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After a shooting at an LGBTQ club in Colorado, I’m rethinking what safe spaces mean

These spaces are holy. LGBTQ bars and clubs are where we can go to be accepted and seen.

Staff illustration / Getty Images

On Saturday night, a 22-year-old man entered an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colo., and used a long rifle to kill five people before he was tackled to the ground by patrons. Twenty-five others were injured.

When I heard the news, I felt nauseated. I thought about a recent night I spent with a date at Tavern on Camac in the Gayborhood. We chose the spot specifically because we would be able to talk, but also be surrounded by some semblance of community. A series of men strutted up to the piano to sing renditions of Disney and Sondheim and Cher. I sipped a lager and asked my date about their childhood.

Not once did I eye the exit or think about what might happen if a man with a gun entered the room, hellbent on killing us because of our gender identities or the way that we love. But after the shooting at Club Q — and after reflecting on the 49 LGBTQ people who lost their lives at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016 — I might start.

» READ MORE: Colorado Springs Gay bar shooting suspect faces murder, hate crime charges

Many people don’t understand that LGBTQ bars and clubs are holy spaces. Too many of us have been rejected by our families or our religious communities, or deal with microaggressions at work that make us feel overly sexualized and less-than-human.

Too often, the people who we expect to love and accept us unconditionally choose not to respond in that way — and that leads to LGBTQ people seeking out other channels for connection. It’s possible to find safety and support in a bar, or a community center, or a friend’s kitchen. Even if we have the privilege of not dealing with these pains — both large and small — on a daily basis, we have likely loved someone who has.

Even in a strong circle of support, many LGBTQ people feel a sense of isolation. The suicide rate is astronomically high — nearly half of LGBTQ youth have had suicidal thoughts in the past year, according to a survey by the Trevor Project. The politicians who ban LGBTQ books or enact laws that limit access to gender-affirming health care don’t understand that for many in my community, the ability to be seen and loved as ourselves is a matter of life or death.

And hate breeds hate. At least 32 trans and gender-noncomforming people across the country have been killed this year. Of those, 81% of known victims were people of color, and 59% were Black. Trans women are disproportionately targeted.

For adults, an LGBTQ bar is a safe space. But what does safety mean?

Safety means being able to make eye contact. It means not fearing death. It means staring into the eyes of someone who could be a lover — or even holding their hand above the table, or dancing close — and thinking only of them, without being distracted by a straight person’s gaze or judgment.

That’s not to say that Tavern on Camac is perfect. A lesbian bar would have been preferable by a mile — but Philadelphia doesn’t have one. Toasted Walnut closed in 2021. Sisters closed in 2013. If I had a time machine, I would go to Sisters in 1996, just for one drink.

But back in Tavern on Camac on Oct. 15, in the year of our Lord, 2022, my date leaned in for a kiss. Soon after, a drunk man leered at us.

“There’s two straight people kissing in here! Don’t they know this is a gay bar?” he shouted.

That wouldn’t have happened in a lesbian bar. We left soon after — giddy, yes, but fazed.

In this Philly experience, I know I am not alone. In his 2015 essay, “Black not fetch enough for Woody’s?” Ernest Owens wrote: “LGBT members of color continue to face a sense of de facto dismissal socially when trying to enjoy the night scene at one of Philly’s more accepting venues.” Owens argued that the city should work with the Gayborhood to “foster more cross-cultural LGBT collaboration to help shake up the social division. Otherwise, there will be more shade to be thrown across the dance floor — something that nobody has time for.”

Next year, Rue Landau could become Philadelphia’s first openly LGBTQ City Council member. Maybe she can help make this vision a reality. But we can’t rest our hopes on the shoulders of any one person. Change happens in community, in conversation.

There are vanishingly few lesbian bars across the country. In 1980, there were around 200. Today, there are less than 25. On the podcast Cruising Pod, Sarah Gabrielli, Rachel Karp, and Jen McGinity take a road trip to document the surviving spaces for queer women. The Lesbian Bar Project is a documentary film and fund-raising project that seeks to do the same. These bars are sacred.

After running the New York City Marathon earlier this month, I decamped with my friends to the Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of Pride, to sip beer under portraits of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, the two drag queens whose activism launched the LGBTQ rights movement. I felt deeply at home.

Every queer person’s experience is different. But the unifying theme is a longing for acceptance. Too often we are told that we are less-than-human, or unwelcome, or that the way we love is unholy. When I see a rainbow flag over the door of a bar or a church or a café, I know that I won’t be judged.

On a road trip this spring, I waited out a tornado warning at the Lipstick Lounge in East Nashville, Tenn., where it was drag queen trivia night. Outside, torrential rains fell. Inside, I was welcomed to a table of queer women who were elated just to share space with each other. I was useless at the trivia, but that didn’t matter. I had a puppy with me, recently adopted, who was a total babe magnet. The bartenders gave her bacon. The night ended with karaoke, and I listened but did not sing. Suffice to say, karaoke in Nashville, where everyone is a would-be musician, is superior to karaoke in any other city.

For people who don’t have an experience in these LGBTQ spaces — and for the politicians who live at a comfortable distance — imagine that the person in that bar is your daughter, or your son, or your loved one.

Think of Daniel Aston, a 28-year-old trans man and bartender at Club Q who was shot and killed this weekend. In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, his mother, Sabrina Aston, said that working at Club Q, her son “was the happiest he had ever been.”

“He was thriving and having fun and having friends. It’s just unbelievable. He had so much more life to give to us and to all his friends and to himself.”

Everyone deserves a safe space to dance and exist and experience joy. And Philly, if we ever get a lesbian bar again, know that I will show up in my finest blazer and sneakers and dance.