In the wake of the mass shooting at Pulse, LGBT people are re-evaluating what ‘safe space’ means to them
When Orlando resident Jordan Allison first heard of what happened at Pulse, the first person he reached out to was the guy he went on his first date with there.
“Me and him, we hadn’t talked in a long time,” Allison said. “I reached out to him and said, ‘Hey, did you hear about what happened at Pulse? I just want to make sure that you weren’t there.’”
Pulse had sentimental value for Allison, so the first thing he felt was shock. “You never think of that happening in your backyard,” he said. “You don’t think of it being a place you’ve been to multiple times that you have emotional ties to.”
Because it was one of only two gay bars in Orlando, Allison said everyone there had ties to Pulse. “Even though I didn’t know anyone directly, I had a lot of friends who knew people who had died,” he said.
Two people Allison used to work with at Universal Studios, including 22-year-old Luis Vielma, died at Pulse. “Orlando, it’s a really big city, but it has a really small gay community,” he explained. Describing Pulse as being the size of his living room, he added it would be easy for a massacre to occur there.
“I could just imagine someone just sitting in the middle of the dance floor and just making a 360 and you could easily just hit everyone,” he said. “You wouldn’t have anywhere to run.”
Allison, a Dallas native, said Orlando’s gay scene is smaller than what he knew back home. “Since Orlando doesn’t have a designated gayborhood, I think we struggle to find a gay identity,” he said. “We don’t necessarily have a ‘safe space.’ In Dallas, I felt safe going to the gayborhood.”
But the only place Allison said he feels safe in Orlando is the theme parks because of the “million metal detectors.” His idea of a safe space is somewhere he can be himself, surrounded by people like him, without fear of backlash, he explained.
“On top of that, [a safe space] definitely needs to be secure, and in case of an emergency, there’s a way to get out,” he said.
Allison said he is optimistic the shooting will encourage the Orlando community to build a proper gayborhood, and suggested Pulse be demolished and a park or monument built in its place.
“That would be the perfect centerpiece for a gayborhood,” he said. “It’s crazy because Orlando is a really gay-friendly city. It’s crazy that this city does not have any kind of gayborhood.”
Orlando is too spread out for bar-hopping, with 15 to 20 minutes between each bar, unlike Dallas, Allison said. “Sometimes I don’t want to have to search for gays. Sometimes I don’t want to have to go to Disney, use my coworkers, figure out who’s gay,” he added.
The weeks since the shooting in Orlando have been difficult for many LGBT people. But longtime Dallas-Fort Worth resident Seamus McManus said he has seen darker days for LGBT folks, notably the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s.
“It was a feeling of despair, having to bury your friends either every other day or every other week,” McManus recalled. “There was a group of 30 of us that always hung around together back in those days, and I’m the only one that’s still here.”
The shooting in Orlando was a wake-up call for him on several levels.
“Number one, you’re not going to live forever,” McManus said. “Number two, it’s important to make your voice heard, and I guess number 3, love yourself and be proud of who you are, and don’t be afraid to show it.”
McManus said his safe space these days is the Rose Room at S4, where he goes to watch the drag shows.
But having lived in Dallas-Fort Worth since the ’70s, McManus said he has seen venues come and go over the decades.
“Where Hunky’s is now used to be a huge bookstore called Crossroads Market,” he said. “It was sort of like being in your own gay Barnes and Noble in the ’80s. It was a safe space and also a place to go get information, especially in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.”
There were more clubs in Cedar Springs back in the ’80s than there are now, like the Cave, which was where Skivvies is now, and Village Station, once located where S4 is today.
“The club scene was really active and vibrant,” McManus said. “Once AIDS started taking its toll in the ’90s, it was a lot more somber.”
Now, in wake of the Orlando shooting, McManus said he feels a mixture of anger and pride.
“It really re-ignited the activist spirit in me that would want to go out and march, go to a rally, protest, volunteer, things of that nature,” he said. “It brought new realization of how important it is to get out there and make your voice heard.”
McManus recalled a specific encounter with homophobia at a Miss Gay America pageant in the 1980s: “I remember having to walk through all those hateful religious people with their signs protesting outside,” he said. “When you’re trying to walk into a simple venue to watch a show, and you come face-to-face with hatred verbally spewed at you, as well as the look of utter hatred in their eyes when they’re looking directly at you, it’s something you never forget, and it changes you forever.”
