The worst gun massacre in United States history happened in a gay bar, PULSE, Sunday, June 12, 2016 in Orlando, CA.
It happened during the United States Pride month of June which commemorates the Stonewall riots of June 1969. The Stonewall riot was the first televised riot over a period of time (approximately one week) allowing members and supporters of the LGBTQ community to join the protests against police violence and harassment.
Today’s many social media platforms allow us to respond more quickly than they were able to in 1969. By the eve of June 12, 2016 memorials and vigils were happening around the country. I attended one in Long Beach, CA, at which a couple hundred folks lit candles, sang and mourned. By the following evening I was at a vigil for Orlando in Los Angeles attended by many thousands at which, in Los Angeles style, the reading of the victims’ names began with an emotional tribute to the victims by Lady Gaga. I have included here a video of the reading of the names.
In Pagan traditions, especially that in which I am ordained (Temple of Isis/ Fellowship of Isis) we chant for our loved ones, who have passed, “Say their names so we remember them.” And—yes, often the week following this massacre these 49 names were chanted—say their names so we remember them.
The gay bar…. I posted on Facebook a meme that was circulating asking “Where was your first gay bar?” Within the first hour over a hundred people had not just liked it, but responded with memories of “their first.” The responses came back from all over the United States, from East and West and from abroad from several countries—among them Australia, England, and Belgium. It seemed, like their first love, everyone could remember “their first” gay bar.
It mattered…that first gay bar. Why?
In my book, Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (BYAMR) I was the first to say that the gay bar was more than a bar—it was sacred space. For the book I interviewed over 100 people, primarily pre-Stonewall gay women and lesbians. The thesis of BYAMR is that the gay bar was “the only place” (as so named by all of the informants for my book). The gay bar was an alternative church space I postulate for those who were exiled from all other churches—major and minor, and all other public spaces. The gay bars were a sanctuary. And, as we saw with Orlando, they often still are.
How important is the gay bar to LGBTQ people? President Obama has recently said, in the wake of Orlando, that the gay bar is a place of “solidarity and empowerment.” Yes. It is nothing less than the cauldron of possibility for birth into selfhood. The place where you can see yourself reflected in the eyes of another and experience, as Judith Butler phrases it, the transformative nature of the gaze, or as I name it in BYAMR – baptism. When someone sees you for the first time as not the sinner, outcast or even mentally ill, felon, deviant, nation’s highest security risk—which were all “gazes” suffered by the queer population pre-Stonewall and often still today… When they see you with this radically new gaze you have not experienced before you birthed yourself into community– with this person into a self which is “not” just that sinner—but is something else…. Something radically different than what society has us believe of gay folk… When this happens, we become wanted community members, friends, lovers, protectors, creators, and activists for the claiming of public space. This was true for what could happen in gay bars pre-Stonewall and true today.
One of the maxims I repeat in BYAMR is that we as queer people have to be proud of the history we have, and not create a history to be proud of. The main reason I wrote BYAMR as my doctoral dissertation and then had it published as a book is that I wanted to claim the pride of the gay bar history. Yes, I come from a people birthed in the fire of gay bars—literally the fire. I come from a people who claimed public space on the edges of cities, in dangerous passageways of geography and physical lives, crossroads they had to traverse and make coalitions work based on their need for survival. I am proud of a lineage of people that survived despite the hatred, and harassment, and beatings, and rape, and arrests. My people continued to claim these spaces –these often dirty, scary, dangerous gay bar spaces—not because they were bar flies (necessarily), or alcoholics (necessarily)—but because they were forging with grit the real estate of public space and community from which would arise gay liberation. This is our LGBTQ history. And we get to claim it without apology.
Gay bar attendance as an act of courage. Gay bar attendance as an act of activism, love and support. We often chant in the streets, “Out of the bars and into the streets.” But I want to remind my community that first we had to have the courage to go into the bars. Our first initial chant was to ourselves as we began the arduous task of “coming out”. Most of us had to chant to ourselves repeatedly “go into the bar.” Go into that cauldron of possibility, stir the pot and see if you can find yourself reflected.
The gay bar was central to community pre-Stonewall and the book could have been called “The Only Place” because there literally was no other public space for queer folks to go. Anyone’s birthday, anniversary, sacred union (in lieu of the legal weddings that would come decades later), comforting after a break-up, make up session in a dark but public corner, coming into community in any way had to happen in a gay bar because it was the only space the community had. Because there weren’t the gay centers, queer studies programs (in which I now teach), LGBTQ sanctioned “safe spaces,” women’s centers, etc. These spaces had not yet been invented. During this time even feminism had yet to get a strong foothold that was long enough to acquire community real estate. And gay liberation as a public force would come after Stonewall.
