As the clock struck midnight Sunday, less than 24 hours after the mass shooting in an Orlando gay nightclub, the DJ at the Saloon cut the music. The manager of the downtown Minneapolis club turned off the video screens and the lights, and the more than 500 people who had shown up there shared a moment of silence.
In the darkness, the Saloon seemed more like a sanctuary than a well-established gay bar. That’s fitting, say members of the local LGBT community. Gay bars in the Twin Cities never have been just places to drink and dance. Until the night of the attack, they had long served as safe havens.
Bars and nightclubs historically have been where members of the LGBT community come out, meet partners and adopt chosen families when their own families have shunned them. Where they go to celebrate legal victories, like last year’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage; and where they gathered to mourn Sunday’s attack on a Latin dance party at Pulse nightclub.
“When I came out 25 years ago, that was the only place I could go,” said Andrea Jenkins, who spearheads the Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota.
“I would go to work, get in my car, drive through a drive-through because I didn’t even feel comfortable getting food at a restaurant as a transgender woman. And then at night, I would go to the bars, because people didn’t laugh at me, and people didn’t harass me. That was my refuge.”
Today, there are gay churches, gay-owned restaurants, lesbian sports leagues, transgender-run coffeehouses, LGBT dating apps and more. But for many gay people nightlife continues to fill the role of community center, social service provider and matchmaker all at once.
“It is essential to the survival of anyone, of any culture, that we find places that we can be ourselves,” said Roxanne Anderson, the former director of Trans and Racial Justice at OutFront Minnesota. “This is why the TV show ‘Cheers’ was so popular for so long, because everybody can relate to that idea of wanting to go into a space that feels like you belong.”
John Moore, owner of the Saloon, one of this region’s oldest gay bars, likens gay bars to Irish bars for immigrants at the turn of the last century — a place to find supporters and advocates, a place to celebrate.
“It served that purpose so profoundly 40 years ago, but it still does today, because there’s a piece of us that is tribal,” Moore said. “It is our spiritual home.”
Having such a pivotal place be violated, as in Orlando on Sunday, has been devastating for Minnesotans who found refuge in nightlife. Many spoke of broken hearts and said they shed tears in the days after the attack.
“It could have been me,” said Riah Roe, who performs at LGBT venues. “It could have been my friends, it could have been my bartender that knows my drink.”
Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths have had to navigate family rejection at some point. In bars and clubs, they often found a family of their own.
As a young adult in Texas, Roe experienced homelessness, and saw gay bars as among the only safe places to go.
“You would just be able to have a conversation with someone who understood what it was like to have family issues and … were willing to accept you unconditionally,” said Roe, who is the first transgender civil rights commissioner for the city of Minneapolis (and is not speaking here on behalf of the commission).
Safety, however, is relative. The riots that kicked off the national gay rights movement in 1969 were launched in response to police raids at New York City’s Stonewall Inn. For decades afterward, gay bars remained targets for violence and surveillance.
Their “growing ubiquity also meant they became sites that were potentially dangerous, because they were recognized as places where queers or deviants got together,” said Kevin Murphy, professor of the history of sexuality and queer studies at the University of Minnesota.
Additionally, many gay establishments have been geared toward white men, leaving most minorities and transgender people without dedicated spaces. Add to that the swirl of alcohol, loud music and late nights, and the bar scene hasn’t always been comfortable for everyone.
Still, bar owners and promoters don’t expect this latest attack to deter revelers from coming out in full force, especially as the Twin Cities Pride celebration approaches.
“If we stop going to these events, then hate has won,” said Chad Kampe, who runs Flip Phone, an LGBTQ events company in the Twin Cities. “We need to keep going and keep dancing and keep the spirit alive.”