“A queer club is where I first saw people who look like me,” a speaker says to the hundreds gathered outside New York’s Stonewall Inn – the birthplace of the LGBT rights movement in the US.
Mere hours after 50 people were killed at an Orlando gay club, vigils are being held across the country. This is one of them. The LGBT community’s ability to unite at a moment’s notice, armed to the teeth with pithy placards, has always made me proud to be a part of it.
A queer club isn’t where I first saw people who looked like me, but it is where I first saw people I wanted to look like. I was 17 and had somehow – underage – managed to blag my way into Ruby Tuesdays (a London lesbian club night that’s been running since the dawn of time) with a group of friends. Then, I wasn’t out. But here were the women I wanted to be; short haired and – more importantly – joined at the mouth to other women, kissing with a real sense of urgency. These were my people.
Maybe it was the emotional gravity of this sudden homecoming that made me drop my full bottle of beer. More likely it was pure clumsiness. The crash of glass on floor was inaudible over Sean Paul (this was 2006) but I watched it shatter at my feet in that slow motion specific to truly embarrassing moments. A bouncer saw. She was shaven-headed and had biceps like hams. She tutted at me. When someone shaven-headed, with biceps like hams, tuts at your dorky, 17-year-old self, you hear. Over Sean Paul, even. I thought I was in trouble, but she disappeared. A few minutes later, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the bouncer. The two beers she handed me were the closest things to trophies I’d ever received. I’d never felt so accepted. I could’ve cried. I probably did, a little bit.
Maybe one of the 50 killed, or one of the many others injured at Pulse, Florida, this weekend was on their first ever gay night out. Maybe they felt that overwhelming sense of homecoming. Maybe not. Either way, on a summer’s night in Pride month, a home – a safe space for LGBT people – was shattered by an act of terrorism.
“Twenty people have been killed in a gay club in Florida,” a friend tells me, looking at his phone. Groggy from celebrating Brooklyn Pride that very night, we’ve just woken up. The news is relatively fresh. “Twenty” is soon to become “fifty”. I can’t process twenty. I say “shit” a lot. There is no reason whatsoever it couldn’t have been us that night. Florida. California. New York. Hate doesn’t have a favourite state. That night we’d been drinking tequila and listening to a lesbian hip hop group rap about fisting. I’d complained about crowds and said I’d probably give London Pride a miss this year. At a more lucid point in the evening, we’d had a discussion about what it meant to be a part of a community that’s been shaped by oppression. A couple of hours later a deeply concentrated version of that very oppression would strike Florida.
At the vigil, a placard that says “NRA = DEATH” flutters in the breeze. It’s seven in the evening, warm but windy. The rainbow flags lining the windows of the Stonewall Inn are blurred by motion; both trembling and defiant. A pocket of the crowd starts singing “Over The Rainbow”, but it doesn’t quite catch on. Next to speak is a trans rights activist who basically tells us to carry on. To “go on dates tonight. And tomorrow night. And the night after.” This gets a laugh that cuts through our sombreness like the warm wind. She’s right of course – we should date, and date hard. And publicly. According to his father, Pulse gunman Omar Mateen recently reacted violently to a same-sex couple kissing in public. It is so important that we carry on kissing, should we be so lucky. Someone who finds an act of love offensive is very much worth offending.
When the vigil quietens, my friend and I head straight to Cubbyhole, Manhattan’s only lesbian bar. Like any other weekend evening, it’s packed and noisy. The atmosphere is strangely light and, for a moment, I wonder if all the flirty cross-bar glances – today – are irreverent. Maybe they are, a little. But this is “carrying on”. This is a live demonstration of our refusal to be intimidated by people who are, in actual fact, afraid of us.
I tell my friend I’ve changed my mind – that I won’t be missing London Pride this year.