So gay bars for these folks were the public space—the space of coming into community of “solidarity and empowerment.” And, post Orlando, we are recognizing that they still are. The gay bar is where you figure out who you are as a gay person. Are you in fact gay? Is this a place you fit? —finally? With all your conflicting feelings that don’t make sense anywhere else? Often you parked blocks away, circled the block, couldn’t come in that first time and had to come back a second, third, fourth, or more time before you got the courage to go in…maybe it took you years to get up the courage.
A recent Twitter meme celebrating the gay bar post Orlando that was retweeted thousands of times proclaimed that “If you’ve never been afraid to hold hands with someone you love, you don’t understand how important it is to be inside a gay bar.”
What we see with Orlando is that the gay bar is just as important as it always has been in creating our communities. The tragedy that is Orlando has allowed us, as an LGBTQQIAA population (lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender, intersex, allied, asexual, queer and questioning…;) did I miss anyone?) to stand in solidarity with gay bar culture, with the folks in the PULSE bar. We empathize with those who were there discovering themselves—because that is where we discovered ourselves.
Gay bars saved our queer lives. And it wasn’t true just for pre-Stonewall folk who had nowhere else to go. Gay bars are our sanctuaries still. And they are still the only place for many queer folks to go.
In Florida where you can still be fired based on your sexuality (even though you can legally marry) a gay bar is a sanctuary where you can expose feelings and behavior that would get you fired if displayed in another public arena—behavior that marks you as “gay.” The conversations surrounding gay bars post Orlando celebrate them almost as queer colleges—where did you go? What year? We are alumni searching for our classmates who were there when we figured out our identities. Who helped us by also claiming that contested public space to form our first community.
A gay bar is the place where you often also figure out not just that you can have friends—but that you can be a friend. That someone would want you as a friend—you, the gay person so often reviled as sinner, mentally ill, deviant, etc. in the wider world. Today we stand with Orlando. The Facebook meme that quickly became a profile frame, allowed you to put your picture into activism framing your profile with the words “We Are Orlando.” Meaning we, our queer tribe, is Orlando—we are the kids going to the gay bar. The mother wanting to celebrate with her son. The young underage kid getting in on a false ID. We are that community– that was us. And is still us. We are Orlando. We are embracing our gay bar history when we say, “Of course they were in a gay bar. Gay people go to gay bars. We still go there.” It is history we can be proud of.
Gay people and allies who were “outed” because of the massacre, because they were inside the PULSE nightclub and survived, may have survived only to find out that they have lost their jobs. You can still lose your job, your children, your church affiliation, your residence– because you are gay. These kinds of discrimination are not just awful—but still legal in many places. The gay bar becomes a dangerous but necessary breathing space between a rock and a hard place—still. You can still be classified as mentally ill as a minor and be sent for reparative therapy. This is only beginning to be illegal and is still legal in many states.
The gay bar then is and constantly becomes again–the only place, that dangerous but accepting place.
You take your body to a gay bar so you can talk, dance, look, feel …be. My favorite meme of the post Orlando blast of social media memes was of two men dancing proudly with stylized crowns on their heads, proclaiming, “In celebration of all those who just wanted to dance.” One of the reasons Stonewall was targeted in 1969 was that it was one of the only New York clubs where you could “touch dance.” Touching a person of the same sex was illegal activity pre-Stonewall—and still dangerous today.
A history we can be proud of—in celebration of all those who just wanted to dance. The last chapter of my book begins with lines from the “last call” dance at many gay clubs, “Last dance. Last chance for love. This is my last dance…last chance for love.” I open the book with a list of those informants’ names who passed before my book was published and wrote after their names, “May the last dance always be a sweet one.”
Today I add the names of the Orlando victims to my litany and pray for them, in whatever gay bar they are dancing in now, not “rest in peace,” but my own sweet gay prayer, “May the last dance…may the last dance…may the last dance…always be a sweet one.”
Vigil photos by Marie Cartier.
Marie Cartier. Dr. Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University. She is the author of the critically acclaimed book Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Routledge 2013). She is a senior lecturer in Gender and Women’s Studies and Queer Studies at California State University Northridge, and in Film Studies at Univ. of CA Irvine. She is also a published poet and playwright, accomplished performance artist, scholar, and social change activist. She holds a BA in Communications from the University of New Hampshire; an MA in English/Poetry from Colorado State University; an MFA in Theatre Arts (Playwriting) and an MFA in Film and TV (Screenwriting), both from UCLA; and an MFA in Visual Art (Painting/Sculpture) from Claremont Graduate University. She is co-chair of the Lesbian-Feminisms and Religion session of the national American Academy of Religion and co-chair at the regional level of the Queer Studies in Religion session, founder of the western region Queer Caucus, and a perma-blogger for Feminism and Religion. She is also a first degree black belt in karate, Shorin-Ryu Shi-Do-Kan Kobayashi style, and a 500 hour Yoga Alliance certified Hatha Yoga teacher.