An Attack on the American Experiment: On Gay Clubs and Orlando

June 22, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 4 6 min read


From the time I was 18 until I was 25, I spent around 200 evenings in gay bars or clubs, mostly in New York, but also in D.C., Bulgaria, Latvia, Vietnam, Croatia, Poland, London, Spain, Italy, Germany. My years in New York, when I was in college, from 1999 to 2003, were the most important. Unless the place played ‘80s pop or Eminem — GLAAD be damned, everyone liked Eminem — I didn’t much enjoy the music, which was loud and emotionless. I didn’t like dancing. I went to talk to people and learn their stories, make friends, take someone home, go to someone’s place. I kissed a guy for the first time when I was 19. We were on the dance floor. He bent back in a near 90-degree angle from his waist, placed his hand on the back of my neck, led me so that my feet nearly lifted from the floor, and brought my head to his so that our lips and then tongues touched. As he brought us back up, he ground his thigh into my crotch and I kissed his bare shaven chest. He asked me if I was out. I told him I wasn’t. I asked him what he did. He said he was a ballet dancer. And then he walked off the dance floor. I saw him from about 15 feet away, pointing at me and laughing with his friends. I should have been humiliated. But I was euphoric.

Have the conversations changed? Not bisexual, gay. Well, 80 percent into guys, 20 percent into girls. My friends know. Family’s cool with it, I guess. Nineteen. Twenty next month. Getting old. By myself. Friend said he might come out but I don’t think he will. Alone in a dorm. Alone in an apartment. Roommate, but he doesn’t care. With my parents on Long Island. I’m a student. In law school. I’m just making rent. Oh, I don’t know my type. Young, good-looking. Someone who looks like me…How’s that?

I had a lot of firsts in gay clubs, many of them at Kurfew, a party for the twink crowd in a section of the long-gone Tunnel, a huge warehouse club in the west end of Chelsea. But there was also G, a meat grinder, XL, which was clean and well-lit, and Splash, which had an expensive cover. I would read on the subway from 116th Street all the way down to 28th, 23rd, or 14th, and then on the return trip, even at 4 a.m. in the morning when I was feeling nauseous. I didn’t read all that carefully in that state, and I could only glean certain images and vague meanings from the words as I processed them. Michael Bloomberg hadn’t come in yet. When I woke up in my dorm on Saturday or Sunday mornings, my clothes were perfumed with tobacco. The mixture of cigarettes and sweat still conjures up memories of my sexual awakening.

coverI met people I would not have met otherwise. The cute high-school dropout from Queens who came out when he was 16 and whose parents welcomed his older boyfriend. The 21-year-old from Turkey who said he had written a major bestseller back home about his “gay ordinary life.” The male model who did most of his work in Japan and got drunk the first time he went out on the runway. The cut Israeli soldiers who had just finished their service and were on their one-year world tour. The tall, skinny Australian who said he had a bit part in Zoolander, but whom I couldn’t find when I saw the movie and whose name didn’t appear in the credits. They all had stories about coming out and losing their virginities in their parents’ beds, their cars, or school bathrooms. They wanted to be fashion designers, firemen, or accountants. I met young lawyers, web designers, airport workers, and actors. There were no real brushes with fame, although people brought fame up a lot: I met Dianne Wiest’s neighbor, and I knew someone who knew the Whiffenpoof Kevin Spacey tried to pick up. I had a late night date with a short 19-year-old who claimed to have gotten into Yale, and was just trying to raise the funds to attend. He was good-looking enough to have spent the previous few months couch-surfing through Manhattan. I met Republicans who hated abortion and thought the Democratic Party disrespected Christians, racists who didn’t want to be around “gaysians,” and pseudo-liberals who liked Rudy Giuliani’s policy on the homeless. Some didn’t consider homophobia a personal problem. Others nursed anger towards those who loved them the most but had also hurt them to the point of near suicide. I met people who took care of their autistic siblings or who just wanted to talk about the birthday present they had bought their nephew. Some claimed to be straight acting, or only liked guys who acted straight, or hated the very concept of “straight-acting,” declaring it a tool of the patriarchy. Some only dated/slept with those under 25, others only with people over 50. I met guys into thick necks or red hair. I met celibates. An older man once paid for my cover and then shyly walked away. He was either hitting on me half-assedly or offering goodwill to a young man who reminded him of himself. A few had HIV, but didn’t talk about it. One friend discovered, at his mother’s house, that he had crabs in his pubic hair. My closest clubbing friend from those years was a Cornell dropout who lived in Chelsea. We knew each other for one year without learning each other’s last names and then slept together, at which point the friendship died. I plugged his old AOL screen name into Google a couple of years ago and got his email address. He was single, happy, living in California. I can’t remember the first names of most of the rest. I guess they either got married, got divorced, had kids, remained single, entered a serious relationship but just didn’t believe in the institution of marriage, never had a serious relationship and never would, or died.

