The Orlando shooting is the gay community’s 9/11, a moment of such hatred and violence that our frame of reference will forever be split into what came before and what came after. The events of the past weekend have changed our lives as LGBTQ people and as Americans forever. But for me, it immediately made me think about Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and how gay nightclubs changed my life for the better.
As a 19-year-old closeted soldier coming of age in Colorado, I can remember my first real gay club vividly. It was called Hide n’ Seek. It was nothing more than a simple two-floor building in a nondescript lot in west Colorado Springs, a conservative bastion, but to me it was my welcoming world. It was the first place I interacted with other gay men, the first time I felt like a true part of the community, and, in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era, the only place where I could truly be myself.
The now defunct Hide n’ Seek, Pulse, and the hundreds of other gay clubs just like them all across the country and globe are our spaces where we go to be free from the prying and judgmental eyes that even in 2016 police a lot of public affection we show to each other–or what to show each other. The eyes that express silent disapproval when we dare kiss in public, hold hands, or do any of the things that opposite sex couples take for granted.
These places have been our refuges since a time where gays and lesbians could be arrested for showing affection in public or beaten and worse just for being ourselves. Over the years, we have opened them more and more, to straight women seeking to have a good time without feeling the weight of the hetero male gaze and to men and women in various stages of their coming out process looking to test the waters. The attack on us in a space that is for and by us is a violation of the values of inclusiveness that are so dear to us as LGBT people– and, yes, as Americans.
That the gay community was targeted in what ended up being the worst mass shooting in American history has shocked us out of whatever post marriage equality complacency. LGBTQ people are still hated. We are still targeted. Gay men are still hated. Gay men are still targeted. The events of the past weekend should make it quite clear that gays haven’t yet made it to the Promised Land of post-marriage-equality freedom.
How many times have we searched for the escape and pure freedom of the dance floor at a gay club, feeling completely safe and secure in the knowledge that this space is for us to be completely free a to kiss other men, to dance like nobody’s watching?
There is a long history of violence in LGBT spaces. In 1973 32 people were killed in an act of arson at The Upstairs Lounge, a gay watering hole in New Orleans. In 2013, a man named Musab Mohammed Masmari poured gasoline on the carpeted entrance to a gay nightclub and set it ablaze, intending to hurt or kill the patrons dancing inside. (Thankfully, he didn’t hurt anyone, and was arrested while attempting to flee the country.)
But this is different. This attack was part of a growing worldwide antigay ideology, one that starts with ISIS in the Middle East, but is hardly limited to this band of genocidal terrorists. Omar Mateen’s attack on the LGBT community was not just deadlier. 49 people, mostly young gay men, have been executed for the unforgivable crime of being openly gay in America. It was also scarier because everyone knows how vulnerable our bars, clubs and community centers are to the violence of haters.
I am an Iraq war veteran. I served as an infantryman in Kirkuk for a little under a year after the invasion of Iraq. I am disturbingly aware of what it is like to look into the eyes of such men. Over there, the enemy was quite clear. The people who pledge allegiance to ISIS and believe in radical Islam want us to live in fear, and they despise gay people.
The terrorists who hate us and pledge allegiance to ISIS want us to think twice before we celebrate our freedoms as Americans. They want us to now think twice about attending that LGBT pride event, or going to that nightclub, or kissing our partners on the streets. But we know that we cannot give into that fear. We know that we also can’t give into the divisiveness and hate that is on the tips of our tongues right now because we are so shaken and afraid.
We know that we can say the words “radical Islam” without devolving into Islamophobia. We know that we must encourage our gay Muslim brothers and sisters to come out and speak up within their own communities, because we know that their voices can go so much further than ours alone. We know that we must always remember the lives that were lost in Orlando, that we must say their names, and that they must never be forgotten.
And we know that post-Orlando like in post-9/11, we will eventually come back to some semblance of normal despite the new threat hanging over our heads. We will continue to dance. We will continue to love. We will not cower in the closet or in the safety of anonymity on apps and web sites because of the actions of one sick individual, not matter how many copycats might be lurking. We will continue to celebrate pride as LGBT people because living our lives openly and honestly is the ultimate retaliation for the Orlando mass murderer and to those who want us to be afraid.
Rob Smith is a multimedia journalist and author of Closets, Combat and Coming Out: Coming of Age as a Gay Man in the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Army. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @robsmithonline.