When we were younger, we would go every weekend to Strokes in Lafayette, Louisiana. Hell, sometimes we'd even go on weeknights if we just felt like dancing our asses off for a while. We, all of us, the queers, the straights, the bis, we'd shake and groove as a group, as couples, even solo, if the mood was right and the drugs and liquor had drop-kicked inhibitions out into the humid night outside. We'd show up for the drag nights, watching cross-dressers do their Judy Garland or Janet Jackson, cheering and treating them like the divas they were. Strokes was, ostensibly, a gay nightclub, and the bathrooms there were legendary for a quick hookup, but mostly it was the one place in town that accepted all of us so we just be who we were without anyone needing to pretend.
In south Louisiana in the 1980s, going to a place like Strokes was an act of rebellion, a giant middle finger, a "Suck my dick" to the hateful forces of the Christians and the conservatives, the Catholics and the evangelicals, the dumb and the sexually-repressed, all telling us that we were wrong, that we were deserving of their hate. During this time, the memory of the 1973 arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans where 30 people died, was still strong with the patrons at Strokes.
Strokes used to be just off one of the main thoroughfares in Lafayette, on Johnston Street, behind the strip mall that once housed Raccoon Records. It was back a bit, somewhat out of sight. You more or less had to know it was there or you wouldn't notice it. The outside was nondescript. Just a regular wood-framed building with only a small sign denoting what was there. Inside, the dance floor was the center of the room, the stage area for the drag queens was just off to the left, the bar on the right, tables all around. The lights were a kaleidoscopic wonder, dizzying and disorienting, especially when a scented fog was blown over the crowd. It was always packed on weekends, and we were almost always there until closing at 2 a.m.
And we dreaded leaving. Because, see, once we exited the doorway at Strokes, at the end of a night, sweaty, exhausted, most of us drunk or high, laughing, ready to go to the late night all-you-can-eat pizza buffet down the street so we had something to puke up in the morning, we had to face the assholes who always hung out in the parking lot waiting for their turn to yell at us. They weren't there every time, but they were there enough, prepared to make us feel like shit pretty quickly. It was a group of young men - it was always men - who gathered to drink beer and yell, "Fag" and "Fruit" and "Cocksucker" and "Dyke" and anything else, like this was their evening revelry. Mostly, we'd just ignore them and go to our cars. Every now and then, one of them would actually try to get in one of our faces, usually Ronald's, since he was the thinnest, least threatening of our group. A couple of times they'd throw beer bottles at us, shattering on the ground near us.
It was fucked-up, but it never got worse than that. Two people in our group would be beaten for being queer elsewhere. But the gaybashers outside Strokes never took a swing.
And no one ever hurt anyone inside the club. It was an oasis. It doesn't exist anymore, but other oases exist everywhere, places where you are just free.
So it's impossible to comprehend the violation that occurred with the Orlando massacre at the Pulse nightclub if you don't take into account that a safe space, a real safe space, has been desecrated. And one of the saddest parts of this whole thing is that Omar Mateen was either going to Pulse to case the joint repeatedly or, more likely, he, too, felt safe there. More and more it seems like he was trying to cope with his innate queerness, something that neither marriage to women nor prayer was helping, something that his father told him was an abomination and would get him punished by their Muslim God. Mateen's actions in murdering 49 people were monstrous and unforgivable, not least because he decided to bring the hatred of himself and the still-strong hatred from the outside world into the safe space, the place of celebration, the place where, as we know from the victims, queer and straight, primarily Latino, primarily young, acceptance was available, at least inside the club's walls.
Yeah, this is an over-romanticized vision of gay nightclubs. But you cannot separate a mass shooting from the space where it occurred. If one happens at a school or a workplace or a movie theater playing a particular film, those have meaning. As does this one. You cannot talk about the Orlando massacre and leave out that it was an attack on the gay community. That's like talking about Newtown and leaving out that most of the victims were small children.
Queer these killings because this was about killing the queer.