By Erik Roldan
In Spanish, if you are en casa, you are at home. Not anyone else’s, just yours. If you’re queer, you’ve likely had to create, at least temporarily, a second home. As queer people, we often need to find that home by going out at night and finding people like us. Especially if you’re Latino/a and don’t identify as cisgender or straight, the shooting that left almost 50 people dead and even more injured at Pulse nightclub in Orlando feels dense and complicated, like a violation or a home invasion.
Growing up gay and DJing at queer club nights and on the radio for the last 10 years in Chicago, I know why queer people create our own spaces. To go to work, to school, or even just to the other room for a meal, we must put on some well-worn armor. We need this armor for protection against all kinds of triggering, dehumanizing moments. It could be a word from a friend, a slight from a stranger, an omission by a coworker, or worse. If you’re gay, lesbian, trans, or genderqueer — anyone who lives outside of the hetero binary — those moments will fuck up your day. Add it up over the course of years, and you’ve got trauma. Queer people gather in what we call “a safe space” — we escape our daily lives under the cover of night to dance beneath a sparkling spotlight. These fleeting hours in a club or at a queer night might be the only time during the week where we are as free as we want to be — as freely as we should be.
As a child, I learned to dance under my mother’s loving taunt. We would go to a family friend’s house party, packed with all shades of brown people, the tables filled with food, and eventually the adults would clear the living room and put on music so everyone could let loose and dance. I was awkward. I wanted to dance, but not with girls, not with my mother watching, and certainly not under fluorescent lighting. One night, a favorite song came on and I had to. My mother pointed me out to everyone and laughed, with love. Later, she asked me if I had fun. I would not learn how to get my hips to grind at family parties — that happened later, in lower lighting — but I learned quickly that in hetero spaces, guys take the lead and girls follow.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw two men dancing to merengue together, with one partner leading and one following. I was at an open-minded-for-the-’90s, but otherwise straight wedding. Their moves were complicated, fast; the follower was unmistakably femme. If dancing was a way to put your stress behind, these two were defiantly and demonstrably leaving so much in their wake. People stared and got out of the couple’s way. At some point, they realized they were getting too much attention and left the floor out of respect. I can guarantee that those two did not practice their moves under the fluorescent lighting of someone’s living room.
The Latin night that was attacked at Pulse, like so many others at clubs and bars around the world, exists because that’s what Latinxs need — music and people that speak our first language (or our parents’ language); a place where we don’t have to explain. Even in gayborhood spaces, if you play too many songs that aren’t in English, white patrons act confused. Queer Latinx people gather together because we want to meet others whose mom lovingly taunted them. We want to have our song come on and, without hesitation, show off how we grind our hips. My hermanos and hermanas went to Pulse with the knowledge and comfort that they would be understood there, that they would be en casa.
The shooter at Pulse destroyed lives and wounded a nationwide community of queer Latinxs, black and brown siblings, trans and gender-nonconforming people, and all of us under the LGBTQ umbrella. But we won’t be left frightened. We are grieving, broken, angry, lost, and searching. However, through tears and shaky voices, we come together in love and resilience. While this horrific attack is a shell-shocking hit to our well-worn armor, we will bounce back. When we gather this Pride month, we will welcome our newest children to the family. We will create even more spaces, and when our song comes on, we will turn the volume up. We will not be scared to leave our house, and we will never, ever stop going home.