cover I remember reading Youth, J.M. Coetzee’s fictionalized memoir during my senior year, on my way back from a club. In one scene, the protagonist has an unsatisfying encounter with another man. Homosexuality, for him, “seems a puny activity compared with sex with a woman: quick, absent-minded, devoid of dread but also devoid of allure. There seems to be nothing at stake: nothing to lose but nothing to win either. A game for people afraid of the big league; a game for losers.” And then there was Edmund White’s essay “The Joys of Gay Life,” which was written in 1977, three years before I was born: “[T]here are advantages to being gay and…one of these advantages is that we are introspective about such basic things as love, sex and friendship. The exigencies of our lives, the fact that we become gay in a way that other people do not become straight, make us all reflective.” They were both correct.

Most of us were better people outside those clubs than inside them. I was at a party at Limelight on the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend in 2001. I was making new friends when a skinny mid-20-something with bad facial hair came up and asked if this was a gay club. He was supposed to meet his girlfriend there and he didn’t know if he had come to the wrong place. He was excited to talk to people and told us that we were really cool and asked to get our numbers. “Sure. We need more straight friends. It’s always fun to have straight friends at places like this. We need more totally straight friends, you know, totally totally straight friends to come to Limelight on Sunday nights. Straight guys, yes. Tell us more about yourself. Tell us more about your girlfriend.” The weak shall always be bullied.

I found and still find no comfort in the sloganeering of the gay rights movement. I never liked the rainbow flag, a terrible symbol for a group of people who dressed well and created many new forms of cool. I never identified as gay as much as miserable. I didn’t care for allies or PFLAG; campus groups were sterile. I wasn’t part of any “community;” we were a tribe, one with unclear moral codes. Still, I learned a few lessons from those years. Sex should be kind. Relationships should make those in them happier, or at least less unhappy. Let everyone make the best cases for themselves. Only a priest can love everyone, and since priests can be awful, try to be a little less ambitious and just avoid hurting too many people. I spent many boring hours in gay clubs, but I liked them because they were unsafe. You don’t learn anything in safe spaces.

I don’t believe in “hate crimes.” I don’t think self-loathing homophobia or the rhetoric of ISIS alone explains why someone would want to walk into a club and destroy so many young lives. Some call this a hate crime because they have suffered the antipathies of others throughout their lives and they see this shooting as the logical endpoint of that dislike. Others call it a hate crime because they need to explain the berserk.

But I’ll contradict myself. Whatever the intentions of the shooter, this will never feel like anything other than an attack on gay people. The gay club occupies a territory that is always under negotiation and the shooting was an attack on the American experiment. When the police went in to collect the bodies, they had to drown out the incessant noise of cell phone rings. Loved ones were calling, desperate to know that everything was okay. I’m sure at least a few of the victims had difficult relationships with the people making those phone calls. And I’m sure the victims loved them just as much as we loved our own imperfect parents, siblings, cousins, and comrades, all outside in the larger territory everyone must negotiate.

A truncated version of this essay appeared on the author’s blog.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

recently obtained a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from the University of Washington in Seattle. His dissertation focuses on the animation industry of the former Yugoslavia. He writes frequently on comics and animation. He can be reached via email at [email protected].


  1. I’m not sure about the use of the phrase “American experiment” here. The so-called American way of life and the presence of clubs for LGBT people have been a reality for so long I don’t think we can refer to our culture as experimental anymore.

  2. I’m sure it works in context of the novel, but man, that Coetzee excerpt comes across as more than a little homophobic. =/

  3. @Josh

    Remember, though, that the protag in Youth is meant to come off as a cluelessly-earnest young git. Even if the cited sentence aligned with Coetzee’s view on the matter, it would make him seem more Heterocentric than Homophobic. It’s getting harder and harder to get away with ambiguous characterization (one of the Novel’s great strengths: a long form text gives us enough time to detect the subtle smell of the Unreliable Narrator) but we can’t all end up reading only books in which the Protags say and do “all the right things”… (shudder)…

  4. @josh

    If I could rewrite the piece, I would remove the Coetzee quote and probably that whole paragraph. I was thinking of the line in the context of Youth, and it was meant to evoke, as Steven notes, a wayward, youthful cluelessness that is shared not just by Coetzee’s confused narrator, but many (many many many many) young men who identify primarily as gay. The majority of people who have read this essay have not read the original book. If they have read the book, they probably don’t remember the scene it references. The point was lost.

    Some people have told me that they really liked this essay. I’ve heard other people tell me that it’s homophobic in its self-loathing and probably not the thing that needed to be written right after the Pulse nightclub shooting. I take those points, but I was trying to depict my own experience of gay bars. Sometimes those experiences were miserable. They were often unromantic. But I had some wonderful nights too and I learned an enormous amount from the unhappy boring hours I spent at them.

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