I attended a gay boxing club in London once and it was great, right up my street. I enthused about it to a heterosexual colleague and he asked me, quite genuinely and interestedly, what the point of a gay boxing club was. He pointed out that there are boxing clubs, just go to one of them. You don’t get straight boxing clubs, why do you need a gay one? I pointed out that you do get straight boxing clubs, they’re called boxing clubs.
His incomprehension was frustrating but understandable. He’s grown up in a society that has validated his sexual orientation from before he even knew he had one. From that first pre-teen birthday party, to the first school disco, to hanging out underage in the local pub, to university balls, festivals and clubs, to work Christmas dos: at all of these he has been able to express his sexual preferences clearly and with only the fear of rejection to hold him back.
I and the millions of other Western gay people of my generation have only received validation of our own inherent orientations incrementally, reluctantly and so recently that often it has come far too late to ease or prevent long-standing and deep-seated mental health issues, or worse, suicide. While my colleague was holding hands with a girl at that pre-teen birthday party, I was repressing the urge to do the same with a boy I liked. While he was snogging a girl at the school disco, reluctantly so was I, because homosexual behaviour was wordlessly but quite clearly forbidden. While he was flirting with young women at college, I had to spend time gauging a situation with gentle questions, dropping miniscule hints, all with the fear of, not only rejection, but retribution and potential violence.
The importance of gay spaces, even in these seemingly enlightened times, cannot be understated. To be able to strike up a conversation with an attractive human being, to be able to hold your partner’s hand, to sit and talk freely about your life and desires without judgement, to behave naturally in public without fear of repression and disgust is something straight people take for granted. As they should. As we all should. But gay people can’t do these things unthinkingly. When gay people do these things they are political acts. Consequences have to be considered. Pros and cons weighed up. And often a repressive and unhappy decision made.
Until same sex couples and homosexuality are acknowledged with as little thought as heterosexuality, gay spaces allow us the freedoms straight people aren’t even aware they have. I was taken to my first gay pub at the age of 16, and I was overwhelmed, not only because I was a closeted 16-year-old, but also because I had to entirely rethink what a pub could be. The idea that a social venue or event could be somewhere I met a lad in the way that my heterosexual peers met girls, or even just made like-minded friends I could talk about boys with, was a revelation to me. While straight people are exploring their burgeoning sexuality, we are repressing ours. And the results are disastrous.
It seems unlikely that Orlando shooter Omar Mateen was the puppet of ISIS he claimed to be. If he was driven by their orders, they show remarkable insight into the things I’ve been talking about above, by striking at the heart of what gay people rely on the most – a safe gay space to be themselves.
More likely it seems that Mateen was driven by demons many of his victims would have been familiar with, as he struggled to come to terms with his own homosexual desires. He was a regular at Pulse nightclub, he used gay dating apps, and he did that classic thing we all did as gay people growing up: deflect suspicion in friends and family members about our own same-sex attraction by showing disgust of it in others. All gay people experience some level of internalised homophobia, it’s an inevitable symptom of being brought up in a homophobic society. But Mateen’s upbringing via a religion that is at least dismissive of homosexuality, at worst murderous, and then confused by the reluctant validation of it he found in modern American society, sent him on a path most of us can’t comprehend, turning him against the very people who could have helped him.
It used to be that you might be scared of being seen going into a gay venue, but you were safe once you were in there. Now it feels like you’re safer outside. At least you can just fucking run. The Orlando shooting is an unwelcome reminder of the 1999 bombing of the Admiral Duncan, which made me step onto Old Compton Street with trepidation when I moved to London, rather than the joy and enthusiasm I should have experienced. But now as I did then, I will carry that anxiety right up to the bar of any gay venue I go to and buy it a (few) drink(s). I can’t stop going to gay venues, none of us can. We need them.