I came to Orlando with two reporter advantages: I’m gay and like to drink with other gay people. It seemed to me that the media and many politicians were having a hard time really saying what the Pulse tragedy was about—that it was not just an attack, but an attack on queer people, that most of those queer people were Latinx, that they were out drinking, partying, dancing, and cruising, and that moving beyond the tragedy would require not only mourning at camera-friendly memorials filled with (well-meaning) straight people, but re-entering queer spaces and dancing and drinking and partying and hooking up.
I went out to gay bars in Orlando on the one-week anniversary of the tragedy hoping to prove that people were overcoming through joyous clubbing; that they were reclaiming a queer space that had taken from them through direct violence. I wanted to gay up my reporting—not just ask people questions, but be with them, dance with them, maybe even hook up with them.
But it didn’t really work out. People were too depressed.
At 10 p.m. this past Saturday at Savoy, a bar with a big dance floor and cheap drinks, John, a computer programmer, was sipping a big, vodka and orange juice in a plastic cup. He’s wary of talking to the media, and so didn’t give his full name, but he spoke about the tragedy on autopilot, as many people in Orlando did. It was obvious not much had been processed yet.
John knows two people who were killed at Pulse. He told me he was ashamed to be sad about that, because, he explained, some of his friends knew 15 people who were shot. John’s partner didn’t go out that night; he’s too scared. But John was there trying to just push through, get drunk, make small talk (we met because he made fun of my bright-red Hawaiian-ish shirt).
“I needed to get out of the house,” he said. “It’s scary, but where can you go that’s safe? Life is short. You gotta get out.”
As people milled about not really dancing, the bar’s TVs, which usually play remixes of pop videos, were playing an MSNBC remembrance of Pulse’s dead. The club had turned off Chris Hayes’s voice and instead turned on “Seasons of Love” from the RENT soundtrack. Each of the 49 faces flashed on the screens for a few seconds. Most of the bar didn’t really look at them, seemingly stuck between not wanting to mourn on their night out and not wanting to dance while in mourning. The memorial cut off at commercial, and then Katy Perry’s “Firework” came on. No one really danced to that one, either.
For a while now, Orlando has felt safer for its LGBTQ inhabitants than other mid-sized American cities; its theme parks and the tourism gives it a more global, cosmopolitan vibe. Only about 250,000 people live here, but the town has at least 10 gay bars, along with countless gay nights at other bars, a pride event that spans days, and a politics liberal enough that after last Sunday, when 49 people were murdered at the nightclub Pulse, the city lit up several buildings in the colors of the rainbow flag.
Orlando was not afraid to acknowledge that Pulse was indeed a gay night club, and that the people inside of it identified with every letter of the LGBTQ acronym. Orlando does not feel like, say, Fort Wayne, Indiana (similar population, approximately two gay bars), or even Detroit, which at three times the size has about the same number of gay bars. While usually not lumped in with places like New York or San Francisco, Orlando is a gay city. And for its LGBTQ residents, especially the Latinos and Latinas who account for a good percentage of the queer population, Orlando was a destination—some would even say a mecca.
There is no such thing as a safe space in the United States for LGBTQ people, but Orlando was as close as you could get to one. So Pulse was not only a shock here but a rupture, a tear in Orlando’s protective bubble through which its queer community can now see the cruelties of the rest of the country. Seeing the pall over the gay scene here, it’s easy to remember what Judith Butler said recently about violence against trans people—that it’s not about violence, but eradication.
"Perhaps the man who drives over the trans woman time and again cannot quite make her dead enough,” Butler said. “He is seeking….to establish a world in which no one like her exists."
Up north about 10 miles from Savoy is a little cluster of smaller bars, including Hank’s, which has a kind of bear-ish, leather-y vibe. At 10 p.m., two customers were at the bar and a couple more were milling about the dance floor. The bar’s owner couldn’t tell if it’s because people still didn’t want to come out, or because they’re too busy going to benefit concerts and memorial services. No one at Hank’s wanted to talk about what happened. Like every reporter who has come to this bar, I was told not to ask questions about what happened. So instead I sat down for a Bud (because it’s that type of bar), and waited silently. After a minute, everyone started talking about Pulse.
After Hank’s I headed down south of the city right next to Disney World to its newest club, Revere, where there was a benefit featuring a slew of drag queens and kings and other performers. They lip-synced in a cavernous room with black, shiny floors and a smoke machine to an audience of about 30. Drea Star, a 19-year-old drag queen, performed a heartfelt rendition of “Born To Die,” a Lana Del Rey song (“Feet don’t fail me now…”), the same song she performed at Pulse a few months ago. After her short set, two people walked up and threw a few dollars in the donation bin at the front of the room. The host asked for more applause, got not-that-much in response, and then said what in any other city would be a habitual call-out to get the crowd riled but that night felt more like coaxing the audience out of a fugue state: “I can’t hear you,” she said. “I cannnn’t heeaar you.”
I ended my night at Parliament House, a gay resort and bar that seems to be a sister-bar to Pulse. Everyone I talked to on Grindr told me they go to PHouse, and that I should, too.
Hotel rooms that look like motel rooms lined an outdoor dance floor and pool. Several bars with their own dance floors and music were enclosed by glass walls, and surround the outdoor space. To get into those dance floors, you now needed to remove every object from your pockets and go through a pat-down by either private security or Orlando’s police (though as one employee pointed out, anyone with a gun could just shoot through the glass walls). Two squad cars were outside, along with a church group offering free hugs. Trevlis Cartersat down on a bench outside and lit a Black & Mild. He’s young, dressed in a tight button-down shirt and a full-brimmed hat. “I’m here to turn up,” he said while sitting down. “I feel like we should be here.”
Near the pool there was a makeshift bar with a sign with Pulse’s logo on it. The proceeds from here went to a victim’s fund, and the bartender made sure to tell everyone his tips do, too. About two dozen people, including former Pulse employees, were standing around, chatting, smiling, drinking, not really moving except to say “hi” or hug. There were lots of stares across the bar, but it’s hard to tell whether people were cruising or checking in.
At 1:55 a.m., seven minutes before the Pulse shooting began a week ago, a voice on a loudspeaker interrupted the dance music to say that in five minutes there will be a moment of silence. At 2 a.m., the music cut off. People still talked; someone in the middle of a joke tried to contain a laugh. No one seemed to want to be silent. The minute lasted forever. But 2 a.m. is also last call in Orlando, and so people hugged each other goodbye, started filtering out into the streets, and the music stayed off.
Peter Moskowitz is a writer based in New York. He's writing a book about gentrification for Nation Books/Perseus.