Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter,
You do not hear
My inner cry?
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing,
You do not know
– Minstrel Man by Langston Hughes
I was terrified. I’d heard of this place somehow (before the internet was around you always heard about things ‘somehow’). You couldn’t hear the music from the street, only when you pushed at the discrete entrance and started to head up the stairs, so it had taken me a while to feel sure I was at the right place. Like me until a few days before, late night revellers on Princes Street in Edinburgh in the 80s were unaware of the transgressions just a few feet above. And though 80s Saturday night on Princes Street wasn’t quite the all night bacchanalia it is today, it was busy enough that I had walked past the entrance several times before I felt safe enough, invisible enough, to dart in.
The sounds from above felt familiar. It was music that had permeated my childhood, so recently fled. ‘D.I.S.C.O.’ was snaking down the stairs and swirling around me, tugging my still frightened legs up towards the sound of bodies pulsing on the dance floor. It was the music I had rejected in my scramble to acquire an identity that shook off my family, my pre-destined path. But this didn’t feel like the upbeat, mindless kind of stuff I had screwed my face up in distaste at when it appeared on Top of the Pops. This music felt hotter, sweatier, more dangerous somehow.
I pushed into the club past leather men dancing eyed by baby dykes in biker jackets, past old school butches courting femmes, past drag queens with wigs and heels lifting them high up above us all like camp angels, and past men and women who looked like they had popped in to sell insurance. Everywhere I looked my eyes my eyes felt rigid with shock at what I saw. Shock not at the difference on display, but the familiarity. Everywhere I looked I saw people living what I felt. People claiming these moments of self realisation not hidden away in some dark corner of their soul, but under the lights on the dance floor. Sure around the edges was a darker space, but this space was not for fearful hiding but for fearless flirting.
Track after track of what I had until then (with the level of sneering contempt only a teenager rejecting ‘the oldies’ can muster) dismissed as cheap music for the masses pulsed through my body, teaching my heart a new and unfamiliar rhythm. The rhythm of family found, not family fated to. The rhythm of familiarity, of seeing out there what I had held inside for so long. Not sanitising and stripping away what made us different – our sexuality – but celebrating it, revelling in it, expressing it. But there was something else. For all the joy, the thirst quenching relief, at being amongst family there was a much darker, more powerful undertone. These were fleeting moments, and we all knew that too soon we’d be back on that street, eyes flicking around for signs of danger, nerves tingling in readiness for fight or flight.
For many of us the events at The Pulse in Orlando seem to have stirred intensely fond and grateful memories of clubs like that. Of how important those havens of comfort (if not cleanliness, the floor of Fire Island sucked you in with years of ineffectually ‘cleaned’ grime) were. Memories of those places where you first saw yourself reflected in those around you, where you could flirt without the fear of attack or signs of disgust that accompanied any such attempt in the ‘straight world’. Where you could hold your lovers hand, kiss, dance, without a second thought for your safety. Or so we thought. So those men and women in the Pulse thought…
It was then, and is still, a ‘straight world’. For all our advances, for all our new found ‘rights’, this is still not my world. I still cannot walk down the street without also scanning for the signs of aggression imminent that all LGBTI people can be subject too at the drop of a hat. As a young woman I used to rage at the stupid, futile, ridiculousness of a straight world that could not simply grow and accept “we’re here, we’re queer, get over it” (as we would chant on that same Princes Street during our many demonstrations). Could not quite accept that I would live my whole life unable to do what every straight person can without a thought – hold my lover’s hand in the street without comment or fear. Yet here I am 30 years later, a lifetime later. And it has not changed. I am still different. The anger still bites at my throat, rage still grips my soul as I contemplate a world so incapable of getting over it. Our difference is still reason enough for many to feel a flicker of discomfort and for some to feel the flame of hatred. Reason enough to gun us down in our dark, safe, life affirming, self realising havens of cheap music and precious freedom.
Orlando has reminded us all that for as long as we cannot hold our lover’s hand in the street safely, places like the Pulse should be celebrated and protected. From Stonewall to the Admiral Duncan to the Pulse they have tried to take them from us – these places where our feet are gay with dancing and our mouths are wide with laughter. They can take our safety, our equality, in the streets and the workplaces and the hospitals and schools. But we will not let them take our places deep with song.