Club Church.

Twenty years ago I wrote a short story for grad school chronicling one day in the life of an expatriate in Glasgow. March 13, 1996, to be exact, the day of the Dunblane Massacre where 16 preschoolers and their teacher were killed by a lone gunman. I wrote it because I was living in Scotland at the time and witnessed the country’s reaction firsthand. I wrote it because Scotland’s response was so different from our own. Even 20 years ago when a gun massacre occurred, America tended to cycle through the same steps: shock, disbelief, prayers and thoughts for the family, vigils, flowers, and teddy bears, then promises followed by amnesia. I wrote it because what I witnessed in Scotland was an entire country in emotional collapse. Strangers doing the ugly cry in the street, businesses and schools closing, everything coming to a standstill. For weeks. Then anger, protests, and quick, profound and definite change in that country’s policies toward firearms. Twenty years later America reacts the same way except now we have the added benefit of social media where everyone can anonymously vent their sadness, rage, and hatred toward anyone who will listen. But still nothing gets done. All that emotional passion might as well be vapor in the air.

I was reminded of my story Sunday when I awoke to the news 49 people had been murdered at the Pulse club in Orlando. My best friend, who happens to be gay, informed me via text message. Why do I point that out? Because 30 years ago our friendship gelled into a deep, lifelong bond because of time spent in gay clubs.

I don’t even remember my first visit to a gay club. I do remember a 20-something young woman who hated the way she looked. Who didn’t feel she fit in anywhere. A woman who when she looked to the future saw only 40-hour work weeks, solitary dinners, nights in front of the television, days of desperation and sameness that stretched out into infinity until the day you died. It didn’t help everyone I worked with seemed to lead such superficial lives full of the same boring routine. Because I didn’t have their goals I figured something was wrong with me. Which made me hate myself. Hate my life.

I’ve never been good at developing close friendships and it’s only in my 40’s I’ve learned to set goals and fulfill them without a boss standing behind me telling me what to do. The woman I was in my 20’s kept waiting for something to happen to her instead of making it happen. For someone to tell her exactly what the fuck she should be doing because she had no clue. This woman needed a life coach, a mentor, a friend, anyone to reveal to her the secret to being happy at least some of the time.

Needless to say I was pretty miserable. Then I started going to gay clubs. I may have discovered them because my sister worked for that other 1980’s symbol of kumbaya-all-colors-creeds-and-sexual-orientations-welcome, The United Colors of Benetton. Quite a few employees were gay and would head to the clubs on the weekend to dance off the stress of folding all those sweaters. It also helped back then the age limits for alcohol were much less strict so I could easily get served without an ID. Or with one I picked up for $10 at the check cashing place on East Broad Street. Or by going on a night when one of the Benetton employees was the doorman.

There were a lot of clubs back then, usually hidden down back alleys or in underdeveloped neighborhoods. But The Pyramid was my favorite. The Pyramid was mine. My home away from home. My church. At the Pyramid I could drink and shake my ass in the dark under the pretty lights far away from scrutinizing eyes and judgmental stares I imagined I was getting at work when I responded that no I had no plans of marrying or having kids anytime soon. No it was not my greatest wish to own a Buick or visit Disneyland. No I did not enjoy the music of Huey Lewis or The Hooters. No I didn’t dream of landing that job in middle management.

Because unlike regular life, at Club Church you could do and be whatever you wanted to be. At Club Church you were accepted for who you were and no matter what you threw at these wonderful boys they never judged you or questioned you. At Club Church you were welcomed with open arms. Always. At Club Church the most difficult question they might ask was do you want cranberry or orange with your vodka. The only judgment they might offer was why on earth did you decide to wear those shoes with that dress? Who did your hair dear? Have you ever thought of getting some nice highlights? This was the extent of their criticism always. Never condemnations, but gentle suggestions and mentoring on everything from your love life, to that new apartment you want, to how you might afford that new bag you’ve been eyeing, to how a different color eyeshadow would bring out the blue in your irises so nicely. Unlike the crap I was getting from everyone else in my life, the suggestions I got from my brothers, as I grew to call them, was always delivered with love. Sometimes tough love, but always love. Where at home I had no brothers at Club Church I had 10 who always looked out for me. No matter what. It was these brothers who showed me you don’t have to settle for what everyone else does in this life. There is something more out there if you just go make it happen.

And yes, one of those brothers became my best friend. Over drinks and dancing we laughed, cried, made plans, and dreamed big dreams. Ironically, I met him at a job I took a few years after going to my first gay club, but it was at Church that our friendship solidified. One that continues to this day despite tragedy and strife in both our lives. I’ve laughed with him and I’ve cried. Frankly, I don’t know what I’d do without him. And I have Club Church to thank for bringing us closer together. We still sit and reminisce over all the shit we got into back in the day, both at The Pyramid and other churches where house music was the order of the day and the only concerns you had were whether or not you’d dance to this song and where you would meet up for brunch the next day to discuss all the drama that was happening around you.

