Omar Mateen took more than just 49 lives from the gay community

Written by | News

I remember when Pulse Nightclub was the new gay club in Orlando. I grew up just about an hour and a half outside of the city, to the west, in a town so conservative even the Puritans would have suggested we put our Bibles down for a few minutes and have a drink—and Orlando is where a lot of us went for that.

In 2004, right after Pulse opened its doors for the first time, I was dating a guy from the Orlando area, and he and I would escape to the city, hanging out with his friends and going out at night. Being gay in 2004 was immensely different than being gay in 2016, and we did actually feel the need to escape our everyday lives and the personas we wore Monday-Friday. My boyfriend at the time was very active in his fraternity at the University of Florida, and while he was out of the closet to some people, he never could be quite himself at college. I was living at home and had a very strenuous relationship with some in my family about my sexuality. Making the trek to Orlando, for us, was a small sacrifice for that little bit comfort we got just from being in our own skin.

It probably seems really silly to straight readers, but Orlando was Disney World. I realize Disney is near Orlando, and not actually the city itself, but Orlando to a 2004 version of Preston was a magical kingdom of sorts. My hometown, Crystal River, Florida, isn’t known for much—though it did make its way on The Daily Show that one time—and growing up there was a special kind of hell for a gay kid. In Crystal River, people like me had their lives threatened, they got beat up, thrown out of their churches, told by school administrators that they shouldn’t be gay if they were afraid of physical harm, and so much worse. Well, I assume that’s how it would have been. It’s difficult to know when there aren’t more of you around to compare stories. That simply didn’t happen as much in Orlando. Stick 4 or 5 gay guys at a table in a restaurant in a 2004 version of Crystal River and wait for the fireworks to start, because someone would say something and the chances are good those gays would be harassed mercilessly, if not actually physically assaulted.

In a 2004 version of Orlando, very few people gave a shit.

Big cities to gays were, and to many still are, places to which one could flee and find a community willing to support them. Orlando isn’t a big city to most people, but it was to me back then, and I loved it for that. Despite never having actually lived there, I’ve been to more gay bars in Orlando than I have any type of bars everywhere else. Some of them have been nice and others not, but they’ve all welcomed me and helped me survive this life.

Every single time I go to a gay bar, which happens with no regularity at all these days, I think back to the first time I ever went to one. I asked my sister if she remembers that night, and she does—she’s the one who took me afterall. It’s a cute story, really, one my sister is all too happy to share. Celebrating my 18th birthday, more than a few drinks already down the hatch, I first patronized a gay bar in November of 2002, and I was the “most gay” my sister, Lauren, had ever seen me. Those are her words, not mine, but they’re as true as any words really can be.

The bar, which is still open, is called University Club, but everyone knows it as UC. Walking up to it that night I remember this tension just slowly being released from my body. Starting outside the bar that night, even before getting in, I saw, met and spoke to more gays than I had every day in my life up to that point combined. I saw diesel dikes, drag queens, gender-bending queers and, thankfully, a lot of fags just like me. Some people describe their first trip to a gay bar as a homecoming, which is great for them. For me it was more similar to going to a party where I was actually wanted and where I actually had a chance to meet someone. For the record, I didn’t meet anyone that night, but it was just nice knowing I stood a chance. I’m not sure if straight people understand this, but there’s no better feeling than actually being somewhere where you aren’t a minority and where you might actually be able to have a good time without ending up bloodied.

“You danced like you have never danced before. So young,” Lauren told me, the melancholy thick on her voice. Despite my heavy drinking that night, I remember much of it, even 13 years later. The matron of the joint, Lady Pearl, spotted me within seconds of the drag show starting. She came down the stairs to the small dance floor where the drag show took place and started her opening monologue, but maybe two minutes in she started pointing at me. “’Fresh meat,’ she called you” is how my sister recalls it. I just remember that silly twat of a drag queen pulling me into the spotlight, intending to disarm me, asking, “do you suck dick?” Yeah, like I was going to answer that one way or another in front of my sister and a whole bunch of strangers. Being held hostage by this drag queen lasted only a minute or two, and I dodged the question while escaping Lady Pearl’s grasp unharmed, mortally terrified and equally exhilarated all at the same. Back safely with my sister and friends with a lot of eyes on me, Lady Pearl gave me one tiny smile and nod that said “welcome” with all the warmth she could muster, and I knew everything would be all right.

