By Jes Skolnik
If you weren’t aware before this week, you probably are now: Gay bars and intentionally gay/queer spaces are much, much more than just places for us to hook up, party, drink, and dance. They are where we find connection and community, as the empathetic and thoughtful writing of so many of us opening our hearts to tell our stories in the wake of the Orlando murders has made clearer than ever. For many of us whose sexualities and genders don’t fall within the narrow band of cisgender and straight, nightlife and the music surrounding it — from punk and goth clubs to rave and disco floors — have traditionally opened up chances for us to connect with our bodies through movement, and to connect with others through shared purpose, love, and intention. For those of us who struggle with our genders and/or the depression and anxiety so common to our community, this is no small thing.
I remember making small talk one Tuesday with a woman at the bar at a regular lesbian night at the Funky Buddha in Chicago. “You always know who the lesbians are,” she said, laughing and meeting my eyes, “because we’re the ones hungover at the copier on Wednesday mornings.” We may not be out to our coworkers, she implied, but we know one another. It feels conspiratorial, in the best way: I see you. This connection is particularly acute for many queer and trans people of color, whose cultural musical traditions have built the bedrock of club music and yet who still remain marginalized within the larger LGBTQ community. We cannot forget, ever, that it was Latin night at Pulse, and that the music playing was bachata, salsa, reggaeton, merengue. It is that fact that makes Omar Mateen’s actions particularly cruel, particularly pointed: He committed 49 murders in a house of love.
Mateen’s actions were, obviously, monstrously extreme. Perhaps they feel unimaginable to people who do not live their lives afraid to hold the hands of those they love in public. But to those of us who have learned to live with some omnipresent, humming violent threat level because of who we are — for race or gender or sexuality or any combination thereof (multiple identities compound that threat level) — there’s no surprise at all. The threat hasn’t lifted with the mainstreaming of gay culture, with #LoveWins and rainbow Facebook banners and misapplied black drag slang (“slay,” “read,” “shade”). There are more straight bars than ever having gay/queer nights. (Didn’t you know? We’re a target demographic now.) At the same time, organizations like Good Night Out have begun posing direct solutions to racist, sexist, and gender-based harassment in the nightlife world. Now is the time to talk about how that kind of harassment is part of the same picture as the Orlando murders, and what bars and clubs can do daily to combat it.
Fear of the other, and the inappropriate reaction to that fear, is at the heart of anti-trans bathroom bills and other anti-LGBTQ legislation, like bills that maintain the legal right of businesses (and mental health professionals) to refuse service to gay customers. It is at the root of Omar Mateen’s violence, and indeed all homophobic violence, like the teen girl who hit me hard on the back of my head in a high school bathroom in 1996, causing my body to crumple and my bloody chin to hit the sink, because she thought that my “dyke” self was looking at her (I was not). It is at the root of everyday club harassment, too: the threat of verbal, physical, and sexual violence, simply because someone is afraid of you being yourself and has the power to inflict harm in an attempt to still that fear inside them.
Bars and clubs can take physical steps to make sure their patrons are as safe as possible in the event of most sorts of violence. They can make sure that fire exits are always clear and that entrances and exits are well lit. They have the option to buy helpful supplies like Drink Safe coasters, which detect the presence of GHB and ketamine. They can also take social steps. This is where organizations like Good Night Out come in, providing training for bar staff and security in recognizing and defusing harassment and other violent behavior. Good Night Out also provides a poster that the bar can hang indicating that their staff are trained and that if anyone feels harassed they can come to the bar staff and the situation will be dealt with appropriately, with a mind to safety for all involved. Beerland, in Austin, Texas, notably responded to an incident of sexual harassment by posting this sort of sign, letting their patrons know to come to the bar staff if they feel in need.
This is not about some sort of abstract “safer space” in which the freedom to exchange ideas is potentially impeded. This is about the very real need for bodily safety, the right to go out seeking openness, love, connection, possibility, and shared humanity (and maybe even a good time) without constantly looking over our shoulders. There is much to be done at all levels to change homophobia, racism, and gender-based violence in our society; these are just small, concrete steps that bars and clubs can take to help give the patrons within their walls who come seeking church, or home, a little bit more assurance that they’ve got our backs. In this world of uncertainty and constant worry, that’s much bigger and more powerful for those of us who are marginalized in some way (or many ways) than it might initially seem.