It has almost been a year since the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando where 49 innocent lives were taken tragically and 53 were injured. I am writing this piece in March of 2017. With all that has happened, June of 2016 seems like a lifetime ago, yet I am just now beginning to find the proper words to express how the entire event made me feel.
Some of my friends have written beautiful pieces and social media updates about the shooting. I have read essays by people who I will never meet saying things I wish I could have conjured. Still, I want to add my voice to the conversation even with the passage of so much time because I felt Orlando in my soul. I felt it in my soul.
When you are starting to come out, you look for safe places. My journey wasn't uncommon. I sought allies who could offer a sympathetic and non-judgemental ear. I met people in chatrooms. Behind closed doors and in the safety of other's homes, I allowed myself to be free and liberated. Later in my journey apps would be introduced allowing me to explore my sexuality even further. Not all of these adventures were safe, but they were necessary for me and thousands of others.
When I walked into my first gay bar, I felt awkward and out of place. My ego led me to believe that the eyes of the world were upon me and the world was judging from outside the bar and within its walls. My internal programming also led me to believe I was sinning. Those first steps were not about finding safety, rather they were about continuing my journey. The sense of safety would come later and when it arrived I was so very grateful.
A gay bar was the first place I felt safe. I could be out and proud within those walls. I could flirt. I could be flirted with. I could bring dates and meet up with friends. I could lose myself in the moment and, of course, make a few mistakes. I learned. I learned so much about myself, the culture, and my place within it. I also learned I could choose my own path and determine for myself what kind of gay man I wanted to be. After a few years, I found myself returning to traditional bars but I did so knowing refuge was still around the corner. If I needed a safe place, those bars where I grew up were there waiting for me and educating the next generation.
After Orlando, my old haunts didn't feel so safe anymore. To be honest, large crowds don't feel safe anymore. I do find pride in knowing how much things have changed. Still, I worry about the work yet to be done. Make no mistake, the Pulse Nightclub shooting was an act of terror meant to make a community afraid. For me and others, it worked to varying degrees. I know this to be true, though, the courage I had to summon the first time I walked through the doors of a gay bar in Oklahoma City will be the same courage needed to enter those confines once again. All of this begins with a simple choice. I choose not to hide. For too much of my life, I have been asked to stand within closets constructed by an environment beyond my control. I will no longer hide and I am not going back. Not now and not ever.
I will stand firmly for the things I believe in and I believe all people deserve safe spaces. All people deserve spaces where they can be free and liberated without fear. Here communities are built and strengthened. So, remember this simple fact the next time you walk past your local gay bar; these places are more than dens of sin. They are places where many of us end or begin our journey. We are your sons, daughters, friends, cousins, aunts, uncles... We are human beings wanting to be free.
Be good to each other,