I was living in New York City for the summer in between college and nursing school. I was about 21, going on 22. I was living with my sister and was on my own. I wasn’t doing much during my days except picking up random temp positions here and there. I had recently broken up with my boyfriend of four years and this was my time to be alone and find myself in the city. Before I left, I had set up my living situation for when I returned home to go to school. I would be living with “a lesbian” and her guy friend.
One night, that “lesbian” texted me that she and her friends were in town for NYC pride and would I like to join them on their night out? I was terrified. Of course I wanted to go. I had been thinking about this idea for years, but now, to actually be presented with the opportunity… Did I dare go?
I met them on the street outside of this club, I think it was called Heaven. All I remember is that it had a white façade and a lot of glitter. Maybe some angel wings. A lot of bright lights and a whole lot of queers. We went inside. The first floor was full of women, women dancing with each other, go-go dancers in tall white boots dancing on tables, and glitter, a lot of glitter. We weaved our way through the crowd, interrupting new love as we bumped our way through the crowd of women dancing with women. We finally found the stairs and made our way to the bar upstairs. A woman with big, frizzy, curly hair came up to me at the bar. She started to talk to me. She had the worst breath. I felt flattered and excited that a woman had found me in this big sea of other women, but her breath, I couldn’t. I politely declined the dance, ordered my drink and went to find my friends.
I snuck into the bathroom, this tiny pink closet, and shut the door. I tried to call my friend. I fumbled with the numbers and the phone rang. I just got voicemail. I almost left the message: “Sarah, I’m gay.” But I didn’t. I hung up. I left the bathroom and met my friends, and my roommate, my future first girlfriend. Yeah, I dated my roommate.
There was one gay bar in Charlottesville. We went there a few times, me and my “roommate”. There wasn’t much to do there. One time, a man in a Mexican hat tried to grope me. I told him I was gay at to leave me alone. We spent most of our time drinking outside of bars. After a while, we broke up.
I went to BBQ in town for a local LGBT group. There was a girl there. She was cute. She was talking with the others about hitting up that gay bar later that night. I went too. I saw her across the strobe-light lit dance floor. We danced. We made out. We talked about how it’s so hard to find other attractive gay people in town. We dated. And we spend most of our time watching CSI on her laptop, making tacos and eating frozen yogurt. After a while, we broke up.
A year or so later, I moved to Boston with my girlfriend. We didn’t know anyone in this Big Gay City. We spent our time going to Faneuil Hall and dancing with straight people. The only two lesbians in a rowdy, alcohol soaked bar. Not exactly my scene. We learned about Toast. A lesbian bar north of the city. No T line took you there. We went, it took forever to get there. We danced. Boston also had dyke nights. Thursday night here, Second Saturday there. We went to NYC for pride again and saw Jodi Foster walking through the crowd and felt in on a big, awesome, secret. We found the lesbian bars there.
Later, I met my future wife. We went dancing a lot. She loved to dance. I had never been much of a club-goer, but I was hooked. I love the pulse of the crowd, the freedom to dance and be who I wanted to be. To hold hands, to make out, to flirt, to be so similar to everyone else there. I was part of the majority. I felt free to be me. To put my hands around my girlfriend (future wife) and pull her close to me.
Eventually, we moved on. Many of the gay bars closed or we aged out of them. We became the 30-year-olds dancing amongst the baby dykes and dancing became something we did once every few years. Kids, dogs, work, an early bedtime. We left the clubs behind. We spent most of our time changing diapers, playing princesses, and lying in bed, binge-watching the latest TV series.
But, I will never forget. I’ll never forget that feeling of walking into a dimly-lit, loud, sensory-overloaded room and just feeling at home. That giddy excitement that came from being in a room full of queers, full of lesbians, full of every color of the rainbow. And just diving right into that crowd. Raising my head up to the sky, pulling my girlfriend up close, and letting go.
I saw the tweet by Jeramy Kraatz: “If you can’t wrap your head around a bar or club as a sanctuary, you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public”. I was immediately brought back to my early 20’s. To a time when I lived in a Red state. When I lived in fear about who I was. About what I did in public with the person I loved. And even today, that fear isn’t gone. There is no way to describe the way it feels to be in a gay bar, at gay pride, where you just feel like you belong. Like you are OK. Warm, loved, peaceful, encompassed, safe, happy. All of those words sound like a way one would describe being in a sanctuary.
Our fight is not done. We do not live in a post-gay world. Coming out still matters. Gay weddings still matter. Pride still matters. We live in a homophobic, transphobic society and it all still matters until we don’t.
Those victims of the Orlando shooting were just like me and my friends, attending a gay bar during Pride. Celebrating who they are with people just like them. Feeling free, feeling accepted, feeling loved, just feeling their own awesome queer selves. And they were shot for it. I didn’t want to get to this part of this essay. I didn’t want to write about what actually happened to these people because for the last 30 minutes, I’ve been fondly remembering my past, and now, to write the reality of what happened… It’s awful. It’s heart-wrenching. But this didn’t happen to me. This happened to the 50 victims of shooting by an assault rifle. The 53 others injured by that assault rifle. In their sanctuary.
Our fight is not done. No one is safe. Not even in their sanctuary. Not even in their safe space.