There were two queer bars in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I lived when I was finally old enough to go to a bar, and mine was a place that became eventually known as Diva’s. Officially, I lived two towns over, in Amherst, but Amherst nightlife was dominated by sports bars and guys so poorly behaved they had been kicked out of fraternity parties. I was underage when I first moved there for school, so we threw parties across multiple rooms in the dormitory floor our university had named “Two in Twenty” because “One in Ten” probably sounded too lonely for a “gay floor.” (Maybe we said queer floor. I don’t think, in 1997, the university said “LGBT floor.”) On late nights and early mornings there, I remember wearing wings in a shower, dance remixes of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” and making our own communal chaos with what we had.
Diva’s was the bar with the 18-and-over night, technically a goth night, which gave us somewhere legal to go — the goth and industrial kids, sure, but also the overlapping queer under-21s, in a town too small to have dedicated places for all of us.
The DJ played us out with Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” even if it was technically spinning up at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday, because Tuesday is when we gathered, all of us who fit in no place.
Every week, after Siouxsie and Nine Inch Nails and Soft Cell (and charmingly awful industrial covers of “Like aPrayer”), the DJ played us out with Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” even if it was technically spinning up at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday, because Tuesday is when we gathered, all of us (if you asked me then, I would say) who fit in no place.
I don’t know where to start trying to understand the mass killing at Orlando’s gay nightclub Pulse on a Latinx night, without starting (as others have too) with dancing. Outside the Stonewall Inn for a vigil the night after the massacre, the loudest cries from the crowd came for the man who stood on the brownstone steps next to the historic bar to announce passionately: “I am a DJ! I am a proud, gay DJ!”
In the staccato call-and-response cadence that comes from using the People’s Mic (borrowed from Occupy), he continued defiantly, with dozens repeating his words: “A gay bar! Is the first place I could be myself. A gay bar! Started a revolution!” And then there were howls and screams, and for a minute standing there, flanked by news vans and metal barricades holding counterterrorism cops, it was almost a party.
The grieving is not only for dancing, or for a sense of place — though these are the same places, the bars and clubs, that are disappearing from our cities and towns at the same time as we are told LGBT rights have been achieved. The grieving is for the lives stolen from us, and also for the possibility found where bodies gather in full life and power. Whatever else this massacre is about, or will be made about by the more powerful, it is about denying the possibility of queer and trans lives in public.
In the few minutes of cable news I allowed myself on the day of the massacre, I watched Billy Manes, the editor of Orlando’s LGBT paper Watermark, try to address presenter Tamron Hall’s questions about ISIS and terrorism when, as he said, “I don’t even know if my friends are alive.” His eyes remained mostly closed, his face falling under the words. As the segment ended, with Hall referencing President Barack Obama’s words earlier that day, that this attack was an attack on all Americans, Manes added sharply: “What we have is a backlash to our freedoms.” It was his way of referencing LGBT freedoms specifically, seemingly in response to this invocation of “all Americans.” “I will be diligent,” he said, “as will everyone I work with, to point out where the inaccuracies and the fallacies are.”
“A gay bar! Is the first place I could be myself. A gay bar! Started a revolution!”
“Gay-Club Attack on Our Freedoms,” announced the New York Post, the only New York tabloid to put news of the attack alongside the word “gay” on its cover. But who is the Post’s “our”? Which “freedoms”? I like how feminist scholar Helen Hester put it on Twitter, commenting from England after a presenter on Sky News attempted to cast the Pulse massacre as about “all” Americans: “TFW u grant LGBTQ* ppl of colour access 2 the universal only @ the precise moment when doing so obscures the specificity of their oppression.”
Queer freedoms — and, in particular, queer people of color freedoms — are what’s already being written out of the story of Pulse. Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, along with many queer and trans people of color, have refused this erasure. “What happened in Orlando is not new, because we, people of color, have a history in the U.S. of never mattering,” said writer and activist Alan Pelaez Lopez in a video they posted Monday. Organizer and writer Bea Esperanza Fonesca added, “The media will try to use labels like ‘terrorism’ and other things to get us away from understanding how our culture, like the media, like education, like prisons, have actually been complicit in this attack, and are complicit in the ways that our bodies are put at risk every single day.”
Names and photographs of the victims have been released, slowly. Some families are learning for the first time about their LGBT siblings, cousins, parents. Some of the dead will likely be misgendered. Before sleep last night, I was reading about KJ Morris, about the same age as me. She was a Pulse bouncer, working that night. Then this morning KJ was named as one of the dead. Before moving to Florida to be with family about two months ago, KJ had been a performer at Diva’s.
I want to make room for the truth that some of our responses to these killings will not make sense. Most of us, queer and trans included, never danced at Pulse. I don’t want to project myself there, as if I can know what this specific loss is like, too, by virtue of being bisexual and part of this extended community. I will never meet KJ, and it’s been 13 years and two cross-country moves since I set foot in Diva’s (which celebrated its last Pride this year, and like too many queer bars and clubs, will soon close). But I can still feel what it is to need to be there or somewhere like it, to feel home there. I will always carry that need.