Now, McManus has resolved not to accept such animosity. “I’m at the point where I don’t take crap from anybody,” he said. “If they don’t like it, they can go screw themselves”
Even though Dallas has a thriving gay scene, Denton resident Ash Milam’s only safe space on the strip is Sue Ellen’s. “I went to S4 once, but I didn’t feel as safe there,” Milam said. “I just felt that the clientele was primarily white gay men. It’s great that they have a safe haven, but at the same time, I just didn’t fit into that group.”
Still, Milam is a little bit disappointed that Sue Ellen’s is the only lesbian bar on the strip. (Milam, who is attracted to women, is gender-fluid, so doesn’t feel the term “lesbian” is accurate.)
“When I went to S4, even though it is a gay bar, I got hit on by a lot of straight men,” Milam said. “It would be nice to have variety, but Sue Ellen’s is still my home bar.”
Sue Ellen’s and Mable Peabody’s, Denton’s only gay bar, are Milam’s only safe spaces. Still, after the Orlando shooting, even those spaces don’t feel as safe anymore. “It definitely makes me hesitant and it makes me more cautious, but I also feel like we need to be a community now more than ever,” Milam said.
For El Paso native Victor Santana-Melgoza, communities tend to be safe spaces. “Any place can be considered a safe space as long as I have the numbers with me,” he said. “If I’m not in those designated safe spaces, the place I’ll find a safe space is in numbers, is in groups.”
Santana-Melgoza has lived in El Paso, Phoenix, Oregon and Massachusetts. He said he felt safest in Phoenix because of its racially-mixed environment.
“There’s a large Latino community there, but it’s also very white, so it’s a nice balance between the two,” he said. “It feels at least much more community-oriented rather than racially oriented.”
Santana-Melgoza described himself as a non-traditional Latino because he doesn’t speak Spanish, so he’s more “white culture-oriented.” For him, his safe spaces are violated when intruders come in for selfish reasons.
“I’ve been to Latin nights in clubs in Phoenix. While it might just be other brown people around, also there’s a tinge of exoticism when there’s white people also there kind of examining us,” he explained.
“I’ve been in situations where white men will go to a Latino night specifically because they’re looking for a brown body.”
Bars and clubs have long been safe places for many in the LGBT community, said the Rev. Neil Cazares-Thomas, pastor of Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. “They’ve been our sanctuary,” he said. “It’s our place where we can not concern ourselves with what the world might think of us. It’s the place where we can hold hands without threat.”
But since the Orlando attack, “I think that many of us felt that our safe space has been violated,” he added.
Cathedral of Hope, the world’s largest predominantly LGBT congregation, also serves as a safe space.
The church, founded 46 years ago by 12 people in someone’s living room, now has a worldwide congregation of 4,000, with about 2,000 of those in Dallas. Weekly attendance at the church averages about 1,500, Cazares-Thomas said.
The church, he said, has performed a majority of the AIDS funerals, and also participated in the reclaiming of Christianity. “I think that, as a cathedral, we collaborate as much as we can with the other organizations, and together we certainly create a hub of both spiritual and secular life in Dallas in the LGBT community,” he said.
Like other places in the LGBT community, Cathedral of Hope has increased security in light of recent assaults in Dallas, he said. The evacuation on Sunday, June 19, due to a bomb scare came after several other Dallas venues had received threats on Facebook.
When security personnel walked the church Sunday morning, they discovered three packages wedged inside construction work, one package emitting what sounded like ticking. The police were called, and the building was evacuated.
It turned out the packages contained clothing, and one of them was a laptop bag, with the audible ticking coming from a cell phone with a low battery, he said.
Over the years, the cathedral has been picketed by several fundamentalist churches, including the Westboro Baptist Church.
Despite feeling like their safe spaces have been violated, Cazares-Thomas said the community will persevere.
“Like most of us in the LGBT community, we’ve faced this before, and so we decided that fear is not going to be our compelling emotion, that we will band together as a community and that we will respond with love, and love always wins,” he said.
“The world is a safe space for me,” he said. “I don’t live my life in fear. I’m an out professional queer person, so I create safe spaces where I go. I don’t need people’s permission to live.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2016.