I didn’t sleep well most of last week. My teething one-year-old didn’t help, but that wasn’t really the cause. Sunday and Monday night I had bad dreams. Not nightmares where I woke, bolt upright in a cold sweat, the bad dreams I had were insidious, the kind that wake you groggily and slip from your consciousness as you come to, leaving you paranoid, contaminated and disrupted.
I know why I’d been getting the dreams. I knew why when I woke up more tired and dazed than usual on Monday morning: It was the mass murder last weekend at Pulse. But it wasn’t until my Monday morning jog that I put my finger on what it was about this all-to-common-in-America, shooting.
It felt different than the punch in the gut that was Sandy Hook.
It was different from the “here-we-go-again” exasperation after the Aurora shooting, a town where I had lived, a theater where I had seen movies, only a few blocks from where I had once lived.
It was different than the loss-of-innocence I felt when I found out about San Bernardino. By then I’d felt no different than when I drive by a car accident on my way to the office– So sad for them, glad it’s not anyone I love. Thoughts and prayers… I wonder if I still have time to pick up Starbucks?
When I first heard news of the Orlando shooting, I immediately thought of the handful of people I know in and around Orlando, but a quick scroll through my Facebook feed told me they were ok. So no one I knew was dead. best friend, as a gay man, would be upset by the news, so I called him after my kids went to bed on Sunday night. He was distraught, but safe and sound in San Antonio TX, so in that moment at least, I didn’t need to worry about him. The sadness of this event weighed on me all the same.
I’m a weird straight guy. I always have been.
As a kid I liked sports well enough: I played football in the schoolyard, and dodgeball. I was athletic, but the sport I loved most was gymnastics. I was in choir, liked dancing, and enjoyed performing in musicals. Because of that I was never part of the “jock” crowd. I could run as faster than most of them, I could lift more, pound-for-pound, than most of them, I could throw and catch as well as any of them. Football, softball and basketball were never really my jam though, mostly because of the ridicule I faced for my other interests.
A few of my friends in high school were gay, a couple of them even came out… as much as you could in a small mill town in Wisconsin in the early 1990’s.
I, however, was not gay; I liked girls. Maybe too much according to my mother.
After graduation I did what most people who weren’t going to college did, I worked around town doing mostly manual labor. I was still under 21 so I couldn’t go to the bars. Most nights I coached gymnastics or worked on local theater productions.
One night a friend told me that Sunday nights were 18 and up at a gay club called Za’s. By this point my sexuality had been questioned enough and I had known enough gay men that going to a gay club wasn’t all that intimidating. I had a great time There were other straight guys there, and a few straight girls, there were gay guys and a few lesbians there. There was really loud music, nearly everyone was dancing. The lights struck the floor, the walls, the ceiling, the tables, the chairs. There were people in dark corners making out. There was danger there, I’m sure. There were drugs and alcohol, but I really think for the most part they stayed outside. I suspect there were some older men there hitting on the boys, but they never really bothered me.
I danced with women, I danced with men, I think it’s safe to assume that I danced with men that were dressed as women (gender identity was not the conversation it is today, so please don’t judge me for how I phrased that). It didn’t really matter, we were there, we danced, we sang, we celebrated us.
I met a man who would become my best friend a few months later while working on a community production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I dragged him out to Za’s a couple of times. He was a few years older and he was kind of aloof, but we had fun. After the production of Superstar wrapped he approached me with a script for a play with two gay men as the leads in the Fox cities. The small, very Catholic conservative area where I’d grown up. After several long talks I joined the production and ended up playing the romantic interest to the main character.
I accepted a role in which I would make out with another man, on stage, in my boxers in my hometown.
I was “outed” by the local newspaper, which was ironic since I was dating the only woman in the cast.
While we worked on that production my new best friend and I discussed moving to Austin, Texas.
I hesitated. Why Texas? What the hell I had nothing better to do, so away we went.
The gay bar scene in Austin was vibrant. That’s where I fell in love with the gay bars. I was still under 21, but I made friends with several people in their late 20’s to early 30’s and I was cute –did I mention I was a gymnast?– So I could almost always get in. We went to Oilcan Harry’s, which is still open and you should totally go. The music was loud and people danced, and drank and laughed. Next door was The Cellar, which was really the same club in a mirror, but a little seedier. Later The Forum opened on Congress Ave. They had an awesome rooftop deck that was a decent place to enjoy the night air. It was also the place where the woman who would become my wife first hit on me… very drunk on her 21st birthday.
