Thursday, June 16, 2016
May 7, 1987 was my first day of sobriety. It’s now quite a milestone that I’ve lived more years without the benefit of alcohol than with. I even take it for granted. There was a time when I was stunned to find out that not everybody’s breakfast included a Screwdriver. The root cause of my alcoholism may be biological as it runs in the family, it may be environmental, it is likely some combination. Doesn’t matter why: the bottom line is I can’t handle it. I am grateful for a life of clean living. I am also grateful for the bars that were around when I did drink. They provided a respite and were a helpful transition for me to live as an out person. Given Orlando 2016 – I’ve been reflecting on my drinking days, my life in gay bars.
It was the fall of 1986. Syracuse, New York. I went to the address and circled the block several times. I parked in the far part of the lot. I watched people go in and out of this square, warehouse type building. They looked normal enough. What if I was seen? Recognized? Fear, confusion, excitement coarsed through my body. I left. This pattern of going to the club and not going in repeated itself for days on end, for at least two to three weeks.
Finally my courage overcame my fears. I actually got out of the Chevette and crossed the street. I walked in. It was this gargantuan space – huge dance floor, flashing lights, loud music. Four people were there. It was a Monday night after all. I went up to the bar – the only college student in sight. One of the guys checked me out, smiled and went back to his drink. I nearly chugged my beer. The bartender said “it’ll be ok kid.” I raced out of there. Mission accomplished! And it took less than 10 minutes.
I returned that weekend where there was much more activity. I even ran into people I knew. I was hugged. I was welcomed. I even danced. I began my life as a gay person.
My story isn’t all that unique. Gay bars and dance clubs have been gathering places for the LGBT community for generations. Today in places like Boston there are still dedicated bars. Assimilation and acceptance have minimized their footprint but we continue to come together in these places.
The massacre in Orlando at Pulse – a gay bar – is terrible by any measurement. It’s the worst mass shooting in America. It’s the most egregious hate crime against the LGBT community. It targeted young Hispanics. And it has torn apart the safe space that a gay bar provides.
In 2016 people are coming out in middle school and not waiting until college like I did. Bars and clubs no longer hold the same exclusive role as they did for me, for the Stonewall generation before me or the Speakeasy time of the Mattachine Society. There’s a lot of good news in that --- and we still need our places. In Orlando Pulse was a safe space. The bullets killed 49 people, injured 53 more and punctured the bubble of security that is vital to the LGBT community and those who are questioning and exploring their identity.
There’s so much to be said about what’s happened – politically, socially, morally – in the media, in the community, in the world. Hypocrisies and ironies abound. For today, though, less than a week after the attack I’m still sober and am sobered by the events, grateful for the bars that make it safe to be who we are.