On Queer Spaces, Pride, and the Shooting in Orlando
For a while now, I’ve been debating the merits of Pride, and had all but decided this year to not make an effort to attend. The performances and shows, the exhibition, the commercial enterprise that is Pride, and Pride month in June, can feel overwhelming and stripped of the real reason to have such an event amidst the abs, sponsored vodkas, and glitter. It’s easy to neglect the older I get, that Pride was an event I used to come out. It was how I got the conversation really started with my family, by first announcing that I was going to Boise Pride, before officially saying why. I was 21. A few months later I moved to Pocatello, Idaho, to complete my bachelor’s degree, a town almost triple the population size of where I grew up.
Only one gay bar existed in my college town, Charley’s. It wasn’t (and probably still isn’t) glamorous by any stretch. It was smoke filled, confined, and felt as old as it looked. It had an eclectic crowd of old-timers and baby gays, some trans folks and allies, Drag Queens and the obviously lonely and isolated by the control of a highly Mormon and religious region. Yet, it was a place for the outcasts to come together. A gathering spot and somewhere I spent some of my best early coming out years. Saeed Jones, in his 3 year old article for BuzzFeed, “There Is No Such Thing As A "Safe" City For Queer People” discusses the migration of small town queers to larger cities. Jones notes that larger cities were, "where you could finally be your queer self, your whole self. Cities where you could change your name if you wanted to, kiss a boy and hold his hand on the street if you wanted to, fuck gender norms and make art and be out and happy if and however you wanted to." Pocatello was not a “big city” by any stretch, but larger than where I grew up, and Charley’s in particular was where I made friends in a new town I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to. It was where I went off to be more myself. It was also where I saw my first – and many more – drag shows.
As The Nation’s Richard Kim eloquently put it:
Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression. They take sound and fabric and flesh from the ordinary world, and under cover of darkness and the influence of alcohol or drugs, transform it all into something that scrapes up against utopia.
Pride began as a riot at the Stonewall Inn bar, by trans people of color, because their sanctuary was threatened habitually by police. Saturday night, a latinx night at club Pulse in Orlando was hosted by trans women of color, and because of the violence homophobia breeds, a sanctuary was lost. The tragedy on June 11, 2016, the largest mass shooting in the U.S. to date, was not just an act of terror and violence, but an act against equality. It was an act to silence voices and minorities alike. It was an act against queer spaces. I can often forget that being present and queer is still a political act, and it breaks my heart, and makes me furious, to think of the victims.
As far as homophobia goes, I’ve personally been really lucky over the years. I’ve had an a-frame sandwich board thrown at me by some drunk straight boys that kept walking after doing so (it was luckily windy and a weak attempt). I was on my way home after a night dancing with friends at a gay bar. I’ve had the odd “fag” yelled at me by drivers and people on the street. In Jr. High, a classmate would “rap” the lyrics by Lil Wayne “til the sweat drops down my balls / all these bitches crawl” repeatedly in my face during P.E. I had a Mormon Sunday school teacher (whom I was also related to) bring newspaper articles on several occasions, to denounce the homosexuals and their sinful ways. I would still consider all of these examples as lucky – because I’m still alive. The same cannot be said for those who died in Orlando, or the 12 trans people murdered in the U.S. in the last 6 months alone. The same “luck” I have had cannot be said for too many LGBTQI others across the globe.
I have – so far – one tattoo on my body. It is on the top of my left foot and is simply the word STAY – in all caps, facing me when I look down at it. My story is that I got it as a starter tattoo, to see if I could endure the pain of further planned ones, and when asked the inevitable, “stay what?”, I reply stay is open ended. It can mean lots of different things, like stay happy, stay true, stay gay. It also reminds me of my favorite Sara Bareilles song, “Stay.” Depending on the person I’m talking to, I have a few different iterations to share. The real story though, the real second word for me is alive. Stay alive. Because there have been too many years I care to count, where that second word was a daily battle. Where that word felt like the enemy. Where being alive felt like too much to handle.
Sunday night, the day after the shooting and the day of the thwarted attack on LA Pride, I went to a Portland gay bar, like I had planned several days before, to see a drag show. A friend of mine, and the first Drag Queen I ever saw live at Charley’s, was in town to perform. It felt right to go, to see someone who in no small part, helped me to feel safe in gay bars in the first place.
This piece was never meant as an exercise in blame. There’s plenty of that to go around and by others more qualified to do so. This was an attempt to make sense of safety and performance, and to feel my way through this. What that means to me and others. I’ve felt pretty safe in queer clubs, watching drag shows, attending Pride events, seeing queer performers or watching crowds dance in a fluid mix of finesse. It had to be a choice to feel safe in those spaces before, because so many others spaces are denied to queers safely, and it will continue to be a choice to feel safe moving forward. To stay true to myself and my community. Stay angry. Stay alive.
Please consider donating to the victims of this tragedies GoFundMe page.