The Gay Dance Community Will Survive the Orlando Tragedy
Nightclubs are the community centers for LGBTQ people; what happened this weekend won't destroy that.
New Yorkers mourn the victims of the Orlando shooting by laying flowers at the foot of Christopher Street's storied Stonewall Inn. Photo by Emilie Friedlander.
This past Saturday, I went to a party to celebrate Brooklyn Pride at Analog BKNY, a small dance club in Gowanus, one of the most deserted industrial areas of the borough. The small clusters of people arriving at the club or leaving made for the only sign of life for blocks around. There was one security guard standing outside, and another standing just inside the doorway, both clad in standard-issue black attire and ear piece. Neither were carrying weapons.
I stayed until three in the morning and made it to bed a little after four, weary but happy to have been able to celebrate for a few hours with people from my extended dance family. The next day, I awoke to the news: a shooting at Pulse, a popular gay club in Orlando, Florida, had left 50 people dead and 53 injured. Added to my shock and grief was the knowledge that the massacre had happened right as I was dancing and celebrating here in New York—that what had happened to them could have happened to me.
The news hit me like a body blow. As much as the recent terrorist attacks in clubs in Bali and Paris had horrified me, I hadn't felt such such a deep feeling of despair since the day the Twin Towers crumbled to the ground. This was a direct, targeted attack—not just on those poor souls in Orlando, but on the extended LGBT dance community. My community. As a gay man who loves to dance, and who has been reporting on gay nightlife for decades, this one hit me where I live.
Pulse is not the first American gay nightclub that has been targeted by those who seek to destroy us.
In other words, what is being called the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 and the worst mass shooting in the nation's history was also, quite literally, a body blow to the most abiding institutions in the LGBT world: our bars and clubs. As President Barack Obama said in a public statement on Sunday, "The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub—it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights."
Pulse is not the first American gay nightclub that has been targeted by those who seek to destroy us. Before Orlando, the worst attack by far occurred in 1973, when an arsonist set fire to the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, killing 32. There have been plenty of others, such as at The Ramrod, a bar just down Christopher Street from The Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village, where an armed gunman killed two and wounded six in 1980. Back in 1997, someone detonated a nail bomb at the Otherside Lounge in Atlanta, wounding five; in 2000, a sniper attack at Roanoke, Virginia's Backstreet Cafe killed one and injured six.
Before that, in 1990, a homemade pipe bomb exploded at Uncle Charlie's, also in Greenwich Village. In an eerie presentiment of what took place in Orlando this weekend, connections between the bomber and an extremist Islamic terrorist cell later emerged. While the ties to international terrorist cells are more tenuous in this case, it is clear that extremist beliefs played a crucial role.
Since the 1800s, the gay bar has been a vital meeting space for those terrified of having to hide the most foundational aspect of their being: who they loved. Before the Stonewall Riots, gay bars were not only places to socialize, but to organize; over the decades, they've often functioned as the first place where men and women discover that yes, there are others like them. They were our community centers—and in many smaller cities, they still perform that function. Even in an era of LGBTQ centers, houses of worship, gay Greek college societies, and professional associations, their centrality in the lives of contemporary gay men and lesbians endures.
My own introduction to the gay bar came after I had already come out, when I moved to New York after college in the mid-'70s. But I understand the emotion L.A. Times' reporter Noelle Carter felt when—in the 1990s, and already in her 20s—she entered her first lesbian bar. "I was both nervous and amazed at the sight," she wrote. "This was the first lesbian bar—-first openly gay place, period—I'd ever been to, full of women just like me. I'll never forget the rush of that feeling."
Same-sex dancing has always been paramount to sensation of belonging, and to the queer community's long-sought freedom to express emotions openly. A year ago, I wrote a piece for this publication about how the right to same-sex dancing was a major cause of the 1969 riots at New York City's Stonewall Inn, riots widely believed to have ignited the modern gay rights movement. "It was the only bar where we could slow dance," Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, a veteran of the riots, told me of Stonewall. "That was totally revolutionary. Being able to dance with someone of the same sex changed everything in the way you felt about yourself. Because you were having an affectionate moment, you felt totally humanized."
Added to my shock and grief was the knowledge that the massacre had happened right as I was dancing and celebrating here in New York—that what had happened to them could have happened to me.
Over the years, gay nightlife has piggybacked on the rising fortunes of its patrons. In my years covering the international gay dance community, I've had a row front seat to the transition that took gay clubs from seedy loft spaces to glamorous world-class venues. At the same time, I've often found myself defending and attempting to define the importance of being in a large room with so many others like ourselves in a shared experience of joy. My 2002 Village Voice feature on the Black Party, a celebration of male sexuality held annually in New York, aroused controversy among gay and straight readers alike because I faithfully reported the party's unbridled, often condom-free, sexual atmosphere.
Some of the most vociferous critics of that article—as well as the annual calendar of gay megaparties like the Black Party, known collectively as "the Circuit"—have been gay men, who are convinced that these celebrate the worst aspects of the gay world, such as overt drug use, promiscuous sex, and superficiality. What these observers don't acknowledge is how important such gatherings are to fostering a sense of community. Several years later, in another THUMP feature, I described what I meant when I had written of the "spirituality" of the Black Party and other gatherings like it: the particular feeling of transcendence that arises when we come together to celebrate our sexual identity and sexuality.
Perhaps my enthusiasm for the glamor and fun of the gay party scene blinded me to the fact that lurking in the shadows was an ever-present specter of hatred. On Sunday morning, a friend of mine posted a status update on Facebook: "I'm dismayed, shocked, but not surprised." That really drove home to me the realization that with increased visibility and progress comes danger. In response to the attacks, New York's mayor has announced that he will be establishing an increased "police presence in front of some key LGBT community institutions" in the coming days—the kind of protection afforded the city's synagogues and other places where Jews gather after 9/11.
In an interview with the New York Times, one NYC resident summed up a sentiment that many LBGTQ Americans must feeling right now. "Gay bars and clubs are supposed to be our safe haven," he said. "I've never felt threatened here, but now I'm looking over my shoulder." Will the attacker ultimately be successful in driving a wedge in this, our favored meeting place? Will fear drive us back to the days of blackout tape over bar windows, speakeasy-like password entries, underground nightclubs? Or will be be so afraid we will not go out at all?
No fucking way. We're a resilient lot, because we've always had to be. Already on Sunday, even as I was nearing despair, I began receiving notifications from various Pride event promoters. While this Friday's benefit party for Orlando's GLBT Center of Central Florida understandably had to be cancelled, Masterbeat's Brett Henrichsen and Justin David Presents both announced that their LA Pride dance parties would go on as scheduled. In New York, a Heritage of Pride spokesperson told THUMP that the massive Pride march Pier Dance would most definitely take place as scheduled on June 26. The vigils and demonstrations will be crucial to collectively mourning what happened this weekend, but so will the parties filled with men and women defiantly asserting their right to congregate and celebrate.
In the wake of Orlando, perhaps more than ever before, the very act of going out dancing feels like a political statement. Gay men and their allies have survived waves and waves of hate, and we'll be damned if we're going to let one murderous bigot stop us.
What are you doing next weekend? I know where I'll be: on the dance floor.