Even the very real risk of raids, harassment and exploitation did not deter queer people from patronizing these places. Access to them could be a matter of life and death; the effects of depression and anxieties waiting in the outside world were too much to bear for some people shut out by their families or towns. Gay bars and clubs helped combat isolation. They forged community.
These gay establishments have always been political. Their mere existence is an act of defiance. They represent the claimed spaces of people who often live outside the margins of mainstream society. Perhaps the best-known version of this is the Stonewall Inn, and the 1969 police raid at that New York City bar, which helped spark massive social and political gay mobilization.
The need for locating gay establishments as sites of refuge has historically resonated with queer and transgender people of color, whose race, ethnicity and class associations can often put them at greater risk of violence and harassment. Lest we forget, they were front and center at Stonewall. Almost all of the victims in Orlando are Latino, and the tragedy occurred on the club’s popular Latino night.
Yet safe spaces were not always safe. The very idea of a refuge has historically been contested and, at best, tenuous for LGBT people. Gay bars and clubs could be the sites of great violence: One of the lesser-known physical attacks occurred at a New Orleans gay bar in 1973. An arsonist lit up the UpStairs Lounge, which took the lives of 32 people. That community mourned and mobilized with resilience, despite authorities’ lack of motivation to investigate and bring justice to the fallen.
The United States greeted the HIV/AIDS epidemic with apathy and even hostility. During the worst years, an HIV-positive diagnosis, or even just getting tested for the virus, could disclose a person’s sexuality — and probably not on one’s own terms — and render gay people vulnerable to violence and prejudice. Still, queer bars, clubs, bathhouses, bookstores and community centers held fundraisers and served as sites of support. They helped propel the message that “SILENCE = DEATH.”
Although public acceptance of gender and sexually nonconforming people has increased over the years, the Pulse massacre shows that deep hatred persists. As members of the queer community perished from AIDS, many Americans argued that their deaths were God’s retribution for homosexuality. Perusing social media yields similar language in the aftermath of the attack in Orlando.
Several writers have recently pondered the “death” of gay nightlife, including bars and clubs. Reports suggest that LGBT establishments are closing in higher frequency throughout the country. Some have attributed this to the prevalence of gay social networks and the greater acceptance of queer people in mainstream society. For the latter point, many often cite the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage as evidence. Marriage equality does not dismantle all forms of oppression and inequality — especially for those who remain most vulnerable.
Gay spaces remain as necessary as ever. Gentrification and inflated markets are sometimes at the root of their closures. Several forces are pushing LGBT individuals and people of color out of their homes, and community spaces can be hard to come by. Gay establishments directly and indirectly provide social services and care at a time when state services are quickly receding.
How are we to make sense of the tragedy that occurred on Pulse’s Latino night without acknowledging how Orlando’s rapidly changing demographics relate to a larger politics of displacement? More Puerto Ricans have fled to the Orlando area than to anywhere else after the island’s massive debt crisis that U.S. Congress refuses to act on. They, too, are seeking sanctuary, whether in the form of safety or employment.
Safe spaces, it turns out, can still become graves.