Twelve years ago, a few weeks after I first moved to New York City, I met a man for a cheeseburger.
The cheeseburger was from Florent, a cash-only diner that disappeared when the Meatpacking District became home to trendy restaurants and wallet-vaporizing retail. I hadn’t been expecting more than just a cheeseburger — gay men who eat full meals on dates are just expecting full meals — but the date went well, and we stumbled down to the Cubbyhole, a stinky, immortal lesbian bar in the West Village.
Depending on whom you ask, one of us lured the other to the bar. We talked about Sal Mineo and Orange County. He smelled like pomade. I wore a green sweater. His eyes narrowed, he leaned in, and we kissed, burger faces and all. It wasn’t just that he was handsome and I was interested — I felt magic and love in that stinky bar and its dodgy jukebox.
I felt safe.
But the feeling of safety in a gay bar and actual safety are two different things. Though they are connected, there’s no such thing as a safe space for LGBTQ people. LGBTQ people know this better than anyone.
We live it, and our history is marred by it.
As we found out a year ago, if the thought of two men kissing disgusts you to the point where you would like to kill them, you could execute the deadliest mass shooting on American soil by walking into a gay club during pride month and opening fire. The armed officer there was futile, and at least 50 people were murdered.
Stonewall is just up the street from the Cubbyhole. It’s the gay bar where heroes — many LGBTQ people of color — fought for their rights. That’s the part we like to celebrate.
But remembering the humiliating, abusive police raids is the kind of stuff we gloss over. Every so often, officers would turn on the lights, check for IDs, and arrest patrons without identification or in full drag. Patrons knew these raids were coming —police would barge in around once a month — but risked going there anyway.
Right around the corner from Stonewall is where Elliot Morales murdered Mark Carson. Morales passed and followed Carson on an avenue, asked if he was "with" a man. Carson responded yes, so Morales gunned him down, and then bragged about shooting him in the face. Carson’s life slipped away on the dirty sidewalk of the Village — the place where LGBTQ rights started and the one pocket of New York City where LGBTQ people should be safe.
And there are countless LGBTQ stories like Carson’s, like Matthew Shepard’s, like Mercedes Successful's, stories of people who are killed for being themselves. There’s also the wrath of the AIDS epidemic and the generations of LGBTQ men and women who died because no one, including a sitting president, would acknowledge it.
For LGBTQ people, survival is work, it is love, it is hard, it is a risk. It is defiance in a world where some would have us disappear.
Despite the strides made, like the success of same-sex marriage, LGBTQ life is still a life of vulnerability. Knowing that our lives are fragile, that there are people who could easily do what was done in Orlando, that people like Carson have died for just existing, that abuse happens to LGBTQ people on a daily basis, and knowing what our brothers and sisters endured at Stonewall — it’s exactly why pride, our marches, our drag queens, our celebrations, and our stinky bars exist.
These places and events evoke a feeling of belonging, a feeling that for a few minutes or hours, you’ve found your tribe — your family. No shooting, even the deadliest one in American history, has the power to take that away.
LGBTQ people don't live their lives in ignorance of the ugliness around them. No. Fear and loss are universal to the LGBTQ experience, as is the courage forged from it. Not hiding, and living our lives, especially in this month of pride, are an unapologetic demand that you will recognize it and never forget it.
The survival. The work. The love. The brothers and sisters we lost on Sunday.