Why Gay Bars Are Still Brave & Sometimes Dangerous Places To Be

Photo: David Goldman/AP Images.
People hold a vigil to remember the 49 people who lost their lives and the dozens more who were injured when a gunman attacked the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando on Sunday.
Gabriel Sands is a marketing manager at Refinery29. The views expressed here are his own.

Tragedies like Orlando are often difficult for me to write about. I grew up with such relative privilege, in an affluent community where I was showered with nothing but love and support before, during, and after I came out. My instinct when asked to write about this tragedy was to say to myself: "Mine is not the voice that needs to be heard right now." Although I have experienced emotional trauma and sexual violence in my life, I have never been the victim of violent homophobia. But I am a gay man, and this is about me, it's about all of us.

But then I think back to the quote that my grandfather, a Jewish man committed to social justice, had on his business cards: "Mourn not the dead, but rather the apathetic throng. The cowed and the meek, who see the world's anguish and its wrong and dare not speak," an interpretation of a poem by Ralph Chaplin. And I realize that now is not the time to be silent, as uncomfortable as speaking out may make me feel, as disqualified as I perceive myself to be in relating a tragedy, the scale and scope of which I have (fortunately) never come close to experiencing in my own life.
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The safe space created by my family — and to some extent, the liberal city I lived in — was the exception, not the rule.

I remember the first time I was in a gay space. I had just come out, and found myself at a weekly BAGLY (Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth) meeting. I was immediately exposed to so many people from very diverse backgrounds, very different from my own. People in the process of transitioning, people whose parents had kicked them out of their homes, people who had not even a fraction of the resources available to me.

I came out first to my mother around when I turned 16, when we were standing in her closet (ironically enough). I was surprised by her lack of surprise, and similarly, by the nonchalant reactions from my father and the rest of my family when I told them. Apparently, I was the last one to find out I was gay. I then rather rapidly began the process of claiming my "new" identity, which I very much wore on my sleeve and was encouraged to do. The danger of queer visibility was of peripheral concern, and never something I considered as I strutted up and down Newbury Street in Boston.

I cannot un-see what I've seen, and we all need to be vigilant and aware of all the work that still needs to be done. Gay bars are still important, brave, and sometimes dangerous places to be.

But the safe space created by my family — and to some extent, the liberal city I lived in — was the exception, not the rule. I remember marching in a gay pride parade in Jerusalem in 2008 — though it was more a show of solidarity than a pride parade — and smelling the literal shit emanating from the trash barrels that the Haredim had stuffed with dirty diapers and set alight.

I remember seeing conservative Hasidic Jewish men lining the perimeters of the parade route, holding signs that simply said "בושה" (shame, disgrace) in huge letters. I remember going to Shushan Arba, then the only gay bar in all of Jerusalem (it no longer exists), and meeting gay Palestinians for whom this was the only space where they felt safe. Even there, they did not feel that safe, as merely existing as a Palestinian in Israel is inherently precarious. For them, discrimination and danger run rampant, sometimes coming even from their gay Israeli counterparts. Racism is quite likely the most severe and most frequently overlooked issue currently plaguing Israel and Palestine, and it's even more severe for those who are also LGBTQ.

Whether in Jerusalem or Orlando, these spaces are so much more than they appear to be, and attacks like this only underscore that fact. It's something that's easy to lose sight of as a white-passing, privileged gay man living in New York City. But I cannot un-see what I've seen, and we all need to be vigilant and aware of all the work that still needs to be done. We need to remember that just because the queer community is now more visible, we are not necessarily safer. There is not a direct correlation between being visible and being accepted. Attacks like this, and other recent acts of violence underscore the need to not lose sight of the most fundamental part of progress: knowing that you will not be beaten or killed for being who you are.

For that reason, and so many more, gay bars are still important, brave, and sometimes dangerous places to be.
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