"All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. A girl child ain't safe in a family of men, but I ain't never thought I'd have to fight in my own house!" — Sofia, "The Color Purple"
On Sunday, I was in a real mood. I woke up feeling grateful, happy and peaceful, until I went online and saw the news: Shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.
My heart slowly sank and my mind began to swirl as my Twitter feed populated. A shooting at a gay club sounds like a hate crime — we wouldn't do that to ourselves. Oh, wait a minute! It's Pride Month. There is no way someone would gun down the gays at a nightclub during Pride. Or would they?
As the day went on and #PrayForOrlando posts filled my IG account, I was horrified to learn that THIS was one of the deadliest mass murders in U.S. History. Aside from the senseless act of violence and hate, I struggle with the thoughts of what this trauma and violation means to the gay community – especially what it means for young LGBT people. Nightclubs for us are supposed to be a safe haven – a sanctuary. This is the one place where we can be ourselves without being scrutinized by the dominant heterosexual world.
Gay clubs are a place where we can gather and see other gay men – read: see a reflection of ourselves. It is the place where we go with our boys to drink our cares away and dance with abandon to anthems like “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross, “Pride (A Deeper Love)” by Aretha Franklin, and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” by Sylvester to name a very few. We can be whatever we want in the club – butch, femme, masculine, bitchy, opulent, silly and, well, gay – because it is supposed to be a safe place.
Many of us in the gay community have had to create our own families with our friends because our real families disapprove, berate or ignore our gayness. We often bond with friends (our chosen families) in the club – coming out and being in the club is a rite of passage for many of us. This is where you celebrate birthdays, graduations, promotions and love. You can meet a boy (or man) and have your first kiss (or even make out). It’s a place of beauty, mystery and magic. In the darkness of the nightclub, under the warm glow of the disco ball and soft muted lights is where we can literally get your life – even if only for one night.
For many gay men, clubs are the place where we can belong when the rest of the world doesn’t approve of our “lifestyle.” We can be a more authentic version of ourselves in the club because being a homosexual on the streets, in your neighborhood, at your job, inside your church, at the gym, or in your own home is not an option for many gay men in the world. So the club, for many of us, is a very sacred space.
As a Black gay man, clubs have been a place where I was able to come of age. I think of my experiences coming out and growing up in New York City and, up until recently, I could assign nightclubs to those chapters. When I arrived in New York City in 1989, I frequented Mars, The Tunnel, and The Roxy. I remember the thrill of being in a space where I could see other confident gay men living their truth and looking hot to boot. Then I started going to the Sound Factory, Sound Factory Bar, The Palladium, Shelter and Body And Soul. There was no judgment and I felt like I was part of a larger community with a shared experience. Later came the Octagon, The Warehouse, Twilo, and Exit. This was where I could hang with my brothers and interact with gay men of other cultures freely. I think about how many amazing and memorable moments I lived in my life growing into my gay self and manhood in the city.
Historically, nightclubs for gay African American men have always been a place of self-expression, release and liberation – as witnessed in Isaac Julien’s brilliant independent film “Looking For Langston” (photo above). This is the film that helped me come out. The narrative about identity is based on the poems of Langston Hughes and it’s set in a Harlem Renaissance film noir mode. The Ballroom scene is depicted in this film as a socio-political place where Black gay men would meet in secret and dance and Vogue with other men – it’s provocative, liberating, powerful and erotic all at the same time. That has been, and still is, the case for many Black gay men who live double or closeted lives — the club is their shelter.
Today, the duality of being Black and gay is sometimes challenging and oftentimes heavy – homophobia, racism, incarceration, mortality and issues of identity can weigh on your spirit, your feelings of self worth and your very existence. HIV and AIDS are still prominent in our community – the CDC reports that half of Black gay and bi-sexual men will test HIV positive in their lifetime. And let’s not forget that Black Lives Matter (a movement lead by LGBT activists) is still a hot button issue and trending topic in this country and social justice is constantly being disputed in the African American community.
So when I hear that someone walked into a nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 mostly young, Latino gay men with an AR-15 assault rifle, tears well up in my eyes. These young people were out having a good time, celebrating their gayness, and living their lives when “hate” took their lives away. I’m reminded of the words of John Bradford: “There but for the grace of God go I.” So as I pray for peace for the victims, their families and survivors of this massacre, I’m also digging deep in my faith for the courage to not let terrorism win – hate will never win. As always in the gay community, we’ve had to fight and struggle to sustain ourselves mind, body and spirit. Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” is the anthem for me right now. But the thought that keep haunting me is this: In a nightclub celebrating Gay Pride, in a Black neighborhood, or on any street in America, where can I feel safe?
This blog was originally posted on www.worldofwilbekin.com