Last Sunday, not long after I turned off the TV, still sick to my stomach thinking about the people – my people – who were gunned down at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., the text I’d been expecting finally arrived. It was from my mother.
“How are you doing?” she wanted to know.
“Shaken,” I told her. “It’s weird. I expect people to get attacked for being black. I don’t expect people to get attacked for being gay. Not en masse and violently anyway.”
My mother, who had befriended a transwoman before most Midwesterners had ever heard of the term, was incredulous. “You must know that people have been attacked for being gay forever!”
“I know,” I admitted sheepishly. “I guess I didn’t pay attention. It wasn’t really my generation.”
It’s hard to explain what it feels like to know – to accept – that there are people out there who hate you so much that they’ll kill you, just for being you. To know that safe spaces aren’t always so safe and that maybe they never were.
It’s hard to explain what it’s like to live with that knowledge. It’s heavy and it’s lonely.
As a black woman, I’ve learned to cope with it. After all, it was a just year ago that a racist gunman walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine black people who had unwittingly invited him inside for Bible study.
But being gay, I haven’t quite adjusted yet to the threat of violence. It’s a generational thing that I saw last week, reflected in the faces of those who found their way to Sacramento’s gay bars, looking for community, comfort and a safe space to grieve.
What else do you do when a gunman shoots more than 100 people, any of whom could’ve been you, and opportunistic politicians are using your community’s name to advance personal agendas about guns and Muslims? I’m looking at you, Donald Trump.
Over and over again, I’ve seen shock and outrage in the faces of twentysomethings who “don’t do labels” and don’t really remember the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998.
In the faces of gay men and lesbians with graying hair, who remember the 1978 assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and the 1973 arson of a New Orleans gay club all too well, I’ve seen anger and resigned sadness.
Born in 1977, I guess I’m somewhere in the middle.
The deaths in Orlando are shocking. Not just because 49 people were slain and 53 were wounded in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, but because nothing this violent has happened to the gay community in a very long time.
There have been hate crimes, yes. More than any other minority group. But there also have been a string of hard-fought, highly publicized victories, including marriage equality and legal protections that make it harder to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
As one self-described “aging dyke” put it on Twitter: “We were winning. Then, Pulse. 50 dead. 50 wounded. Babies. Kids. The ones we fought so hard to protect from the backlash. The backlash we knew all too well, but that the post-Matthew Shepard generation has never known.”
“The world is not a safe space, and it only gets safer when you fight like hell for it,” she tweeted. “We weren’t given the spaces we have.”
Much has been written over the last few days about the importance of gay bars and the roles of safe spaces and community centers that they serve. Even President Barack Obama acknowledged Pulse “is more than a nightclub. It is a place of solidarity and empowerment.”
But far less has been written about how gay bars have been battered by storms of societal change. How the very generational divisions that the Orlando shooting has exposed, have also sadly pushed gay bars and nightclubs to the brink of irrelevancy.
Until Pulse dominated headlines last Sunday, most articles about gay bars had to do with them going out of business. This is true in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Even in places like Indianapolis, where the city’s largest gay bar announced it is closing at the end of this month, it was overrun by bachelorette parties.
Gay bars have been upended by rising property prices in urban neighborhoods but, most of all, by the broader acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and every sexual orientation in between.
When being gay is perfectly fine, so cool even that straight people want to appropriate gay culture, there’s less and less of a need to carve out safe spaces specifically for gay people. It’s the same thing desegregation did to once thriving black neighborhoods, once bound together by redlining and racism.
Call it the price of progress.
The gay bars that have survived – and there are plenty – mean different things to different generations of gay people. They’re still places a safety for some older folks, and places to party with everybody, regardless of sexual orientation, for younger people.
Yet they’ve all remained places to safely express joy, sadness and outrage.
When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right for gay and lesbian couples to marry last June, people ran to gay bars to celebrate. When the lawmakers of red states passed bills to encode discrimination into law and limit the rights of transgender people, it’s gay bars where people went – and are still going – to grouse about it.
Now there’s Orlando and the unspeakable carnage that Omar Mateen inflicted on Pulse with an assault rifle.
If the walls of Sacramento’s Faces Nightclub and Badlands and The Depot could talk, well, first of all, what they would say wouldn’t be fit for print in a family newspaper, but they’d also say: “Welcome everyone. We don’t care how old you are, what race or what religion you are. What sexual orientation you are. We’re here for you in whatever way you need us.”
It’s why these places have, for decades, drawn people looking for safety, comfort, knowledge, solidarity and, most of all, normalcy. And I suppose that’s why I found myself at Faces last Sunday night, laughing at guys taking shots and yelling “Yassss queen!”
I have no idea if what happened in Orlando will change the trajectory of gay bars. If it will make them more relevant in these changing times. Fear tends to bring people together and maybe we’ll find that we need these multi-generational safe spaces in a dangerous world.
Or maybe this will be a watershed moment that leads to more acceptance and more safety for gay people in society. Maybe we’ll need gay bars even less than we do today. Maybe people – even Republicans – will learn to agree with Obama in that, an attack “on any American – regardless of race ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation – is an attack on all of us.”
I’m not sure what the future holds, but l know that being a minority in this country has never been easy or safe. My eyes are open.
Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith