My friend Kevin skillfully maneuvered his bright orange Corvette through the dark back allies of downtown Columbus. The city was largely deserted after business hours, so as we rounded a corner and saw a large number of parked automobiles I knew this must be the spot. I could feel my heart pounding down into my solar plexus and up into my throat. As we got out of the car I did a quick but complete scan of the surrounding area. There was no one else around, and I quickened my pace to keep up with Kevin who was clearly on task. I saw ahead of us a short brick staircase crowned with a small globe style porch light that bore an italic small inscription “Ty’s.” As I started up the stairs, with a twenty dollar bill and a fake ID in the pocket of my then stylish Jordache jeans, I couldn’t decide if I was more afraid to stay outside or to go on in.
This was the late 70’s and I was heading into my very first gay bar. Even from the landing I could feel the pulsating bass beat coming from within the club. Kevin opened the door and basically shoved me in. I landed face to face with a humorless bouncer who smirked as he looked at the ID photo that bore no resemblance to me at all. He stared at me knowingly for what seemed like an eternity and then nodded for me to go on in.
The knot in the pit of my stomach began to almost instantly ease as I looked around in amazement at what I was seeing. The light scatterings of the mirror ball and the softened hues of the colored lights revealed rooms filled with mostly men who I knew immediately were members of my tribe. Some were alone, some were coupled, some were gathered in groups. But I knew I was finally in a place where it was safe to be me. Where I could express in a way that was authentic to whom I actually am. This was a place where if I chose to dance it could be with a partner matching my natural orientation. This was a place where it was safe to meet and to talk openly with others who were born like me. I could even dare to flirt without fear of violent rejection and retribution in this oasis of free expression.
Ty’s was a safe zone. It was a tiny slice of earth where it was okay to be fully me. I frequented it in my college years, and internally smile as I think back on those years. I recall heterosexual friends going to the club with me and watching as they struggled to find a way to fit into “our” world. I may have had to try and to “pass” most other days of the week but on a week-end evening or even two I could step out of a scary world and step into a place where what I am was what I was allowed to be. It was my safe space for me and it was a community for us. It was a place where we could be free for a few hours underneath that mirror ball of dancing light.
That was long, long ago. And yet I imagine the LGBT clubs of today are serving much the same purpose. They are safe zones for people who still are not safe in the world at large. But now one of those spaces has been violated to such a degree that the betrayal cannot be ignored. Over one hundred individuals were gunned down in what truly was their home away from home. The safety was shattered in a hail of gun fire, the security drowned in a pool of collective blood. Couples died together. A mother died who was there only to dance in loving acceptance with her son, a son who now lives to survive that loss. Friends huddled together as they breathed their last breaths in a place that had promised to protect them, to let them be themselves without fear of rejection or retribution.
I contemplate my dark alley experiences in long ago Columbus and realize it could have been me. And it wasn’t. Yet at a deep level all of us who have hidden in the shadows and danced in the darkness feel this violation, this devastating breach of security. These were indeed our tribe. We felt safe together. Free together. We protected and embraced each together. And though that was temporarily interrupted in a vile and unspeakable way the tribal strength and the collective whole have risen together to face this tragic time. Love has faced the depth of hatred and has not flinched. The Light that has shined through this atrocity is not from a mirror ball but is generated by countless caring and compassionate hearts.
I have struggled to write and to somehow complete this piece. I have moved in and out of vulnerability and authenticity. To those of you still reading I confess to tender feelings around how this is received and evaluated. This tenderness I know is a direct result of having lived a life outside the margins. I know that my human experience as a gay man is a relative experience. It is not what I am in Truth. I know that at a broader level I am part of a human fabric that transcends gender, orientation, and nationality. I also know that I was born this way for a direct and higher purpose. Part of that purpose is to come to embrace fully the totality of my humanity. Part of that purpose is to stand up and to freely express the fullness of me.
I will no longer hide in back allies or gain entrance with a fake ID. I stand in solidarity with my LGBT sisters and brothers even as I know I am part of the greater whole. I am speaking out today on behalf of those who can no longer be heard. You were gunned down but you are not gone. You are here in these words, here in this heart. I will carry the torch of Truth for the remainder of my days. My heart will remain open, and I will love regardless of what the world may say. In this heart is my place to be, and in here I am truly free.