The first gay club I went to was a small, dark bar on the plains of Colorado, the summer after my first year in college. I went with my childhood best friend, because we’d both spent the last year discovering that our sexual orientations weren’t as straight as we’d thought. I don’t remember the name of the club. I do remember feeling like I was stepping into a new world, one that was both terrifying and exhilarating. I didn’t know anyone there except for my friend. I’m pretty sure I was the only Asian American there. I’m sure that I stuck out like a sore thumb. But that was also the first time I realized there is a place for people like me. However naive and inexperienced I might have been, I also felt welcomed.
I went to other gay clubs. There was ManRay in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another dark box of a club between Harvard and MIT, where I went with my college friends. They had a special queer night every Thanksgiving, and after college in our early twenties, we’d load up on turkey and stuffing, and then dance it off at ManRay, which happened to be literally next door to my friend’s apartment.
There were bigger clubs, too. In San Francisco in the late ’90s and early 2000s, there was Club Q, a gigantic warehouse of a club somewhere in SoMa where queer go-go dancers twisted on platforms above the heaving dance floor. Hundreds of women shimmied beneath the colored lights, and when I pushed through the sweaty crowd I felt totally insignificant and yet completely seen: terrified of being overlooked, hopeful of being looked over.
I’ve been to Girl Bar in Los Angeles, Candy Bar in London, El Rio and the Cat Club in San Francisco. I’ve been to Pride parties in New York City where I felt like a smalltown loser but wouldn’t have missed those parties for the world. I’ve been to Dinah Shore and MichFest and women’s weekends in sleepy Guerneville, California. All these clubs — all these dance parties for queer women — they showed me that there are thousands of us out there, and we are all searching for connection with each other, always seeking love and hoping for acceptance.
When I was a kid and we went on family vacations, no matter what city we went to, my parents always wanted to go to Chinatown. I remember, when I was a frustrated teen, thinking that this was the stupidest thing ever. Every Chinatown was the same: crowded, stinking of strange herbs and fish guts, the sidewalks thronged with cheap imports, the restaurants loud with Chinese speakers all seeming to yell over each other. I didn’t understand, when my parents took me to all these Chinatowns — in San Francisco, in Boston, in New York, in Toronto — that they were seeking a place where they felt at home. In Chinatown, we were like everyone around us. In Chinatown, my parents spoke the language.
As a lesbian adult, that’s what going to queer bars and clubs meant to me. They were spaces where I spoke the language. I was accepted as family. They were places of joy; they were places of freedom. They were crucibles of emotion — pulsing, music-filled rooms where we were encouraged to feel everything. They were spaces full of drama, rooms ripe with possibility. For many people in the gay community, gay clubs are our living rooms and our sanctuaries; they are the places we meet the people we love, and the spaces where we find ourselves.
The terrorist attack at the Pulse club in Orlando today has left me heartbroken for so many reasons. I hurt for the victims and their families. I hurt for my LGBTQ family, which has had one of our most precious places invaded by hatred. The fact that this attack took place during Pride month is not an accident. It is a direct attack on our freedom to be ourselves.
I don’t go to many gay clubs anymore. Like many people, after I got married, I moved on from those electric spaces; I created a more private living room with my wife and our families. But I still remember those clubs for the joy they brought me, and the freedom they taught me. These spaces are crucial for our LGBTQ community. It’s no accident that one of the foundational events in the gay rights movement took place at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar. And I know that despite the horrific nature of today’s attack, it will not stop us from being proud of who we are. My heart goes out to all LGBTQ people today. I am with you. I am you.