There were no gay venues in the village I grew up in. Nor was there a gay club in the town I went to school. I didn’t experience a gay bar until I went to University, and even then, it’s not like we had a dedicated LGBT venue. The LGBT Society (now know as Saints LGBT) took over a local bar once a week, and that was the first safe space I found where I could flirt and dance and make out with women.
“Mondays are gay” is a sentence that used to fall from my lips with an alarming regularity. It wasn’t me misusing the word (well, not entirely) – but not much happened in St Andrews on Monday evenings other than the meetings of the LGBT Society. LGBT was a home for me when I was confused, when I was disbelieving, before I came out to my mother and after I was heartbroken from my first same sex breakup. Safety for me was The Vic on a Monday night: being surrounded by people who knew what it was like to be rejected by straight friends who you thought were hitting on you, who had also been hissed at in the Union, who could direct you to the University counsellors who didn’t blink when you asked how you were supposed to deal with being cut off from your disgusted parents. Home was a group of people who drank gin and tonics and hosted after parties and made me come out on Monday nights even when I had class on Tuesday mornings.
They were the same people who took me to my first ‘proper’ gay club. Out in Dundee was dark and grimey and a pain to get home from, but it was a place which I came to feel ownership over in so many ways. I have spent many evenings taking the last bus from St Andrews to Dundee, drinking gin and cranberry juice from Ribena bottles, getting rowdy with friends. Out was the place that I first kissed C, the girl I had a few dates with before I met Stacey. It was the place where I learnt to drink WKDs again – they were the only drink that the bar sold at a price which could meet a student budget. Out was both the place we spent weeks planning to go to, and the place we sometimes spontaneously turned up to. Out had no dress code and no one cared when girls stripped off their t-shirts. Out was a safe haven to meet people I didn’t know and yet did, because we were all queer.
And then there are all of the gay clubs on Manchester’s Canal Street that I’ve been to numerous times, high spirited and overjoyed at being in one of my favourite English cities. Places like Vanilla and Coyotes and Churchills which all merge into one in my head; which had the mirrored dance floor and which did we go to on that night that Pink played in the city and which was the one that I met that girl who wrote her number on my hand in lipgloss? Places that were hot and sweaty and where I felt desirable and powerful because of the crowds of people who were just like me.
When I moved to Edinburgh, one of the attractions on my little flat was its proximity to the pink triangle; the group of gay clubs which my friends and I gravitated towards whenever we desired a big gay night out. Some of my favourite nights out ever started with pool at Planet Out, then drunkenly dancing to whatever top 40 pop that the DJ was playing, before travelling the 200 meters or so to CC’s, where our shoes would stick to the floor and we’d climb into the wall alcoves to dance and be seen by the crowd. And then a diversion into Piccantes on the walk home, because late night chips and curry sauce can only be made better by having an in-house DJ who plays the same music you were screaming out loud in the club ten minutes before.
I never doubted the safety of any of these places. I never paused before agreeing to a big gay night in London because I was concerned that someone at the club might want to hurt me because of who I was. When I was invited to a gay club in Vancouver I declined because I was jetlagged, not because I thought it might be dangerous. Gay clubs were safe spaces because they offered something which most clubs didn’t; an acceptance of who I was which didn’t need caveats. They were places where the heterosexual by default routine was broken. The people there were my people. I didn’t have to worry about being judged. When you censor yourself and your identity on a daily basis, having a space where you can be – freely and honestly – is an empowering thing.
Yesterday, someone tried to steal that power from the LGBT community of Orlando and around the world. Yes, this was a terrorist attack. But it was a terrorist attack on gay people, at a gay club, and the attacker has done more than just kill a group of innocent people. He has attacked a space that those people considered safe. He has attacked a community of people who needed a safe space. He has made people around the world doubt that they can go to the places they considered a haven two days ago. He has made me question whether there are any safe spaces now; not just in Florida, not just in the US, but in the world. I won’t be able to walk into any of the places I described in this post now without thinking of the victims of this atrocity, imagining how their enjoyment must have turned to fear and panic as they realised what was happening.
This was a terrorist attack. This was homophobia in action. This was another reminder that we are not safe, that we are not equal, that we are still targeted. This was a statement; there are no safe spaces now.
I refuse to believe this. I refused to be scared by invitations to my favourite places; I refuse to let my memories be coloured by the actions of homophobes, whether they attack with guns or with words. Tomorrow I will start thinking of how I can reply to people who try to tell me that these safe spaces are no more, but tonight I grieve with the people of Orlando, and with the LGBT community across the world.Carley