Then there was the Rainbow Cattle Company, a gay cowboy bar— which always struck me as an odd concept. Amazingly, this is also where I experienced my first drag show. I was very reluctant about drag and transgenderism at this point. I had pushed myself past the stereotype of gay men as predators but something about men dressed up as women men… It reeked of entrapment and predation that still made me uncomfortable. In my defense much of the LGB community was still wary about adding the T to the movement at the time.
There a transwoman MC welcomed everyone. She called out to the gay men who roared their applause. She called out to the lesbians to another roar, apparently Texas lesbians love to two-step. She called out to the straight women which earned her a smattering of applause.
Then she called out for all the straight men, holding one hand to her ear expecting chirping crickets. My friends roared, and she stared at me in surprise:
“Really?” She purred, pulling me up in front of the crowd.“Are you straight-ish?” She rocked her open hand side to side in a so-so motion.
I shook my head no.
“Not even questioning?” She held the mic out to me.
“No, I like women”
“Well honey, I’m as much a man as you’ll ever be and more woman than you can handle!” The crowd roared. “Well, We’re glad to have you hear hun!” Then she sang a bawdy version of Help Me Make it Through the Night.
After the show, she made a point of buying me a drink and sincerely thanking me for being a good sport. She was fantastic and made me feel more welcome and accepted than I ever imagined.
I got to know a lot of people at the clubs; a lot of them knew I was straight (some of them even knew I was under age). Of course men hit on me. So what, I was an attractive kid in a gay club and I took it for what it was – a compliment.
The point is: I felt safe there. I was a straight guy in the gay world and they made me feel the way I wish those of us in the straight world made them feel: loved, accepted for who you are, safe. That’s not to say there wasn’t danger in those clubs, lord knows that on more than one occasion I drank too much and found myself in not-entirely-safe situations, but even then we watched out for each other. There was nearly always someone who had your back, to help you get away from the creeper, which is certainly more than I can say for women in straight clubs.
That was the violation I felt after the mass murder in Orlando. I’m not involved with the LGBT community enough anymore to be able to say that “my people” had been violated, although that is true. I can say that it feels like My Safe Space has been violated, even after 20 years. I recognize that the dreams are of someone coming into my haven, my asylum, my sanctuary. Invading my harbor and attacking the ones I love, who choose to take refuge there the way I did when I needed it the most.
I also recognize my responsibility (not fault, but responsibility). I have spent the last 20 years chiding and hiding from “political correctness.” For not using my words to condemn those who belittle and dehumanize others in the guise of “telling it like it is.” For telling myself that it was enough to support gay marriage, to support gay families, to support the rights of gays to exist, but quietly letting people in my life make veiled racist, sexist, homophobic statements and jokes and not calling them racist, sexist or homophobic. For falling for the soft hypocrisy of “so-and-so isn’t really a racist/sexist/homophobe, they just have a sharp sense of humor” or the lie we tell ourselves that “we can’t know what’s in his heart,” therefore we can’t say if what is being said is racist/sexist/homophobic. I realize that this can be a hard line to draw, but I’m making a commitment to drawing it closer to justice, drawing it closer to human dignity, drawing it closer to protecting those who are the easiest to belittle and dehumanize. Those who are the racial minorities, those who are the religious minorities, those who are most likely to be the victims of prejudice and hate.
I recognize the strange disconnect between mourning the loss in a community which has given me so much, but I am nonetheless, not a part of. My best friend will tell me that’s not true, that I’ve “paid my dues and have earned the right to carry the card, I’ve been outed by a small town newspaper, had empty beer bottles thrown at me as someone drives by and yells “FAG!”” but in the end I’m a cishet male. I can hold my wife’s hand and walk down the street without fear. I can take my wife and children to the park, the beach, the cinema without fear of judgement or threat. I hope you can believe me, however, when I say I feel your fear, I feel your loss. I feel the loss of family members you’ve never met. I feel the loss of progress you thought you’ve made. At the same time, I know I cannot feel the loss of the kind of safety that you thought you had earned, because I still have that safety. I wish I could extend that safety to you, when you need it most, the way that you extended it to me, when I needed it.
Lastly, I have a favor to ask. Please keep extending that safety. I have twin 11-year-old twins that love to dance, that have recently shown an interest in musical theater. That may still need the harbor that you provided when I needed it, that may need that haven, that sanctuary that you provided me regardless of my sexual orientation. The conversations that I’ve overheard them having lead me to believe they’re also probably cishet boys, but I hope that one day they can also know the joy of dancing with abandon with people who love. Who love, because they have experienced the burns of hate. Who love anyway, because they know in the end that’s the only way to survive. Who love without sight, without contrast, without contradiction. Stay Golden Pony Boys, we need you more than we know.