Jason Zenobia reflects on what happened at Pulse in Orlando, and what it felt like as a young man to go to a gay bar for the first time.
My heart goes out to the wounded, the dead, and all their families. You are not alone right now.
The first time I went to a gay bar, I felt safe in a way that I never had before. I had never been in such a room full of people like me.
Turning 21 meant I could finally spend an evening at 733, the gay bar in downtown Tacoma. It blew my mind. In the days before the Internet, I had the lurking fear that there just weren’t many gay people in the world and that I would never find anyone to love who would love me back.
Here was a whole, dark, pulsing roomful of us. Smoking, drinking, smiling, laughing, bouncing to the music (ABBA! Sylvester! Madonna!), and finding each other. In that dark cavernous space, it was as if HIV/AIDS wasn’t wiping out a whole generation just outside the door. It was as if we could hold any job without being fired. It was as if we could go anywhere, be anything we wanted, without being beaten or killed.
We all shared the common need to create a safe space where two women or two men could embrace, even kiss, without fear. It was an intoxicating sight for an angry, loud young man like me.
In 1991/’92, in that bar and another, my favorite, The Boardwalk, and in the community I found, surrounded by people from all walks of life with radically different experiences, opinions, religions, politics, I was shocked. I thought everyone would be like me.
It was the beginning of my ability to shut up and listen, to reach beyond my own anger and deeply care about other people.
It was a joy to be wrong. To learn. To grow.
That’s why the gay bar will always be a refuge.
I will always feel its Pulse within me.