“It could have been us,” said Steven Nash, a 25-year-old gay man who had come with three friends to honor the Orlando shooting victims at a New York City rally and vigil on Monday night. “We would’ve been going out and living our lives and not being ashamed.”
Nash, tall and blond and wearing a rainbow bow tie, stood amid a fast-growing mass of hundreds who had come to mourn the Orlando shooting victims in front of the Stonewall Inn — the bar that gave birth to the LGBT rights movement in 1969 — and to ponder the chilling idea that yes, it could have been us.
As details of the deadly mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub have begun to sink in this week, the impact on LGBT people — who were the targets of this, the country’s worst mass shooting ever — has been particularly wrought, giving rise to events not only in New York but across the country and around the world, from Seattle and Austin, Texas, to Chicago and Provincetown, Mass., and even as far as Perth, Australia. That’s because LGBT people, like other minorities, can carry some heavy psychological baggage when it comes to fearing rejection and harm because of who they are — and because gay nightclubs are both symbolic and actual havens, providing solace and love and security in communities that are not always accepting or safe.
“These are not just places to dance, they are places where you get mirrored, and that plays a vital role,” L.A.-based psychotherapist Payam Ghassemlou, who specializes in serving the LGBT community, tells Yahoo Beauty, regarding bars and dance clubs like Pulse. “You need a space to feel like you’re normal and in which to embrace your identity. So it’s not just a nightclub — it’s like a launching pad to go into greater society with more confidence. And even though there are now places online [to feel connected], there’s nothing like being in an actual space where someone looks you in your eyes and says, ‘Hey, you’re OK.’”
As Morgan Cohn wrote in Vulture regarding the important place that Pulse held in her heart as a queer teen growing up in suburban Florida, “I was the best and the worst versions of myself at Pulse. It was the backdrop for so many of my firsts. The first time that I truly felt confident and secure. The first time I met so many of the people that I love. The first time that I made out with a stranger, cried at a bar, was unexpectedly propositioned for a threesome, fought with a girlfriend, broke a heart, rebounded from a breakup.” She concludes, “The most beautiful thing about Pulse is that it’s a place full of people who were just trying to figure it all out. Nobody should ever be able to take that away.”
When attacks on the gay community do occur — as they have with regularity over the decades, from a 1973 arson attack on a New Orleans gay bar to the shooting attack in 2000 at a gay bar in Virginia — they can be “triggers to a lot of deeper traumas,” Ghassemlou says. “When you’re a member of the LGBT community, it means you grew up feeling different, and that you often got shamed, physically attacked, or humiliated. So that’s the background here. An attack like this only reinforces the negative feelings we already have about ourselves, that we are not worthy of freedom or joy or safety.”
Former New York City lesbian party promoter and nightclub proprietor Wanda Acosta was one of the many who felt the pain of Orlando acutely this week. As she shared on Facebook, “I have been entrenched in the LGBTQI [queer intersex] community for over two decades. Supporting and creating safe spaces for the queer community has been my passion and my mission most of my adult life. It’s where I grew up, found my voice, made my friends, created my family, found liberation and the strength to feel OK in a world that said I was different. These spaces were my salvation.”
LGBT historian Eric Marcus, author of Making Gay History, tells Yahoo Beauty, “I am hardwired to be fearful because of my sexual orientation, so this kind of news triggers my worst fear of not being safe in the world. When I look at the images of the young people targeted, they are me when I was younger — and I didn’t think about being in danger when I was in places like that.” He adds, “Even though we know this guy was really disturbed, he still targeted gay people and murdered them en masse,” and that the attack comes at a pinnacle in the LGBT rights movement — just a year after the federal legalization of same-sex marriage, when perhaps the community was feeling more ready to let down its guard.
“We’re in a moment in the history of the gay civil rights movement when social acceptance has reached the tipping point, and when a lot of us live with the expectation that we are like everyone else,” Marcus says, “and when we maybe don’t expect to be targeted.”
For now, notes Ghassemlou, gathering at vigils and connecting with others in the LGBT community is a positive step. “We need to take time to grieve,” he says. “When we skip the grieving process it really doesn’t help us. We need to come together and share our pain with each other.”
To pledge financial support, click here to donate to the Equality Florida Pulse Victims Fund.