LGBTQ clubs, bars, and gathering places were created out of a need for safety and community. They're under attack.
Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Bar was the first time I set heel into a queer space while wearing drag. Box braid lace front, red bodysuit, denim booty shorts (what we queens call “coochie cutters”), and thigh-high platform boots. I was feeling my Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama” realness. I performed a mix of RuPaul, En Vogue, and Gaga, and my wig came off.
Yes, I was humiliated, but the warmth from the crowd gave me so much validation that I knew I was in the right place, and I still performed the house down boots. I felt safe enough to return the next week. It was my new haven for not only my own and others' drag artistry, but to find my people.
I remember one of the patrons coming up to me and being so kind. He had a smile that could light up a room. His name was Julio Ramirez. The same Julio Ramirez who was found dead in the back of a taxi back in April. He is possibly a victim of a string of robberies and assaults targeting gay men around the gay bar scene in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. This month, the world has witnessed five people being murdered in a mass shooting at a Colorado Springs LGBTQ+ nightclub. Six years ago, 49 people were murdered at Pulse Nightclub in a painfully similar fashion. Our queer spaces are being attacked. Never mind thinking this sort of infiltration was in the past. The queer gathering places that were fought for and earned by our forebears are ours to cherish, nurture, and protect. This recent string of events is an assault on that notion.
This is a state of emergency.
As I look back on my own queer history and study how our LGBTQ spaces have evolved and what it meant to have a safe space for individuality, It made me realize that this is a call to action. This is a state of emergency.
Where It All Began
Throughout the '50s and '60s, being queer (a derogatory term at this time) was a massive liability. Gay men could lose their careers, homes, and essentially livelihoods. Gay women had it worse, facing both homophobia and misogyny. They could lose custody of children and the financial support of their family. Whatever the case, queer people made efforts to still meet and mingle with those who shared the same identities.
Secret societies were born out of necessity and were alternatives to the bar scene that was frequently raided by police. The Mattachine Society, a Los Angeles-based organization for gay men was founded in 1950. A prominent force in the pre-Stonewall days, it helped define what it meant to be a homosexual and cultural subset of society. The Daughters of Bilitis, the group's lesbian counterpart, started over a dinner shared by four couples. There is nothing more unifying than a plate of food. As trivial as that may seem in a time of violence and ignorance towards queer people, it was a fixture and the phrase “Gab’n Java” was coined for future meetings over cakes and coffee. Both societies created safe spaces to teach, advocate, and discuss what it means to be queer, and catalyzed The Homophile Movement.
Disco, Leather, and Ballroom
The 1970s arrived on the tail of the Stonewall Riots and the queer movement was bigger than ever. This was also the era of disco, the iconic erotic images created by Tom of Finland (Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen), and the proliferation of venues centered around queer subcultures like ballroom and leather. Bars and discos were the places to go for queer folks to let loose.
Being a Cleveland native, I remembering hearing about Leather Stallion, the oldest continuously running gay bar in Ohio, and how it was the place to be. I also think it has arguably one of the best bar patios in Cleveland. The legendary drag performer, Crystal LaBeija, founded the eponymous House of LaBeija, out of which was born the ballroom scene that we know today. Regardless of the voguing and dips we love (despite what you hear on Drag Race, they are not "death drops"), we have to commemorate the incredible labor and tenacity it required to create spaces for Black and Latino folks who weren’t welcomed or celebrated in White queer culture.
Bars and Bathhouses Become Lecture Halls
The bleak reality of the '80s and the '90s saw our spaces reimagined as educational centers. HIV and AIDS were killing the community and with the rise of ACT UP and other political advocacy groups, queer spaces needed to pull double duty as conference rooms. With mainstream media's varying erasure of or fearmongering around transmission of the virus, bars, cafes, community centers, and even bathhouses were the only forum for communication among queer people in the height of an epidemic.
One example is the famous Florent, a diner in the Meatpacking District. Owned by a French artist and chef, Florent Morellet, the 24-hour restaurant, was a hub for gay and eclectic New Yorkers alike. Morellet, living with HIV himself, would post his t-cell count on the daily menu. That simple act of unashamed data sharing was progressive, and frankly badass. This diner was more than just a stop for a burger or steak frites. It was a beacon of hope for a neighborhood so uniquely and culturally queer. Unfortunately, the workings of gentrification and capitalism (other forms of violence against queer spaces) forced Florent to close up shop, leaving a void that has never really been filled again. (By the way, the 2009 film Florent: Queen of the Meat Market is worth the watch if you can track down a copy.)
The recent events and increase in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, legislation, and violence have really shaken me up. I thought that things had changed over the past 26 years. Obviously my utter naivete can be dangerous, especially in a time where it seems gun control is nowhere in sight. I walk into a queer bar nowadays and find myself panicking about a possible mass shooting. Equally terribly, someone could be another victim of a hate crime outside said bar. Nevermind the “Mai Tai Killer” in Ryan Murphy’s newest season of American Horror Story: NYC, a fictional, self-hating character who kills gay men by drugging the cocktails he sends them. Hell, this is happening today, right now. And I would need another 10,000 words to write about the deaths of my trans sisters and brothers.
Sacred communal places for all walks of life have been targeted.
I am not a politician, nor do I strive to be. I am a queer, Black constituent who is sick and tired of fearing the worst. It seems to me that sacred communal places for all walks of life have been targeted. Mosques, synagogues, churches, and schools are places of worship, education, and freedom. I would love to create my own “Gab’n’ Java” with my peers to navigate this. Instead of a dinner “party,” it is a dinner “caucus.” Maybe the number of hate crimes and of deaths caused by mass shootings should be placed on daily menus.