We Need Sanctuary

Bars as churches for LGBTQ Americans

When I went to my first gay bar in Ann Arbor in 1997 it felt wrong. My friends and I waited on Liberty Street, lined up next to the Dawn Treader book store, waiting to get into the Nectarine (now Necto.) The line was as you would expect, men and women, college students and older, waiting for a bouncer to check our IDs while electronic music blasted out the doors. Everyone wore their skimpiest or finest, bold colors, shiny fabrics and tailored fashions. I was embarrassed and scared that someone might see me walking by. I slinked along the brick wall and even though it was 11pm, the streets were still busy with people leaving the Michigan theater or heading to a new bar. I paid five dollars to get in (the price of a drink!) and the bouncer marked my hands with a big black X to show we were under 21. I held my breath as I walked up the flight of thirty stairs, the music getting louder. Following my friends we emerged on a landing overlooking the dance floor. I almost couldn’t see the floor was checkered with the swarm of people moving and undulating. The group almost moved as one while colored lights scattered on top of their heads. They were surrounded by televisions showing music videos. A platform wrapped around to the left over looking the dance floor. To the right was a long bar along the back that opened to a gallery. The music was loud and dark except for the piercing lasers and flashes of brightly colored lights. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and fake smoke produced by machines at dramatic moments of songs. This was the mid-90s and boy bands were back and dance music was emerging as a mainstream genre with its “oonce oonce” sound. Big beefy men in white tanks clutched glow sticks and swung to the rhythm of the music, high on some drug I’d never heard of. I walked around the club in a new button down shirt of synthetic material that shimmered in the disco lights. I hadn’t started wearing glasses yet, and I still had hair, crunchy from the gel, back when I worried of such pampering. The club was deafening but no one spoke; the only language was motion towards and away, with and against. The dancers conveyed looks, and glances, and stares, and winks. The wide-eyes were mine.

Unsurprisingly, the gay rights movement emerged from bars in the late ’60s. On June 28, 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn rioted against a police raid sparking annual pride celebrations the last Sunday in June. As the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s emerged out of the communities of black churches in the south, the only real community of gay, lesbian and transgender people was in bars. Since it involved identify and sexuality under severe scrutiny involving then illegal activity, many homosexual and transgender people were forced into dark bars. The liquor and drugs helped ease fears of even meeting gay people. Identity wasn’t overt, one never knew if that cute guy was an undercover officer. In order to live authentically, the community was forced deep underground, in seedy, dark bars with liquor and drugs.

The world was harsh and didn’t understand my life for many years. No where was safe. Classrooms, workplaces, restaurants, libraries, parks, beaches, no place I was free to be my authentic self. Even homes might not be safe, especially for young people. Cities like Ann Arbor were havens for tolerant people, but laws and policies at the state and federal level didn’t give much protection to the LGBT community from individuals or organizations in many ways. Two men walking down the street holding hands is still viewed as shocking in most parts of the country even today.

It was several visits before I became comfortable and not long before the gay bar was a Friday night tradition. I went to college two hours north of Ann Arbor in a small town. In the summer, my best friend, Jay, and I would leave at 10pm to arrive at 11 then stay until 2:30am, to to Taco Bell and drive home. We didn’t drink, at all, or do drugs, ever. We drove over an hour to go to a bar not just to have fun, not just to dance, but because it was important. Even for an introvert like me, Necto recharged me in a way that most crowds don’t. Gay bars were a place of great sanctuary for me and my friends. In many ways, the only way to cordon off a safe space for gays and lesbians was to designate certain bars as gay to dissuade the unaccepting from walking in. Necto was not even a gay bar but had a gay night every week that was known throughout the town, university and community. Don’t go to Necto if you don’t want to see same sex relationships. Tolerance without acceptance was such a big achievement back then.

For me, the shootings at Pulse nightclub in Orlando were so heinous for invading our safe space, our haven, our sanctuary. The only place many of these young, latino, LGBT people could feel safe still was in the walls of that club. It’s devastating to put myself in their shoes: waiting all week for that night, picking out the perfect outfit, saving money for drinks or the cover charge just to get in. Just like someone invading your home is devastating, in many ways this is even worse for the patrons of Pulse nightclub. At home many might still be closeted, guarded, alone, but in the gay bar, they are free to be themselves in a way that society still won’t permit anywhere else. I cried at the thought of someone entering Necto with the same purpose, killing my friends, destroying my community.

I went to Necto most Fridays from 1997 until I moved to California in 2010 and I have so many memories. This assault on one gay bar is an assault on all. Even though marriage was made legal for everyone a year ago, we still need safe spaces. We need authenticity and place to foster a sense of self and pride. Many states still don’t protect workers for being fired just for being LGBT and many refuse to protect attacks on gays as hate crimes. On this weekend of pride celebrations, I feel the change turning in the community. This is no longer about tolerance, this is about acceptance and inclusion. We have many more rights than we did in 1969, now we need safety.▪️

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