Going After One of the LGBT Community’s Safest Spaces Won’t Stop Progress

This piece was originally published in Above the Noise, Burness’ Medium publication. Check it out here

After watching something like 4 hours of coverage of the attack on the gay club, Pulse, in Orlando on Sunday, I finally got off my couch to volunteer at the Washington, DC Pride Festival. I knew it would be good to get away from the TV to go and volunteer with an organization that is all about making sure LGBTQ kids know they’re not alone. It felt like the only thing worth leaving my couch for. It made me feel a little bit less helpless.

I told my Uber driver I entered the destination of 7th and D St because Pennsylvania Avenue would be closed, but the closer he could get me, the better. A few minutes into the drive, sitting alone in the back, he asked what was going on that was closing down the street.

I paused and I thought.

Any other day, I would have simply said: “It’s the pride festival.” In that moment, I wondered how this man would react. After a beat — that felt much longer — I responded, “Pride.” Part of me hoped he didn’t know what it meant and wouldn’t ask. In that moment, I realized that I’d been robbed of something. Nothing compared to the lives lost or the holes left in families and a community in Florida, but something nonetheless.

I’d been robbed of feeling safe and fully a part of society. And in the hours since, I’ve been reminded of my privilege. I’m a gay, white man living in an incredibly gay-friendly neighborhood in a largely gay-friendly city who came from a family that has accepted me. I can’t truly know the experience of so many in the LGBTQ community who don’t also face discrimination based on their gender identity or race.

A lot of people have been writing and sharing how gay bars were (and are) a refuge throughout our history — how they are a safe space. I think it’s hard for many outside of the LGBT community to grasp that. More than once, I’ve heard people ask why, in 2016 (or ‘15 or ‘08), can’t we just have bars? Why do we have to segregate?

I think this question is usually because someone feels excluded or unwelcome — a feeling we know all too well.

A gay bar isn’t about gay people excluding others; it’s a place where someone is joining our community (community defined far more broadly than “gay”) and doing so on our terms.

For decades, this was one of the only places we had. A place where we didn’t have to try to figure out who was “one of us” and there was no fearing the repercussions of simply striking up a conversation.

I don’t pretend to fully understand this; I came out when those who came before us had laid virtually all of the groundwork and the most powerful tool I had was simply to state who I am. I only understand the experience of those who faced arrest or a death sentence of AIDS by reading and talking with those who came before.

Thanks to those who came before us, the boundaries of our collective safe space have grown quickly over the last 8 years. When I first came to DC, it was because in my mind college and urban places were safer than rural ones. Today, the boundaries of our safe spaces include the military, countless churches and synagogues and mosques, schools and even the institution of marriage. None of these is an entirely safe space: in too many states you can be fired or denied housing for being gay and laws can only do so much to wipe out personal slights. And most importantly, they’re also not safe to all in the LGBTQ community. For too many, like trans women of color who are victims of violence with frightening frequency, the rapidly expanding borders of safe space have not included them.

And that is what makes this attack so painful and so challenging. The very notion that gay bars are a core safe space — that they’ll remain so even as our boundaries expand — was attacked. It is the notion that one deranged bigot (who is given access to weapons designed to kill as many people as fast as possible) was able to strike at one of the very centers of our community. A space reserved for us and those who will respect our safety, both physical and emotional.

Sunday was an attack on all Americans, as straight-washing politicians (overwhelmingly on the right) will tell you. But what they fail to recognize — as they struggle with the cognitive dissonance of defending us as Americans while still casting us as villains to gain a few votes — is that this attack was specifically designed by one person to push the LGBT community back towards the closet and out of the public eye. The murderer’s father said that he went into a rage when he saw two men kissing. At its core, this act was intended to frighten and punish LGBT people and make us retreat from the borders we’ve worked so hard to expand.

And in those first moments, it did. For some who have suffered physical violence, it has surely retraumatized in ways that none of us can fully grasp yet. For others, it scratches at emotional scars.

This is not to deny those outside of the LGBTQ community their emotions. Those who love us — our parents and siblings and families — are reliving the fear for our safety that so many felt when we first came out. But we must not let politicians who seek to deny us rights tell their own version of this story.

In the coming weeks, when I reach for my boyfriend’s hand or hug a male friend goodbye after a lunch, the thoughts will cross my mind: “What are people around me thinking?” or “Who might be muttering ‘fag’?” Questions that, before Saturday, had become fleeting and rare.

Candidates are irrationally ranting about closing our borders to respond to the acts of one (American) madman who bastardizes a faith, but they need to look inward. The borders we need to be paying attention to are the ones that aren’t physical or recognized by governments. They are the ones that we see put up around us, telling us where we are safe to live our lives without doubt or second thoughts.

The moments of pause we have today and in the coming weeks are a fleeting victory for terrorists. We can take comfort in the fact that the borders of safe spaces are expanding and continue to grow as we share our stories — and, in these tragic moments, our grief. By sharing this, we will continue to grow the space in which all in our community are safe.

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