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Commentary: Gay Bars, LGBT Culture, and America’s Problem with Both

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By Ryan M. Leach

Forty-nine people were brutally murdered early Sunday morning in the gay nightclub called Pulse. Fifty-three others were also wounded when a gunman entered the club intent on murdering as many gay people as possible. The murderer’s father claimed in an interview that his son had been upset recently by witnessing two men kissing in Miami. Whether this was what sparked one of the deadliest massacres against Americans in recent U.S. history is something we may never know. What is certain is that this man entered a gay bar late in the evening on a busy Saturday night and killed 49 members of the gay community and their allies. Some people think that ISIS is to blame for this latest American massacre. The surprise twist is that America is largely to blame for the monster we helped create.

In order to understand the significance of gay bars and clubs in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community you need to look at the evolution of American LGBT culture. America has never been the most welcoming place for LGBT people. Historically, bars and clubs presented the only safe place for many gay people to meet, socialize, and interact, whereas our straight counterparts take for granted their ability to live and love openly in their churches and neighborhoods. They are accepted by family and friends with no exception, but gay people have never enjoyed that luxury—even in 2016. Bars and clubs have been places where the LGBT community could meet—whether it be to socialize, organize, galvanize, or even fall in love. Gay bars offered a peaceful refuge from the other parts of our lives that require us to hide our true selves in order to be safe. This includes: safety from being fired, from being evicted, from being assaulted, from being raped, murdered, mugged, exiled. It includes safety to use the restroom, to dance with our spouse, to hold hands, to kiss, to organize and plan ways to gain basic rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.

Gay people and culture doesn’t center on gay bars and clubs because we are all alcoholics; it centers on them because when no one else would take us in, bars would. From those bars evolved neighborhoods like Montrose in Houston or Castro in San Francisco. From there, safe travel destinations evolved. But the bars are where it began and where much of gay culture still cultivates.

Gay bars have also been places where persecution against the LGBT community has taken place. The seminal moment of the modern-day gay rights movement occurred in June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in New York City with the famous Stonewall Riots. Police officers had been targeting and raiding the Stonewall for several weeks. The mafia-run Stonewall Inn had become well known for its clientele of drag queens, transgender people, gender non-conforming gays and lesbians, and homeless youth. As tension built between the police and the patrons of the Stonewall, a breaking point occurred on June 28 resulting in a series of riots that would then transform into what we now know and commemorate worldwide as LGBT Pride parades. In hindsight, these riots were an inevitability brought on by the consistent, oppressive intrusion into the private lives of LGBT people. Taking away the only space where LGBT people could be safe was the last straw that lead to these seminal riots.

Similar raids happened throughout the country, including Houston. As recently as the 1980s, officers would line patrons up, gather their names, harass and arrest them, and publish their names in the paper. Many people lost their jobs as a result of the blatant discrimination imposed on them by police officers. Houston has one of the richest gay histories in America with much of the southern movement centering on the vibrant and active Houston LGBT community. Houston is home to the oldest gay political caucus in the south and continues to be at the center of LGBT progress. We elected the first openly gay mayor of a major city in Annise Parker and more recently set the stage for the latest big fight in LGBT civil rights with the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). HERO, despite its failure, allowed us to craft our message regarding equal rights for LGBT Americans. Most of these organizations and movements developed in gay bars and clubs.

Understanding the significance of these gay spaces is a necessary component of understanding why this massacre was, at the heart of it, a hate crime targeted at gay people. A man went to a gay space on a crowded night and killed and injured over 100 people. He entered that safe space, that sanctuary, and spilled the blood of people he hated for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer. He is no different from the man who entered the historically black church in Charleston who killed nine African-American parishioners as they prayed. He is no different than the man who wanted to murder 20 children and six teachers, so he entered an elementary school and did just that. There are some acts of violence that are not random.

This attack was not random. To say that this was an act of terror against all Americans misses a deeper point. This man didn’t enter a mall or a movie theater and kill at random. He had a plan to kill gay people and he did. Did he do this because of ISIS? I don’t think so entirely. This man was an American raised in an America where politicians and preachers tell people regularly that LGBT people are an abomination. He lives in an America where laws are written to prevent LGBT people from accessing basic human rights and services like marriage or restrooms because they aren’t considered equal. He grew up in an America where, on a regular basis, it is still okay to openly hate and condemn people because they are gay. It is no wonder to me why this man decided to murder and injure all of these people. We grew this man here. He is our problem and we need to own it. We can blame ISIS for a lot of stuff—but this one is on us.

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Ryan Leach

Ryan Leach is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. Follow him on Medium at www.medium.com/@ryan_leach.
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