From the time I was 18 until I was 25, I think I spent approximately 200 evenings in gay bars or clubs, mostly in New York, but also in D.C., Bulgaria, Latvia, Vietnam, Croatia, Poland, London, Spain, Italy, Germany. Unless the place played ‘80s pop or Eminem -- GLAAD be damned, Eminem was hugely popular at gay clubs in 2000 – I didn’t much enjoy the music, which was loud and emotionless. I didn’t like dancing. I went to talk to people and learn their stories, make friends, make out with people, take people home or go home with others. I had my first kiss with a guy at a gay bar when I was 19. We were on the dance floor. He bent back in a near 90-degree angle from his waist, placed his hand on the back of my neck, led me so that my feet nearly lifted from the floor and brought my head to his so that our lips and then tongue touched. As he brought us back up, he ground his thigh into my crotch and I kissed his bare shaven chest. He asked me if I was out. I told him I wasn’t. I asked him what he did. He said he was a ballet dancer. And then he walked off the dance floor. I saw him from about 15 feet away, pointing at me and laughing with his friends. I should have been humiliated. But I was euphoric.
I remember those introductory conversations and I wonder if those conversations are any different for the college crowd today. Not bisexual, gay. Yeah my friends know. Family’s fine with it, I guess. Nineteen. Twenty next month. Getting old, right. Yeah, by myself. Friend said he might come out but I don’t think he will. Alone in a dorm. I had my first of everything other than all-out anal intercourse in gay clubs and bars, mostly at Kurfew, a party for the twink crowd in a section of the long-gone Tunnel, a huge warehouse club on 27th Street, just a few long blocks from the Hudson River. Bloomberg hadn’t come in yet. When I woke up in my dorm on Saturday or Sunday mornings, my tight black jeans, black briefs, and white spandex shirt always reeked of tobacco and to this day a certain mixture of cigarettes and sweat conjure up memories of my sexual awakening.
I met people I would never have met otherwise. The cute high-school dropout from Queens who came out when he was 16 and claimed his parents welcomed his older boyfriend. The 21-year-old from Turkey who claimed he had written a major bestseller back home about his “gay ordinary life.” The male model who did most of his work in Japan and had to get drunk the first time he went on the runway. The cut Israeli soldiers on their fresh-out-of-service world tour. I would read on the subway on the way to the clubs and on the way back, even if I was nauseous and it was four o’clock in the morning. Most of the people I met didn’t read at all. My closest clubbing friend from those years was a Cornell dropout who lived in Chelsea. He was a hilarious and miserable son-of-a-bitch. We slept together once, which pretty much ended our friendship. That was sad. I’ve never had more fun smoking up with anyone the way I did smoking up with him. We knew each other for one year and we never bothered to tell each other our last names.
We all had at least that one thing in common, I guess, a problem all of us had to solve for ourselves. Many had love-hate-love-hate-but-really-mostly-love relationships with our families. Those of us who could pass as straight were proud of ourselves. Many claimed at least one straight interest. (I loved Johnny Cash!) We had a hard time relating to the old guys who hit on us. We were assholes to the fat kids our own age. I didn’t like the straight girls who showed up. I hated the straight guys.
I never liked the pride flag. It was gross and kitschy, a terrible symbol for a group of people who supposedly dressed well and created a new form of cool. Although it was difficult to come out, and although it might have taken some strength of character to admit my sexuality to myself and others, I take no pride in having done so. I never identified as gay as much as miserable. I hated anyone who called themselves an ally and I hated PFLAG and Queer as Folk. I wasn’t part of any community. We were a barbaric tribe, one with no clear moral code and no sense of honor. I say that with no shame and no malice, but affection for all my old terrible friends who I haven’t seen in over a decade. I think we were better people outside those clubs than inside them. Those clubs were never safe spaces.
I bet the victims of today’s tragedy were every bit as obnoxious, mediocre, stupid, and human as those fuckers from my college years. When the police went in to collect the bodies this morning, they had to drown out the incessant noise of cell phone rings. Loved ones were calling, desperate to know that everything was fine, that everything was okay. I’m sure at least a few of the victims had difficult relationships with the people making those phone calls. And I’m sure the victims loved them just as much as we loved our own parents, siblings, cousins, and comrades.