The drive from Goose Creek to Downtown Charleston, South Carolina can feel like a fist unclenching just a bit: a liberating 19-mile shot out of sunbaked two-lane highways and low-slung strip malls and churches in strip malls, enough time to change out of the you from the Wal-Mart or the Baptist church and get your mind and look right for the gay club. Charleston in the nineties, the time I lived there, wasn’t Manhattan or even Atlanta, but it had something: It had a college crowd; it had the Arcade, and it had the Treehouse, and I often found myself in both on any given weekend.
Inside I remember the strobe lights and the cigarette smoke as thick as morning fog. It was the south and people liked their tobacco. I see myself dancing with Erin and Javier, both true peacocks, my two left feet scraping the club’s floor, struggling to keep up with them as they vibed to Bizarre Inc’s rapturous "I’m Gonna Get You" or Jaydee’s "Plastic Dreams." I see buff dudes in those acid wash jean shorts and white 96 Wave shirts grinding together, and I see the more genteel southern women rubbing up on the more countryish women. And I see everything in between.
I was hopeless in my baggy Dickies and gas-station shirts. I had no rhythm, but I loved being 17, goofy and out there in the swaying, humid soup of a crowd shaking my ass with all the other southern LGBT folk who’d flocked to that familial place of Saturday-night refuge. I loved the feel of it all. High school isn’t a time I recall fondly, but I miss those moments something awful.
I didn’t drink or do drugs as a teen – yep, straight edge – but those two clubs became something of a second home to me, much like they were for pretty much everyone who visited them at the time. Grim and confining, my home life was the least of my concerns when I hit the Treehouse doors and saw the unforgettable hand-painted message “Gay, Straight, Black, White, Asian, Jewish, Gentile, Vampires & Martians. All are welcome!”
But the reverie wasn’t perfect. During one of my nights out, a man tumbled down the stairs as I watched the weekend drag show. His face bloodied, he clutched my shirt, shouting "Help me" at the top of his lungs as he was carried away by I don’t know who. I can still see his face. I never discovered what happened.
Like most people, I found out about Orlando while waking up that Sunday, scrolling through my Twitter feed in wide-eyed horror. I instinctively looked over at my boyfriend still asleep, snoring gently next to me. A gunman entered an LGBT club in the South with weapons. The first reports said 20 people were people enjoying Latin Night had been killed, many were trapped with him in the bathroom; I put down the phone and cried my damn eyes out. When it more than doubled to 50, I got myself together and rode the train to Stonewall to, as I put it in my Facebook status, “stand with my brothers and sisters.”
Despite their flaws, the southern LGBT nightclubs I frequented in my youth meant I could temporarily swap confinement for freedom, anger for jubilation, world weariness for a few hours of just…peace. Maybe I thought that an attack in a club that I happened to be in was possible, because they are indeed possible and they are real. Maybe I thought about the high probability of getting my ass kicked or put in the hospital while walking to my car. These things never did happen to me or anyone I knew, but they happen.
But Orlando, of course, is something entirely different.
While the portrait of Omar Mateen has become far more monstrous and creepily salacious since June 12, my initial feeling of pure outrage at his actions sticks with me as it does for many people. And that is why I’m marching for the first time in my life. Make no mistake, I’ve been out since I was a teen – first to friends, naturally -- and I’ve always been proud, but I’ve only watched the parade and never marched before, and I regret it took something like this to make that happen.
I know well the homophobia that gripped Mateen and his father – most LGBT people know some form of it, even in 2016 – because naturally I’ve experienced it.
I’m marching now for myriad reasons, chiefly to show solidarity with the Pulse victims and their families. I’m marching because HB2 is insane, and while at a recent concert for a band fronted by a proud trans woman, I privately wished that every trans person (and everyone else) made it to a public restroom and then home safely without harassment. And I’m marching because the same torment or conflict or homophobia that potentially led Omar Mateen to carry out his actions comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is something we’ve all seen before whether it’s Kim Davis or Pat McCrory or Antonin Scalia or Jesse Helms or Donald Trump declining to support marriage equality or even John Kasich telling Chris Matthews he attended a same-sex wedding but he didn’t like it.
I’m marching because all of a few weeks ago while on vacation, my boyfriend rightly reached for my hand during a walk along the Battery in Downtown Charleston, and I instinctively said “not here.”
I remember standing in my suburban South Carolina back yard, burning copies of my homemade zine in a massive metal bucket after a member of my family discovered I had written a pro-LGBT poem inside. There was no choice but to dispose of them, I was told. I’m marching because that idiocy once happened to me, and I had no recourse.
Another time as a teen I woke up on a Sunday morning to phone numbers, the kind that pre-cell phones were written in a club on scraps of napkin or paper by interested parties, the kind that were in my wallet, strewn out on the kitchen table. I’m marching because those mentally abusive aggressions and privacy invasions carried out by my family against me were all too common when I was younger, and no one should have to suffer them.
I’m marching for every horrifying story my boyfriend has told me about members of his family forcing him as a teen to eat from plastic cutlery over an irrational fear of HIV or for the fact that he was removed from his home for being who he was.
And while they’ve since come around and have been nothing but loving to my boyfriends, a family member has never apologized for penning a letter to me that in essence called me an abomination. I’m marching because that still bothers me, and it never needed to happen.
I’m marching because The Treehouse and the Arcade, now long gone, were nightclubs like Pulse, bringing together lovers and those wanting to be loved or those just wanting to be adored for a few hours, and they once helped save my life when I had few options. I’m marching because LGBT establishments now provide simple respite to people who just need and deserve it.
I’m marching just because I should be.