This Holiday, I’m Going to a Gay Bar
They tell us not to flaunt it. They tell us to not shove it in their faces. They tell us not to talk about it. They tell us everything would be fine if we’d just keep it behind closed doors. They tell us these things during Thanksgiving dinner, at Christmas after the kids have opened their gifts, while the game is on and we wanted to try to talk, to explain, to give them a chance to see us, to love us. We don’t want to give up just yet.
When I heard the news about the shooting at Club Q, an L.G.B.T.Q. nightclub in Colorado Springs, I couldn’t help but think of the rhetoric spewed by those like James Dobson.
We know what we’re up against. We heard it growing up, in church and at home. We heard the words they use in polite company — about loving the sinner and hating the sin. We heard the words they used when they’d been listening to Christian radio or their actual minister or Rush Limbaugh or Fox News, about abominations and predators in bathrooms and groomers on the internet, and the words they use when they’ve had one too many, the names they call those who could be our friends, who could be us.
Those words we heard and were taught and were forced to read, a whole lot of those words came out of Colorado Springs, the headquarters of Focus on the Family, an evangelical organization whose founder, Mr. Dobson, wrote books exhorting our evangelical parents on how to deal with strong-willed children — corporal punishment, “a little pain goes a long way” — and on how to raise boys to be suitably masculine, who compared homosexuality to pedophilia and who once appeared to offer a solution to fathers whose young daughters had to share a restroom with trans women: “If this had happened 100 years ago, someone might have been shot. Where is today’s manhood? God help us!”
Some of us grew up and escaped to cities where we could feel, if not safe exactly, at least a little less alone. We could find jobs where we didn’t have to hide who we were and tell lies about our “roommate.” We could find friends like us, a new family, to replace one we lost. Some of us stayed home or moved home when things didn’t work out in the city. But that story’s heartwarming only when the main character is a straight executive in a Hallmark movie.
Some of us go home for the holidays, where we are told to keep it behind closed doors. We step outside to walk the dog so they don’t see our tears. We call our friends back in the city. Our brother steps out onto the porch to tell us, when we ask why our family can’t just love us, “It’s all about the baby Jesus,” because he’s the only one who knows how much it hurts. And he’s the only one who can still make us laugh about it.
Later on, when the kids are sleeping, when Mom wants to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” some of us head to the bar. We don’t need to know anyone there. We don’t need anyone to tag along. We don’t need to know if it’s a dance night or a drag show. We’ll be all right.
Just as soon as we walk through those doors, past the bouncer checking IDs, up to the bar, where the impossibly cute bartender nods to let us know he’s seen us. He did see us. Someone finally did. It’s been a while. This is where we’re safe. For many of us, it’s the only place. They told us it would be OK, behind those closed doors. They’d leave us alone.
Often there’s a drag show, a fund-raiser for a homeless shelter for the queer kids whose parents listened to their evangelical leader and threw their children out onto the streets. We’ve heard the panic about drag queens, and it’d be hard to not laugh if we didn’t know the intent behind the manufactured panic. Drag queens talk about sex the way politicians talk about thoughts and prayers and Christians talk about love. Everyone knows they’re full of it. Drag queens are in on the joke.
If you’ve ever been to a gay bar on a holiday or ever worked at a gay bar during a holiday, and I have, you get to watch the transformation of every person who walks through those doors: the unwinding of jaw muscles and shoulders, hips that start to roll about halfway across the room, the tone of voice that changes between the front door and the bar. You watch people become themselves as they throw back that first shot, the medicinal shot, then find immediate friends down the bar or out on the patio. It’s as beautiful as it is tragic.
It’s tragic because they were never going to leave us alone. No matter how quiet we kept it, no matter how much we hid it in front of them. The police came into our houses and dragged us out in handcuffs, printed the mug shots in the paper so our bosses and families and neighbors would know what they had told us to keep secret. The military harassed us and threatened us and threw us out, even though it said it wouldn’t ask if we didn’t tell.
They don’t want us to feel safe. They don’t want us to be safe.
Joshua Thurman, in a tearful interview shortly after he survived the shooting last weekend, asked, “Where are we supposed to go?”
The Stonewall riots began because they were lying then, too, when they told us to keep it behind closed doors. So we came out into the streets. We fought back. We fought back Saturday night, too. It was club patrons who stopped the gunman, who threw him to the ground and subdued him until the police arrived, and when they arrived, they placed handcuffs on one of those patrons, who said later that the police locked him in a police car, briefly preventing him from tending to his family members.
The police, as an institution, were not built to protect queer people, not when politicians fearmonger about drag queens and bathrooms to rally an evangelical base.
We protect ourselves. We’ll fight for our own. We always have. We’ll mourn. We’ll raise money. We’ll organize. And we’ll keep fighting, until all of us are safe, everywhere.
But tonight, I’m going to a gay bar. Maybe there’ll be a drag show.
Lauren Hough, an essayist and the author of “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing,” has been an Air Force airman, a bouncer, a barista, a bartender and, for a time, a cable guy.
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