lady pearl performing at university club gainesville

Lady Pearl Performing at University Club

Lady Pearl died almost two years ago. Colon and liver cancer. And though I never knew her personally, I loved her for what she did, and I cried when she passed. At 18, being gay wasn’t easy for me. I had some troubles at home with my sexuality, and I was very much depressed and suicidal because of it. Coming out as gay at the age of 16 cost me a lot of friends, both at school and at church, and it caused a lot of problems at home. Today it seems as if kids come out and they become more popular, but that wasn’t the case in Bush’s America circa 2002. Being gay in Crystal River, I was so lonely that I began secretly planning an escape to New York City as soon as I graduated. Then I turned 18 and my big sister did what she needed to do: She took me to my first gay bar. And that damned drag queen let me know that no matter what I’d always be welcomed there and at all gay bars. It was Lady Pearl who kept my ass where it belonged, because with a simple smile and a nod she let me know I didn’t need to run away from anything and that there would always been friends there when I needed some—even if they were total strangers.

Lady Pearl never got the answer to her question that night, but she didn’t give a shit. All she wanted to do was make sure that lonely, uncomfortable and awkward 18 year kid knew he was welcomed. She did, and I was, and I never forgot that fact for the rest of my life.

I can’t stop crying when I think about what happened in Orlando this past weekend. At first I thought, man, I’m lucky no one I know was there and everyone is okay. But then I stopped to actually think about it, and while, yes, I may not be personally saying goodbye to friends or family, I still feel like something has been taken from me—as I’m sure many gay people are feeling right now.

I’ve been to Pulse. I’ve sat at its bar sipping on water (boring, I know). I’ve listened to its music. I’ve danced on its floors. I’ve been in the bathroom where Omar Mateen cornered and murdered some of his victims. It seems so silly, but I actually remember the feeling I got when I stepped through its doors—because it’s the same feeling I’ve always had every time I walk into any gay bar. It’s the same feeling Lady Pearl made sure I got walking into UC in 2002.

If you didn’t grow up gay you don’t know this, but there is a feeling you get walking into a gay club that you don’t get anywhere else. It’s this very specific kind of comfort, subtle and unobtrusive, but enveloping. Even if you don’t want to be there, even if you’re afraid of crowds and hate the thought of being around so many people, like I do, a gay bar welcomes you for who you are at the most basic level. Gay bars, throughout my life, have been a safe zone, a place where I never needed to worry about being called a faggot or killed for just being me, and I think the past few days have proven how very needed places like that are for the LGBTQ community. A feeling of safety is one of the most precious and fragile things in human existence, and as strong as I want to say I am and we are as a community, I doubt I can ever feel that way again.

“That feeling you described when walking into a gay bar was the same 60 years ago when I was 23. It was like retreating into a fortress.”

That’s from my Uncle Ronny, who’s been at this game a lot longer than I have, and it was even more true for him than it was for me; he had to worry about the police killing him too. The thing is, I’ve been taking that feeling for granted for the past 10 years, after my now-husband and I started dating. He and I have gone to a few bars together during our time dating, but for the most part we fell in love and domesticated ourselves. Early in our relationship, I was so careful not to show any affection to him, not to act “too gay” in public. I knew how some people might react, because some people really want people like my husband and me to die. I knew this. He knew this. So, we behaved.

Preston Hemmerich and Andrew Becks on their wedding day

Preston (right) and husband Andrew (left) after cutting their wedding cake, September 13, 2014.

After a decade together, we’ve built a life. We have a house and five amazing pets. We’ve even discussed starting a two-legged family, through adoption, if we ever feel “ready,” whatever that really means. We’ve lost family members together, but we’ve also welcomed my niece into the world as uncles. Our separate lives are more of one super sappy and sickeningly sweet life together, these days, just like it is for loving straight couples.