Club Church was our safe haven from the world. When Dajae sang, “Brighter days, I’m looking for brighter days,” I began to feel hope. When Alison Limerick sang, “I know I can make it on my own,” I began to think I could too. Through everything, I never once forgot my obvious privilege. I was a straight, white female. Once I left the club I could be the same person and resume my everyday life without changing personas. I could act the exact same way I had within the club if I wanted. For my brothers it was something quite different. In the 1980’s the gay clubs were located down dark alleys and in underdeveloped neighborhoods for a reason. To be far from prying eyes. To be far from the hate. In “regular life” my brothers had to act straight, but once they ventured down the alley to Club Church and went inside its doors, they were home. They could act however they wanted. They could shed their masks for a while and just be themselves. Sure there was drinking, and drugs, and hookups aplenty. Straight clubs have that too. Besides when you’re finally allowed to be yourself for a few hours you tend to let your hair down. Inside Club Church, the minute I walked in the door, despite my privilege, I never felt anything but love. I never felt anything but accepted.

Inside The Pyramid we’d dance our ass off then sit in the back bar and commiserate, eyeing the sad buffet the owners had to keep out due to liquor regulations. Howl with laughter if anyone got drunk enough to actually eat anything from it. I still remember the night my friend wasn’t working the door and a stranger refused to accept my fake ID. I died a little inside at the prospect of not being able to attend church and went home more depressed than I can ever remember being. That feeling of acceptance and love was like a shot of Lexapro straight to the brain. Without it for a whole week? How would I survive?

I also remember when they tightened restrictions a few years later, now requiring a government-issued ID from every churchgoer. And the look the owner gave me when I showed him my license. Because I had turned 21 only three weeks before. The stern look of disappointment he gave me was worse than any beating I ever got at home. I felt like I’d betrayed him. And I don’t know that I’ve ever really gotten over it. When folks love you that much, it breaks your heart to hurt them.

I even remember taking my cousin there for the first time. She’d never been to a dance club and it was only after being there a full hour that she said, “Um, is this a GAY club?” She didn’t care, mind you, it’s just that with all the happy going on, she hadn’t even noticed.

I learned to make friends in gay clubs. I learned how to be myself in gay clubs. I learned to speak up. I learned to stand tall against the judgment of others and withstand all the cutting words life flings at you on a daily basis. The hours spent in gay clubs gave me courage to face regular life. And even if I didn’t wholly learn to love myself it helped to be around people who did. It gave me an example to go by. One I follow to this day. I’m incredibly grateful for all the lessons I learned and the friends I made in gay clubs. The time spent under all those strobe lights and up on those disco blocks dancing out the stress of day-to-day life shaped the woman who sits writing this to you today.

I’ll admit when I learned of the Orlando Massacre I had the same reaction as the protagonist in that short story I wrote. I put my phone down. I went and did the Sunday crossword. I drank my coffee, read the paper, puttered around the house. I looked for anything to distract me from the real truth that my church had been attacked. I covered up my feelings with mundane activities and too many cookies for breakfast because to sit and feel the feelings of all that loss as the result of hatred was just too much. I reacted the way most Americans do because we have to. Think about it. If you allow yourself to process and feel the full effects of the nearly 1,000 mass shootings we’ve had just since Sandy Hook, a mere 4 years ago, we’d all be in the loony bin strapped in tight and ready for a doctor to start pushing a long probe up our nose. Swirling it around a bit to erase the memories. Bring on the lithium because I just can’t take anymore.

But as the pictures of the victims crossed my feed and their stories piled up in my brain I allowed myself to feel. To cry. To get angry. To remember. Remember all of the laughter, and the hugs, and the dancing, and the drama, and the tragedies and triumphs that happened at the bar, out on the dancefloor, and under those pretty lights. I remembered the friends I made. The ones I lost to AIDS. The way the lights would come on at closing time and everyone would blink with blindness and look around as if to say, “What just happened? Was that real?” The way some would pair off because the thought of going home alone away from this sacred place of friendship and fellowship was just too depressing for words. The looks on our faces that said, “Is it really over? Do we have to wait a whole week before we can have this again? The world is so cruel, can’t we just stay a little longer?” The way some of us couldn’t bear it and would head back the very next night hoping to grab just a little more laughter on a school night, damn the consequences.

Then I thought of the folks in Orlando who when the lights came up probably had those very same feelings. It might be 30 years later, but the good feelings you get at Club Church don’t change. Unless you allow a madmen with a gun into it. As an anxiety-filled self-hater I pray for myself a lot. But today I pray for them. Because they will never know the security, the goodness, the comfort that comes from having life-long friends, friends of 30 years who have seen you at your worst, maybe even hunched over a toilet because you did that extra shot of Cactus Juice. Friends who are there for you and knew you when. Life-long friends. Most of these victims were in their 20’s and just developing these connections. And when I really let that sink in, the sadness I feel is so overwhelming I want to give up. How much longer before we realize, in the words of Lin Manuel-Miranda, that “Love is love is love is love is love?”

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