Kissing girls in straight bars has always been a feat. When I realized in college that I was queer, I learned that if I wanted to hook up with girls in public, I was probably always going to have a crowd of guys literally circling us to watch, and if I wanted to be safe, I wasn’t going to be able to call them out for the creeps they were.
I learned that it was easier when I looked prettier, was thinner, had my hair straightened (I’m biracial) and looked as femme as possible so they could just assume I was a straight girl hooking up with girls on their behalf. I learned to play by the rules, knowing that all bars, whether they were called straight bars or not, were their territory. I was outnumbered, and there was no guarantee that anyone would have my back if things went awry.
But then I discovered the magic of gay bars. I moved to Southern California and realized that gay bars were actually a thing I could find not just on Netflix but in real, actual life. My girlfriend and I would spend a weekend in Los Angeles and wander West Hollywood and make out without being attacked or harassed or even looked at, because we were just one more queer pair doing our thing. Why would anyone care?
It was never just about hooking up, though. I can survive without PDA, though I don’t think it’s fair that I have to make a decision many straight couples never have to make. What really separated my experiences in straight bars and gay bars was the ability to connect with other queer folks. On New Year’s, my two best friends traveled cross-country to barhop with my girlfriend and me, and we were thrilled and relieved to just be able to be gay, the thing we always were but didn’t always get to be.
The best night I ever had at a gay bar was when my girlfriend and I went out with a friend of hers and her friends, a group of queer women of color we’d never met before but quickly bonded with. We went out in West Hollywood to celebrate the final night of a popular lesbian bar, and we were ourselves the entire time. I got to see, for the first time in my life, other couples that looked like my own relationship, other queer women who looked like I did, other people like me. In the openness and perceived safety we felt in that queer space, we were able to let our guards down and just have fun and bond and connect.
We — finally — didn’t have to hide.
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With the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse, all of that shattered. All the safety I’d imagined and felt came tumbling down beneath the truth: Queer people are never safe. Queer people of color are never safe. Trans people of color are never safe. Anytime we go beyond the four walls of our living spaces, we risk holding hands or kissing or even just seeming too queer in front of the wrong person; we risk being the final straw, we risk being too much for a straight person with an agenda and a need for revenge, because how dare we be ourselves, openly, in public, when they don’t want us to?
Yesterday I learned that maybe queer spaces aren’t safe. What I’d felt before — that freedom to be myself if only in a few, rare spaces — crumbled. Because those walls of safety became bars. That space became a hunting ground. That love became fear, and that freedom, nothing but imaginary.
Because we aren’t safe. We can celebrate the legalization of gay marriage, we can paste rainbows on our shoes and our T-shirts and our coffee mugs, we can be thrilled about every small victory, but things aren’t better. It still isn’t good enough. We’re still trapped. We’re still scared. We still can’t be ourselves.
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Yesterday my girlfriend said she’s too afraid to go to pride. Today I don’t know if I’ll be able to go to a gay bar again. Today, I’m questioning everything.
It isn’t the only way to react. But it’s the only way I have.
Hope is hard to find today.
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