We fill queer spaces with joy and belonging. That’s why they’re under attack

"The gay agenda is not only to stay alive, but to live"

Published December 10, 2022 5:30PM (EST)

Rainbow Champagne Glasses (Getty Images/HUIZENG HU)
Rainbow Champagne Glasses (Getty Images/HUIZENG HU)

On Sunday, November 20, 2022 I learned that an armed killer entered Club Q, a queer bar and nightlife space in Colorado Springs, and prematurely ended the lives of five patrons and injured 22 more. I knew it would happen again. This time, though, I reacted differently. I felt personally violated, passionately angered and deeply unsettled. I stood there for a long time trying to figure out why this mass shooting was different, other than the obvious reason that it had targeted queer people like me. The news of the immeasurable, yet familiar, loss of life weighed heavily on my mind, but something immensely somber wrapped around my soul.

Gun violence is endemic in America; it is a strange and dangerous reality our society has made normal and seemingly immovable. Accounts of perpetrators — mostly cisgender heterosexual white men — slinging firearms and donning combat gear to enter public spaces and reap the lives of innocent people date back decades. Our country's founders revered this power one can hold and dispense with the slip of a finger so much they made it the second item within our nation's list of guaranteed rights.

Mass shootings, which easy access to guns enables as evidenced by the limited successes of the federal government's assault weapons ban, should not be viewed as an anomaly within American culture because the adoration of firearms generally is part of the bedrock upon which we have built our society. As I stated previously, gun violence in America is endemic, yet we react to it as a merely pervasive problem which will somehow resolve itself. Until Congress and 38 state legislatures decide we have reached an appropriate amount of bloodshed to take truly effective action, every person you know and love in America should be on alert in every public space. Every person you see at a Walmart or in the crowd of a concert on American soil should prepare to enjoy their day with the expectation of being shot at, and potentially senselessly murdered in cold blood. 

Every time you step into a nightclub, especially spaces of liberation and joy the queer community has created for itself, you should take note of every exit, every hiding place and every potential item you can use to protect yourself for the inevitable.

I was at the gym, taking a little break and absent-mindedly scrolling through Instagram, when I read of the Club Q massacre. Accustomed to living in a society with the imminent threat of massive gun violence, I at first was heartbroken yet unsurprised. Unlike other shootings, where anyone could be slain, this one was pinpointed directly towards people like me at a time in my life where I am openly gay. Post after post lamented the loss of life and the failures of our society in allowing this tragedy to repeat itself. Continuing to tap through my friends' Instagram stories, I finally arrived at one that clarified the uncertainty I felt about this particular mass shooting. Unlike every other mournful post I'd seen, David Mack, senior breaking news reporter for BuzzFeed News, was outraged.

Every time you step into a nightclub, especially spaces of liberation and joy the queer community has created for itself, you should take note of every exit, every hiding place and every potential item you can use to protect yourself for the inevitable.

"I probably process these things differently as a kind of professional coping mechanism," Mack said at the beginning of our phone call. Mack, who is openly gay, said this barrier is helpful when working in breaking news because oftentimes the news that breaks is horrifying.

He continued: "I am angry because it is very clear that there has been a political strategy in this country to try to demonize LGBTQ people as a way of mobilizing a political base in a way that we haven't really seen in a few years."


The American public today generally supports the idea that queer people are human beings who deserve equal legal and social footing, at least in regards to gay marriage and especially in the case of conventionally attractive, white, able-bodied, cisgender gay men. Despite this, the prevailing attitudes that have begun to work in favor of America's queer community mustn't be taken for granted.

Millions of American conservatives remain furious queer people have a designated 30 days in June to proclaim we deserve to be equal to them. In addition to the rhetoric Mack described that relentlessly and baselessly vilifies people like us, the Republican party has further emboldened these irrational sects with the canonization of these attitudes. In the GOP's official 2016 platform, the party included the outright objective of hopefully overturning Obergefell v. Hodges — the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage in all of the United States — on Page 10 (section titled "The Judiciary")

This platform, the GOP believed, was so perfect they recycled it for the 2020 general election. The Republican Party's mission to turn back the clock on queer rights is in motion, and we've seen with the religious right's determined success to roll back federal abortion protections that no victory should be considered secure, that every inch of progress we have made must be zealously protected.

"I am enraged by the people that put this stuff out into the world with one agenda and will smarmily sit there and pretend like they shouldn't be held responsible for people misunderstanding what they're saying or running with it and being crazy," Mack said. "That is, to me, just absolutely disgusting."

