LGBT Clubs in American History: Cultural Centers, Safe Spaces & Targets

Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Family members wait for word from police after arriving down the street from a shooting involving multiple fatalities at Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Fla.

If you’re LGBT, waking up to learn that the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history had happened the night before in a gay nightclub is akin to being a parent and reading about Sandy Hook, or being African-American and finding out that yet another black church has been burned down. The horror and sadness that kind of news unleashes in you lies outside the realm of language; it is terror. It’s as if the bloodshed that transpired in the moments after closing time at Pulse – a popular Orlando club that brought together men, women, whites, blacks and Latinos, as you can plainly see from the photos on its Facebook page – that robbed the lives of 50 people and injured over 50 more Sunday night took place in your soul. Opened by co-owner Barbara Poma as a means to promote Orlando’s LGBT community and honor her gay older brother who died of AIDS, Pulse will now be known to the world as the site of the worst U.S. hate crime since 9/11.

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Since Stonewall and well before, gay clubs have been our schools, our places of worship. Nightclubs are where we’ve long learned to unlearn hate, and learn to become and love our real selves. They’re our safe spaces; places where music and dancing and the joy of our collective togetherness unlocks our fears and extinguishes our lingering self-loathing. This is why the first important public post-Stonewall gay disco in Manhattan was named Sanctuary; why one of the biggest and longest-running queer dancefloors of London is called Heaven; and why the most beloved current LGBT club in San Francisco is known as Oasis. For many who’ve never known the security of a truly secure and happy home or school or work life, these places are the homes and churches where we celebrate and extinguish despair with our families of choice.

This is not the first time LGBT people have been killed en mass in their clubs. In 1973, New Orleans’ UpStairs Lounge, a second-story gay bar, was burned down on the night the Metropolitan Community Church – the first gay church, founded in Los Angeles in 1968 – held a dinner for its congregants. Thirty-two people trapped inside died of fire or smoke inhalation. But even today, very few know about the event because the only suspect committed suicide, and the news at time was largely ignored, despite it being the deadliest arson in New Orleans history. It was a time when families neglected to claim the bodies of their own flesh and blood because their shame was too great.

Like the UpStairs Lounge, many other gay venues have held events for their people. From 1971 to ’74, a Manhattan community center known as the Firehouse hosted Manhattan’s pioneering Gay Activist Alliance, which funded itself by throwing dance parties there with the goal of “fostering gay solidarity and understanding through social contact among all members of good will in the gay community.” But like the UpStairs, the Firehouse was also destroyed by arson. Back in the early ‘80s when disco was supposedly “dead” and AIDS was called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) or simply “gay cancer,” legendary New York clubs like the Paradise Garage and The Saint – once again, notice those names – held some of the earliest benefits by Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization born in 1982 to fight a plague that not even doctors yet understood. Since then, millions of dollars in AIDS funding has been raised at club events and circuit parties hosted by organizations like Lifebeat, the music industry’s response to the epidemic. In its 12-year existence, Pulse itself hosted many fundraisers for Equal at UCF, Make a Wish and other community partners. On the day of the shooting, Pulse’s Facebook page called out to “our Latinos, Latinas & everyone that loves a little Latin flavor!”

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In a concluding episode of Vinyl, HBO’s fictionalized series about the record industry circa 1973, there was an extended montage of people dancing to upbeat R&B -- a sequence meant to represent the very birth of disco. Club after club was shown, and yet you had to squint or freeze-frame to identify even one same-sex couple dancing together. That’s not how things went down. The history of dance music in America and the history of LGBT folks – particularly those of color – coming together to create a cultural utopia was and still is inseparable. Neither would have happened without the other.

Sounds and styles have changed since the time when African-American LGBT icon Sylvester sang gay anthems like “Take Me to Heaven” or Paul Jabara – the songwriter behind Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” who, like Sylvester, also died of AIDS – penned his own, “Heaven Is a Disco.” But the message of Xenia Ghali’s “Under These Lights” – the title currently topping Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart – is exactly the same. “Under these lights, embracing all life/We are lost within these beautiful sights … Let’s spread the warmth we’ve found,” goes the pitch-shifted, gender-indeterminate vocal. That’s why anyone of any race or any sexuality goes to a club like Pulse – to lose oneself. But these dance temples are also where generations of LGBT people found their true selves. Without them and the freedom and safety they ordinarily afford, we’re collectively lost.