It’s 2:15 a.m. on June 12, 2016, and Ms. Darcel Stevens is getting out of face in the dressing room of Parliament House gay resort and entertainment complex in Orlando, Florida. Gown already traded for more comfortable gym pants and bare chest, but paint and wig still intact, she activates her Facebook Live stream—a ritual she’d recently picked up to foster community with fans of her shows and activism in the area. “I’m just about to get out of drag,” she begins, collapsing with an exhausted sigh before the smartphone and her vanity mirror. “I’m here all alone by myself, so it’s just conversations between you and I!”
At 2:33, a viewer called Nick interrupts the flow of comments and likes with the first hint of what’s happening across town: “You heard about the shooting at Pulse?” By now, Darcel has her wig off and has gone through a makeup wipe or two. Squinting at the screen, she mumbles Nick’s question back to herself, and then lurches toward the camera. “What shooting at Pulse? Nick, talk to me, I’m right here in Orlando and I didn’t hear nothing about no shooting at Pulse ... ”
Nick: “Just happened tonight.”
Darcel: “What do you mean? Are you serious?”
Darcel and the other commenters start to pay attention. Reports about the statuses of friends begin to reach the other queens and staff now gathered in the room. As Pulse continues its perverse metamorphosis from haven into hallowed ground, a friend of Darcel’s comments on the feed that she has escaped. Darcel, a miracle of maternal composure, uses her words to establish emergency shelter:
I know sweetheart, it’s scary. It’s the last place you’d expect it. I know. But I’m just so happy you made it out safe and sound. Right now all my heart and my soul and my spirit and everything are thinking about those kids and everybody that’s over at Pulse. We may be different businesses, but we’re all one big family.
* * *
It’s the last place you’d expect it.
It strikes me now—a year passed since 49 people, mostly Latino and queer, were murdered while they danced—that gay bars are like balloons: They’re a pretty form, a shimmering container that expands or contracts in proportion to the stuff that fills them up. Some nights, they can feel stretched to the point of bursting as sweaty bodies and flirty glances and joyful greetings and sudden sing-a-longs bounce off each other and press against the walls. Other times they float along wanly, deflated by exclusiveness or gentrification or overpriced drinks or a better party down the street. Our cities are littered with the remnants those that have shriveled entirely.
Before being punctured by violence, Pulse was, by all accounts, one of those fancy Mylar numbers: plump and peppy and vibrant, beloved by most everyone who encountered it (including, apparently, the competition). And it was that way because the people who filled it—queers of all stripes, but especially queers of color and their loved ones—made it that way. They worked together for years to keep Pulse taut and happy. That such an achievement was stolen, along with lives and peace of mind, doesn’t make that effort in vain. Rather, it points to one way we can honor them: Make new queer spaces anywhere and by whatever means you can.
LGBTQ people have become by necessity pretty skilled at this, but if you’re in need of ideas, Washington, D.C.’s Pride celebrations this past weekend offered a few examples of what queer space–making can look like.
At the Booty Rex party on Friday, an annual event centered on queer women and gender-diverse folks, revelers flowed between gyrating LED-lit hula-hoopers on the top floor and screamed Alanis Morissette choruses on the bottom. It was by far the most colorful and unapologetically queer party this white, gay cisgender man has ever attended; as such, it felt like an essential island of inclusion during a Pride weekend packed with events usually designed by and/or for people like me. Then there was the TNX dance party, in which the queer art of annexing unlikely spaces as our own was carried out in a stiflingly hot warehouse in the Ivy City neighborhood. As stomping feet raised dust from the floor and kaleidoscopic lights ricocheted from concrete to steel, shirts came off—and a short woman wearing a backpack and declaring herself a dominatrix offered spankings to men who were very clearly the “sinners” she accused them of being.
Also prowling the room that night was a person dressed as the Babadook, which was not only an amazing club look but also a helpful reminder that queer space doesn’t always need to be physical. We can just as well carve out space in the culture, transforming innocent bystanders into icons and works of art into sites of communal celebration with no cover charge.
If the party scene isn’t your thing, perhaps you’ll find inspiration in the pop-up exhibition of LGBTQ “treasures” at the Library of Congress, which one attendee described as being the obvious work of a bunch of “queer nerds” happily showing off at an institution that “Trump probably doesn’t even know exists.” Also worth considering is the way participants in the National Equality March for Unity and Pride on Sunday, needing a break from the punishing summer sun, turned all manner of “straight” D.C. cafes and restaurants into temporary gay bars and community centers just through the force of their combined presence and visibility.
Parades and demonstrations are, of course, a classic way of claiming space, as bodies, slogans, and symbols inflate to fill the corridors of towns and cities. The official Capital Pride parade did this on Saturday—as did the “No Justice No Pride” protest that forced it to reroute. Political critique is an essential form of queer space-making, particularly for a movement that can feel increasingly pasted over with corporate branding and disconnected from the riotous, liberational impulses that forged a path for it in the first place. That such critique can be complex and uncomfortable to navigate does not negate the incredible value of its existence.
And anyway, not all queer spaces need to be comfortable. At least not for everyone. As a friend and I walked around D.C. this weekend, he pointed out with a chuckle that there were clearly straight tourists in town who came to visit somber spaces of nationalism and historic importance, only to be greeted by more queers than they probably thought existed taking up space far beyond the confines of “our” blocks and bars. Some of these folks, we sensed, were not pleased by this. Alas. Pride season is about celebrating existence; but after Pulse, it will be tinged by the knowledge that the spaces where, as Darcel put it, we might expect to exist most fully can easily be ripped, along with our sisters and brothers, from our hands. We’ll make new homes—we always do. But that trauma will never dissipate entirely. If we can learn to live with it, the tourists can learn to share.