Yesterday, I was feeling very affected by the attack on LGBT nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I did not directly know any of the victims, was not there, nor was I Latino — the majority of the victims — and my only connection to the incident was that I was a QPOC. But it wasn’t that connection that stirred something inside me. It was the idea that our sanctuary has been so easily trashed that struck me.
In 2009, I was bound for New York for college, and it would have been my first foray into the United States. In preparation for the journey, I researched as much as I could about the city, and learned that it was a haven for the LGBT community and the Stonewall Inn was where the LGBT rights movement first started. At the time, I had never experienced or dabbled in anything of that nature — I was too concerned with school and extracurriculars to be even bothered. Never been inside a gay club, never kissed, never held a hand.
But I learned about the concept that there are spaces where one could go and be amongst like people. Places where for while, one could let one’s hair down and not worry — nay not think — about disapproving stares, much less the fear of rebuke and reproach. Sanctuaries.
One of the very first few things when I had landed in New York and had generally unpacked was to pump up my unicycle (my preferred mode of transportation) and go for a ride in the city. I was curious about this Greenwich Village and Chelsea, spoken of in Wikipedia (Hell’s Kitchen had yet to be linked into the Gay Village Wikipedia article at the time, or I wasn’t looking very closely) and unicycled down the legendary Christopher Street I had heard so much of.
I wasn’t too disappointed. Back then in 2009, the West Village was on its way to being gentrified but still clung on to the vestiges of its gay subculture. I still saw, in broad daylight, men in leather suits and heels and caps, LGBT people openly holding hands and kissing, bears, daddies, twinks, dykes and all shades of the rainbow and I smiled.
“This isn’t too bad. I think this place could work,” I thought.
I hit the end of Christopher St, past the leather and daddy bars, past McNulty’s (love that tea/coffee merchant) but did not go to the piers, as I didn’t know about it then. I then made a U-turn and then back up 8th Avenue, all the way into Chelsea.
There, I saw a different gay people of a different ilk. Men with buzzcuts in their 30s and 40s bulked up with muscles exploding out of their inexplicably tight tank tops (I dubbed them the Chelsea gym bunnies), skinny gay men yakking all the time and the smattering of sex shops selling underwear, poppers and porn. I didn’t dare go into any of them then, but yet I still felt safe standing in the streets even as I was among some of the people physically quite unlike me — in skin colour, size, and much more. Yet I felt like I belonged.
I was merely standing in the streets of these gay-bourhoods and already I felt for the first time I was surrounded by a community of people like me, a refreshing change from the dour looks back home. I wasn’t even in a gay club (that’s another story) but even though I was in a strange land, I felt safe, despite having been traipsing New York City roads and traffic on one wheel on one of my first few days here.
“Welcome to sanctuary” the city seemed to be saying to me.
And over the years, I have made many friends, created many communities, have been accepted by many communities, and created my own family here in New York.
The Pulse club was one such sanctuary for many gay men and women to enjoy a night out without the fear of “faggot” being yelled their way. A place where LGBT people who were not yet ready or able to openly hold hands in public without being attacked to hold each other. A space where the only judging going on were eyes sizing you up whether to say “hi” and bring you home for the night, and not whether you were abominable sin.
But that night, all around the country, LGBT people were reminded that they were still from being safe to walk upright. That despite being surrounded by “allies” and the recent developments in gay rights, all it takes is one mentally ill person, one hateful person, any straight person welcomed into a gay space but ultimately striking fear into the gay people around him because he was told to quiet down, to make us question how safe are we, even in our sanctuaries.
And that was why I was perturbed.