I have been trying to sit down and write this piece for a while now. Although the atrocity has been very much on my mind, I’ve found that every time I try to get something down on paper, I can’t find the right words to explain my thoughts. I am now beginning to wonder if this is because the mass shooting was so shocking and seemed to be such a targeted, pre-meditated hate crime, that it has actually been very difficult and painful to express exactly how it left me feeling. However, I will try.
The shooting in Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June this year shook the gay community to its core, and I read the news in horror as more and more details were released during the day that followed. 49 people were killed, and 53 were injured, when a lone gunman began shooting inside the club in what was the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in the United States. He was shot and killed by police following a stand-off. Like so many others, I was affected by the personal stories that came out in the news, especially of some of the nightclub guests who spent their last minutes frantically texting their family and friends in a panic-stricken state.
I first went to a gay bar back in the early 2000s when I was still at school, and it immediately felt like a safe space where LGBT people (and their straight friends) could go and be themselves. It didn’t really matter if you didn’t fit in, no-one really fitted a mould and that was ok. People seemed accepting of each other’s differences, and grateful to be in a space with other members of the LGBT community. Throughout university (and afterwards) we would regularly enjoy nights out at one of the city’s gay bars, seeing the same faces week after week and enjoying the lack of pretence that we found so tedious at straight bars. The familiarity of the bar was a welcome break after a week at work, and a chance to catch up with our group of friends who had a soft spot for it in the same way that we did. The security of being with others who understand and accept you without (too much) judgment, is something really quite special at a gay bar. Even being able to walk into a club, hand in hand with your partner without being gawked at makes a refreshing change.
After Orlando, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like to see a gunman walk into our bar and open fire on the happy, carefree crowd. I cannot imagine the utter terror they must have felt. The way in which this attack appeared to be so obviously targeting gay men and women made me think about my place in the world. I felt more nervous about being who I am in a way that I had been fortunate not to really feel before. If I’d still been going to gay clubs, would I have thought twice about going the following weekend?
Within days of the shooting, a Vigil for Orlando was arranged by Bristol Pride to show solidarity to Orlando’s LGBT community. An estimated 1200 people (ourselves included) attended to hear talks and the Sing Out Bristol choir performed. More importantly, it was a chance for the LGBT community to gather together to support and console each other. Since having children, we have not been to gay bars and at times the gay community can feel distant and only for the young and responsibility-free. The vigil was a reminder that we are not alone, and that the Bristol community is diverse, loyal and compassionate. It was a tear-filled evening (myself included, much to the shock of my wife), and it seemed that the gravity of the attack pressed heavily on the gathering. For me, the fact that we were at the vigil because people had been killed as a result of homophobia left me feeling unwelcome in the world. Being at the vigil felt like being part of a sanctuary, as if everyone who now felt victimised had come together to show that we are not alone, and that we will always be welcome in our own community.
Even now, almost 4 months later, I still feel more wary than I did before Orlando. It hasn’t changed the way we have lived life, although admittedly neither of us was particularly outspoken about being gay beforehand. However, it has made me feel a little less safe, and a little less accepted, in the world. In the days following Orlando, there was a heaviness in my heart and a sadness that was always in the background. Since the shooting I have often reminded myself that life is so much better for LGBT people now than it was even 5 years ago, especially with the tireless work of charities like Stonewall. We are getting there with our rights, but having rights doesn’t mean that we are truly accepted by society. I hope that one day we will be accepted as we are.