Australia's 1996 Port Arthur mass shooting massacre prompted that country's government to act swiftly to ensure that violence of such a scale would be difficult to replicate. The resulting legislation, the National Firearms Agreement, instituted a government firearms buyback program, wherein the government confiscated more than 650,000 automatic and semi-automatic guns. Some exceptions were made, but the agreement stated that "[p]ersonal protection is not a genuine reason for acquiring, possessing or using a firearm." 

After the Australian government acted, which also included the introduction of a firearm registry, a 28 day firearm sales waiting period and stricter gun licensing regulations, the country didn't experience another mass shooting for a decade. A 2006 study on the Australian government's actions in response to the Port Arthur massacre, published in the peer-reviewed publication Injury Prevention, noted that, "[r]emoving large numbers of rapid-firing firearms from civilians may be an effective way of reducing mass shootings." Our fifty states have counted more than 600 mass shootings in 2022 alone.

Though the queer community has faced its own unique challenges in America, the problem of gun violence and mass shootings is universally shared. It should be noted, though, that the June 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting remains the deadliest mass shooting targeted towards queer people and the second deadliest mass shooting in American history. What I've been trying to deduce is what it means exactly when a problem every American faces is so vigorously applied to a group of people who already experience discrimination. These mass shootings targeted at queer people specifically, and the visceral hatred those individuals have towards people like me — what does that mean? What greater message lain beneath their outer derision for queer people?

"One of the deadliest attacks against the Muslim community was in New Zealand a few years ago and that was in a space that was safe for Muslims — in a mosque, at the Islamic community center," Mack said. Under the guise of a perennial mass shooting, the application of this particular form of violence, and the hatred for specific minorities intertwined within it, is not unique to one minority population but instead a tragic reality all minorities must face. I am not Muslim, or a woman, or a Black person, or a part of any other minority demographic outside of my sexual orientation, but what I have felt in the wake of a second deadly shooting within a decade in a space people like me designed for people like me is what I can reasonably speak to. In my case, that's queer bars and clubs.


Chicago is not a perfect city, but it has the best gay nightlife I have ever enjoyed. North Halsted Street in Boystown — the official "unofficial" name for the city's gayborhood that largely caters to the interests of gay men — is littered with queer bars. One venue, made of previously independent buildings that have been cobbled together into a sprawling complex of bars, dancefloors, and a rooftop space in its 40 year history, is one of my favorite places to be: Sidetrack.

"The owners, Art and Pep, did an amazing job of blending social advocacy with having a party and being a place that people could come and find joy in the midst of a lot of things that were up against them in their lives," said Brad Balof, Sidetrack's General Manager. Art and Pep opened Sidetrack in 1982. The bar quickly became a refuge and space for political activism for Chicago's gay community in the face of the federal government's abandonment of gay men during the AIDS crisis.

Both my parents were accepting and supportive when I came out to them, but shortly afterwards, my mom expressed her serious concern for my safety. She was never able to shake her feelings of despair and heartbreak at the news of Matthew Shephard's 1998 murder. She said she couldn't even bring herself to imagine me befalling a similar fate.

Queer people everywhere across the globe are conditioned to respond to threats our entire lives. Bullies made my life difficult in grade school, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have only been victim to childhood taunts and as-of-then unsubstantiated claims of my sexuality. Both my parents were accepting and supportive when I came out to them, but shortly afterwards, my mom expressed her serious concern for my safety. She was never able to shake her feelings of despair and heartbreak at the news of Matthew Shephard's 1998 murder. She said she couldn't even bring herself to imagine me befalling a similar fate.

"There's not a lot of places where you can let that guard down," Balof said. "To have someone come in and violate that and try to destroy that makes it that much more traumatic, not just for the people who experienced it, of course, but for the entire community."

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In this modern era of the inclusion of queer people in American society and advocating for queer rights more broadly, especially in the case of our community's trans people of color, the political right has responded with more than the standard gamut of taunts and slurs. The escalation of prejudiced violence in our spaces from outside perpetrators, in instances like the Club Q shooting, is the most up-front and bloody confrontation my community has to prepare itself for. Other, less violent means of intimidation and purposeful exclusion include the record number of anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures. While the cancerous growth of vile anti-queer rhetoric the right wing manufactures hurts all queer people, it is now especially targeted towards gender-obscuring, gender-defying and transgender people, artificially juxtaposing some of the most vulnerable and courageous people in my community against children. Baselessly accusing queer people of coercing children into being queer and trans is not a new lie, but it has been dusted off and viciously clamped around the right's portrayal of who we are. And, as we've seen, this barrage of unfounded accusations results in the very real disruption of our everyday lives beyond a showering of bullets. 

