Julio Capó Jr: Is this the end of gay bars?

Gay establishments have served as a safe haven for LGBT people, but these safe places are not so safe. Photo / iStock
Gay establishments have served as a safe haven for LGBT people, but these safe places are not so safe. Photo / iStock

Since at least the 1940s, gay establishments such as Pulse have served as a safer sanctuary and haven for LGBT people. Entering these places meant a respite from the closet. There, those who had been shunned by family, friends, communities, employers, landlords or the state could make temporary residence. For some, it was more of a home than they had ever known.

Even the very real risk of raids, harassment and exploitation did not deter queer people from patronising these places. Access to them could be a matter of life and death; the effects of depression and anxieties waiting in the outside world were too much to bear for some people shut out by their families or towns. Gay bars and clubs helped combat isolation. They forged community.

These gay establishments have always been political. Their mere existence is an act of defiance. They represent the claimed spaces of people who often live outside the margins of mainstream society. Perhaps the best known of these is the Stonewall Inn; the 1969 police raid at that New York City bar helped spark massive social and political gay mobilisation.

READ MORE: • The surprising Orlando side-effect

The need for gay establishments as refuges has historically resonated with queer and transgender people of colour, whose race, ethnicity and class associations can often put them at greater risk of violence and harassment. Lest we forget, they were front and center at Stonewall. Almost all of the victims in Orlando are Latino, and the tragedy occurred on the club's popular Latino night.

Yet safe spaces were not always safe. The very idea of a refuge has historically been contested and, at best, tenuous for LGBT people. Gay bars and clubs could be the sites of great violence: One of the lesser known physical attacks occurred at a New Orleans gay bar in 1973, when an arsonist lighted up the UpStairs Lounge, which took the lives of 32 people. That community mourned and mobilised with resilience, despite authorities' lack of motivation to investigate and bring justice to the fallen.

Deep hatred persists

The United States greeted the HIV/AIDS epidemic with apathy and even hostility. During the worst years, an HIV-positive diagnosis, or even just getting tested for the virus, could disclose a person's sexuality - and probably not on one's own terms - and render gay people vulnerable to violence and prejudice. Still, queer bars, clubs, bathhouses, bookstores and community centers held fundraisers and served as sites of support. They helped propel the message that silence meant death.

Although public acceptance of gender and sexually nonconforming people has increased over the years, the Pulse massacre shows that deep hatred persists. As members of the queer community perished from AIDS, many Americans argued that their deaths were God's retribution for homosexuality. Perusing social media yields similar language in the aftermath of the attack in Orlando.

Gay night life in decline

Several writers have recently pondered the "death" of gay night life, including bars and clubs. Reports suggest that LGBT establishments are closing in higher frequency throughout the US. Some have attributed this to the prevalence of gay social networks and the greater acceptance of queer people in mainstream society. For the latter point, many often cite the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage as evidence. Marriage equality does not dismantle all forms of oppression and inequality - especially for those who remain most vulnerable.

Gay spaces remain as necessary as ever. Gentrification and inflated markets are sometimes at the root of their closures. Several forces are pushing LGBT individuals and people of colour out of their homes, and community spaces can be hard to come by. Gay establishments directly and indirectly provide social services and care at a time when state services are quickly receding.

How are we to make sense of the tragedy that occurred on Pulse's Latino night without acknowledging how Orlando's rapidly changing demographics relate to a larger politics of displacement? More Puerto Ricans have fled to the Orlando area than to anywhere else after the island's massive debt crisis that US Congress refuses to act on. They, too, are seeking sanctuary, whether in the form of safety or employment.

Safe spaces, it turns out, can still become graves.

• Julio Capó Jr. is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he teaches LGTBQ, Latino and Caribbean history.

- Washington Post

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