT people, by someone who we know now may have been struggling with his sexuality, at an LGBT bar goes to the heart of our fears.
Gay bars have always been about more than a place to get drunk. Gay bars are where we go to meet, to congregate, to commiserate, to confess, and often to seek shelter. Immediately after the vigils that took place around the world yesterday, many gay people will have retired to the nearest gay bar not out of symbolism but because that’s what we do.
If you go to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in Vauxhall on a Sunday night there is a wonderful cabaret show and karaoke. It’s the closest thing that many gay people have to going to Church on a Sunday. The police raid on the Stonewall Inn in June 1969 went to the very heart of what we as a community were fighting against. In RVT and the Stonewall Inn, you have the essential tension between the two: the gay bar as a place for shared experience and a place for political action.
In recent years, it’s often felt as though the arc is bending towards shared experience. Amidst the high camp and complex social norms of many gay bars, the political side isn’t always even visible. But gay bars around the world have always represented, and stood up for, the ability to be anonymous and free from the need to conform to the outside world.
Growing up as an LGBTI person is not like growing up in an ethnic minority. If you grow up in an ethnic minority family, you have, at the very least, a family support network that you share a language and traditions with. The first time I went out in Birmingham was such a powerful experience for me because it was the first time I’d met and hung out with people like myself.
Today of course, there are many places where LGBT people can feel safe. Many people now know what it’s like to be able to take a gay partner to a straight person’s wedding. But being tolerated is not the same thing as being accepted. It’s strange that the places where I have felt most welcomed in any of the cities I have visited around the world have been gay bars. Even as the tide of LGBT equality sweeps the globe, we still need to have that place and those events where we can come together and heal and mend.
And heal and mend we will. The “safe space” surrounding gay bars has been stripped away, but the gay bar is more important than ever. If Pulse were to close down, Orlando would lose a community institution. It’s telling that on at least 12 occasions, the LGBT people of Orlando gave shelter to the man who would go on to slaughter them. I forgive Julia Hartley-Brewer for failing to understand what a gay bar was – how could she?
If there’s grieving to be done in the coming weeks – and there will be – let it take place in public. Out and loud and proud. And then we’ll go and do what we always have done – we’ll go for a drink afterwards.