Drag performer puts on high heel shoesDrag performer puts on high heel shoes (Getty Images/Betsie Van Der Meer)

On Dec. 3, a strange attack on Moore County, North Carolina's power grid left thousands of people without electricity. The FBI has joined the investigation, and queer activists believe there is strong suspicion to support the theory the attacks targeted a drag performance, cutting off the power supply and sending a queer space of joy into literal darkness.

The phenomenon of gunmen shooting us down in bars and clubs, I believe, goes deeper than merely being a place where queer people will be. These killers' qualms about my community being joyous and having fun, to me, is not just about what we do but also where we do it. They don't want us to openly be a part of society; they don't want our elation and bliss visible to the world, even in the semi-private enclaves we've created. Attackers choosing to murder queer people in nightclubs and bars, on dancefloors and during drag shows, is an exercise in dismantling the spaces we have intentionally created for ourselves. These venues are an essential component of queer culture, acting as social settings and safe havens away from judgement and the fear of being othered. We can hold hands and make out without a coward in a moving car yelling at us, calling us a slur. We can breathe, and live, in a space we have designed to cater to our agenda: not just staying alive, but living in the most vulnerable and open sense.

Throughout the course of gathering materials, speaking with sources and sitting down to write this piece, I was extremely torn on whether or not I should say anything. The last thing I would want my writing to do would be to put myself or any other queer person in immediate danger as a result of its publication. I lost hours of sleep wondering if one of the millions of hateful people with access to firearms would retaliate to this writing in a fit of rage, taking the lives of more queer people and potentially extinguishing more spaces of queer celebration. I wondered if my hands would have blood on them.

I expressed these concerns to Balof after I finished interviewing him at Sidetrack. All around us, gays with drinks in hand watched music videos of our community's icons dancing and being hot — a solid Wednesday evening. 

I told Balof my initial reaction to the news of Club Q was to write something in response because the shooter had tainted another club of ours, but then my anxieties quickly came afterwards. Balof told me Sidetrack's owners, Art and Pep, had heard queer people on the street outside the bar debating this exact issue. One person asserted we had to make a stand, to say something, to take control of our own story in this country. The other was afraid of retaliatory bloodshed. Art and Pep, according to Balof, strongly agreed that the worst thing to do would be to remain silent in the face of unending devastation. Balof took a long, hard look at me and said that fearing further violence for drawing attention to the hatred pointed at our community is exactly what the shooters want. He said that this coercion of silence is exactly what terrorism does, because that's what we are: terrorized. To speak out regardless — not just me, but anyone who has the privilege to do so safely or chooses to otherwise — is an act of defiance worth doing.

Drag queen in sequin skirtDrag queen in sequin skirt (Getty Images/Henry Horenstein)Queer people are forced every day to decide whether we will be silent or vocal about our existence in America. We live in a society of abject terror that every person in this country shares. Queer people understand this as well as today's grade school children. Unlike children, we also wonder if we will be shot because of who we are, of which our spaces are an extension. As long as our society fails to act in the wake of imminent tragedies, killers will put our bars, clubs and other spaces of joy in the path of danger. 

Yet we go, anyway.

"This is a community whose very existence has been an act of protest," Mack said. "We have no choice. The choice is either to exist or to go back into the closet, and I don't think any of us would want that."

Every time I step into a queer bar, where the lights are low and the bartenders are practically shirtless, I feel this immense sense of love and belonging. To look in every direction and see men in turquoise eyeshadow and 6'5" drag queens towering over a gaggle of adoring queer people makes me forget, for a brief and wondrous moment, that the world outside those walls chips away at my psyche every moment of every day in ways I fail to recognize or choose to ignore for my own sanity. I am loved and I belong there. And, to the chagrin of millions of America's most hateful, I am overjoyed.

I don't expect the laws to change favorably for the hunted anytime soon. Until then, I remain hopeful that one day there will be an empty space between the First and Third Amendments, and years will have passed since the last mass shooting in America.

Until then, we will dance.


By Brandon Summers-Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bars Club Q Commentary Gay Bars Queer Spaces