The first time I walked into a gay bar, I was hungry, thirsty, and in need of sustenance. A group of college friends and I were enjoying a California spring break adventure. This particular stop took place in San Francisco. We walked in, took a cursory look around, found a table, and sat down. Taking a closer look, once we were seated, we noticed a little something different. To say that we, with our sheltered little Bible college world, were a bit unaccustomed to such things, might be an understatement. To say that we handled it well, well, I leave that to you to judge.
I remember glancing around wondering if anyone would think we were gay. Wondering if they would flirt with us. Wondering, oh, my! What if someone tried to pick up one of us? After all, Brent was rather beautiful. It could happen.
As I say, we were unaccustomed to such things.
The regular patrons of the bar were not. They ignored us.
We settled in, enjoyed our dinner, and the experience became part of my personal narrative. Just one more little bit of what makes me who I am.
This was two years before I would return to San Francisco, spending the summer living on the edge of The Castro, where my world flip-flopped and I became accustomed to many things formerly foreign and freakishly frightening. It was the beginning of my awakening. As Aladdin and Jasmin would later sing, it was my “Whole New World.”
This was also a good decade before I learned that my brother was gay. And it was at least 15 years before my sister came out as a lesbian and my cousin came out as bi-sexual. (Please note that my sister has since had a change of religion and lifestyle and is now married with children.)
Again, this has all become part of my being, part of my narrative. And, certainly, a part of my heart and soul. As a youth, society had taught me one thing about gays and lesbians. Life has taught me something entirely different. As has my study of the scriptures.
But, back to the bars. And me walking into gay bars. I no longer know how many gay bars I’ve walked into. I think the last time I was in a gay bar, it was The Incognito in Pasadena (which, I believe, no longer exists). I didn’t go in to have dinner with friends or even for an evening out. I just needed to take my daughter in to use the restroom, in the middle of the night, as we guarded our seats for the next morning’s Rose Parade. We could have used the nearby port-a-potties, but when there’s a perfectly good restroom right there, why would we? So, I marched my extremely impressionable young daughter up to the door, explained my predicament to the extremely nice bouncer, and he directed us to the restrooms. Icky, yucky port-a-potties vs. clean, safe restroom. Albeit with a bit of graffiti, loud music, and some dancing, hugging, and kissing along the way. Which would you choose?
There’s just something about being in an LBGT environment that screams “safety,” to me. It beckons me in some inexplicable way that even I don’t understand.
When I first headed out for my summer in San Francisco, I had warnings echoing in my head. “Don’t go out at night.” “Don’t cross over into this neighborhood.” “Don’t shop in those stores.” “Don’t do this.” “Don’t do that.” I had been warned by friends and family, church members and even folks in the neighborhood around the church I would serve that summer. “Just don’t!” seemed to ring in my head.
But, I did. I’m a bit of a contrary soul. And, it may have been a bit of college-aged naïveté, but I never felt safer in my life. My friend Mindy and I wandered all over those streets, throughout those forbidden neighborhoods, making friends EVERYWHERE we went. In The Castro and The Haight, the Mission District and beyond. We wandered and we explored and we had the time of our lives. Learning the lay of the land. Meeting people. And, well, okay, to tell the truth, hoping to figure out where Graham Nash lived.
We shopped in the “gay” corner market. We ate ice cream in the “gay” ice cream parlour. We took the kids from our summer program to the park where gay people played frisbee and spread out their blankets on the lawn, hoping to catch some rays. When one of the little girls in our program lost her kitten, we were told not to worry. “It was probably found by some of the gay people in the neighborhood,” someone said. “If so, you know it will be well cared for.” Stereotype? To be sure. But it made us all feel better about Little Lost Kitten.
That was also the summer of my first Pride Parade and Festival. It was a jaw dropping, mind-numbing, heart-pounding whirl of excitement for a girl who grew up in medium sized towns throughout the Northwest and was raised by fairly conservative, protective parents. For those who have never attended Pride and don’t understand the appeal, it may be this: nowhere on earth, will you find more joyful, celebratory people, than those who have been repressed, who are now able to gather together to rejoice. I’ve been to every Pride Festival I could possibly attend, ever since.
That’s pretty much what the atmosphere is like in a gay bar. It is a place of freedom and joy. Relaxation and honesty. A place for people to just kick back and be themselves; to be whoever it is that God made them to be. Gay? Yes, of course. Straight? Well, if you have to crash the party, they won’t kick you out, but remember that you are crashing the party. This is a place where intruders may inhibit the freedom to be. And the freedom to be is what a gay bar is all about.
I would like to say that it never would have occurred to me that walking into a gay bar would be unsafe. I know better. I have a friend whose uncle was beaten to death because he was seen exiting a known “homosexual establishment.” My brother was hit by a car as he exited a gay bar, one evening, then harassed by the police because he carried no I.D., while the driver was let go. My brother was in the crosswalk, when he was struck.
I would like to say that it never would have occurred to me that the level of hatred that some people have for those who are different could escalate to such a degree that 103 people would not be shot because of prejudice. But, I lived through the civil rights era and I remember the violence. I remember the beatings and hangings. I remember people being dragged behind cars and I remember the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I would like to say that it never would have occurred to me that a mass shooting of this magnitude could never take place in my own nation, this beloved country into which I was born. And not in a place or place of war. Not in anyway that could be construed as defense or just. But purely out of vile, evil, hatred.
I would like to say that this could never, ever happen again.
I would like to. But..
Our hearts break anew.
Each violent act,
each death, each cry,
rip open wounds that
We weep with those who weep.
We mourn with those who mourn.
And never shall solace truly be ours,
until peace is truly born.