We’ve also opened up a bit. We’ll have small, intimate moments sometimes in public before we realize it. We’re not talking big makeout sessions, but just casual and short moments of affection. If you’re in love, you know how sometimes you just want to put your hand on the other person’s hand for no reason, just to feel close? That’s what I’m talking about. Five years ago I wouldn’t have done that in public, but after 10 years my guard seems to have let itself down. I mean, it’s 2016, gay people don’t just get gunned down these days, right? We may not be loved by all, but our lives are safe, aren’t they? I went to bed Saturday night very sure of this fact, but I woke Sunday morning and felt all that security and safety disappear.

In 2007, when my now-husband and I began dating, I wouldn’t show him any affection in public. No hand holding. No kissing. Maybe a hug, but that hug would have needed a #NoHomo disclaimer. My private life then, like it was before, was very segregated from my public life. Except in those little havens called gay bars. They were, for so long, the only place a gay man’s public life and private life could mix, but over the years things changed. Maybe that’s why my husband and I stopped going to gay bars. Maybe we felt like we didn’t need them anymore. We probably just felt safe enough without them.

This week a friend of mine is going to have to attend six funerals to say goodbye to his friends who lost their lives early Sunday morning. I don’t know Omar Mateen’s motives. I don’t know why he decided to kill 49 people. I don’t care if it’s because of ISIS, or because of his religion. He took 49 lives he had no right to, and he took a feeling of comfort and safety from millions more.

There are reports now that Mateen himself might have been gay, and I’m sure for many people that changes everything about how they see the situation. Not for me. If Mateen was gay, it just proves even more that we have a long way to go in this country—because someone who is gay should never hate himself enough to do this.

When I was a timid 18 year going to my first gay bar, I would have given anything to feel as safe and welcomed in society as I did at UC, and maybe the last 10 years with my husband fooled me into thinking I was, because I thought we were almost there. It turns out we still have a very long way to go.

Early Sunday morning I woke to the news of a shooting at an Orlando nightclub, with as many as 20 people being killed.

Police report that at least 20 are dead and dozens more injured after a shooting inside an Orlando nightclub in the early hours of Sunday morning. As of this time, police are not providing any details about the number of gunmen or suspects, or about any possible motive.

Shortly after, we began seeing updates.

First update: It was a gay nightclub. Second update: Omar Mateen was the gunman. Third update: The death total could eclipse 50. Fourth update: Mateen had pledged allegiance to ISIS. Then: Every major media outlet begins crafting its own narrative of the events.

Working in media, it’s difficult sometimes to take a moment and consider what’s actually happening when you’re writing about it. We’re under so much pressure to publish something quickly that we’re often grasping for things to say and arguments to make. When it is time to chronicle a major event, such as the largest mass shooting in U.S. history (unless one were to count Wounded Knee, which technically happened on a reservation within the United States), we have responsibilities to our employers to write and get articles out there in the most enticing and engaging way possible—without sacrificing our integrity. Of course, news journalists have their obligations and objectivity to guide them; the rest of us, the commentators of society, we have to say something, so we do, and we’re the people who will ultimately dictate how this event is remembered in history.

I am a little-known and inconsequential writer, at least part time, and as the only gay writer for MensTrait.com, I should have had something to all of the site’s readers on Sunday to document the date of June 12, 2016. But I didn’t. By June 13, I could have had something up. But I didn’t. The Pulse Nightclub terrorist attack is one of the few events in my life where I am honestly struggling to find the words needed to write about it, but that could be because it’s the first time I’m writing about something that feels this personal.

As a writer, a chronicler of events, I don’t know how I want the history of this event to be told. If someone wants to blame Omar Mateen’s religion, they can. The same is true of those wanting to blame ISIL and Islamic extremism. Make it a gun laws issue if you want. I don’t care. Blame whoever or whatever you want, because that doesn’t matter. All that matters to me, and to people like me, is to be safe and welcomed somewhere, and hopefully everywhere, one day.

Last modified: June 12, 2017