One of the more touching stories that came out of the Orlando shooting at Pulse Nightclub was that of a mother and son who had gone out to dance together. Such an advance in our cultural landscape was enough to bring a tear to my eye, but reading about how this woman had also beat cancer a few times, and was simply out supporting her son and dancing the night away made it even more affecting. They were in my mind as my Mom and I were recently in Boston for a condo meeting. As we walked by Club Café and saw the memorial candles flickering before a rainbow flag, I knew we had to go in. Club Café had been the very first gay bar I ever entered, and suddenly every gay bar was imbued with a bit more import.
It was 1995. I was only twenty years old, but my friend John (the Structure store manager at the time) said getting in wouldn’t be a problem. “He looks better dressed and more professional than either of us!” he reasoned to his wary friend who was along for the proposed jaunt to Club Café. We were just finishing up our shift at Structure and John had invited me to join them for some dancing. I was wearing black pants, a white shirt, and a velvet vest. Hey, it was the 90’s, and I was an International Male devotee, Structure clothing be damned.
That fall I was transitioning from Brandeis to Boston, and, whether I knew it or not, from college kid to young adult. The brisk breeze of the season swept us along the cobblestoned history of Faneuil Hall all the way to the brownstones of Back Bay. I will admit to being a little nervous about getting into the club, but John reassured me that my outfit would get us in without any sort of ID check. More than that, I was a little nervous about what it would be like. Would they think I was arrogant? Would they think I was pathetic? Would they think I didn’t belong there? Would they think my vest was hideous?
When you’re a gay person going into the very straight world, these are the sorts of questions you ask yourself every single day. They become second nature, and so it becomes second nature to doubt and wonder about yourself constantly. If you’ve never had to worry about such worth on a daily basis, you cannot know what this does to a person. That’s the onus I had to overcome when walking into Club Café that night.
We made it past the doorman with ease. (God, I thought, do I really look that old already?) Suddenly, we seemed to be in a sea of people. Music videos played on small screens above our heads, as patrons danced and moved in a mass of unity. I joined them, half-heartedly dancing, but all I really wanted to do was watch – and so I did. What I saw was neither groundbreaking nor extraordinary in any objective sense, but to me it was a portal to a secret world for which I’d been searching my entire life. The mood was exultant, unembarrassed, giddy, dramatic, happy and authentic. There was laughter and smiles, some moody mayhem and lovers’ quarrels, and even a few sad-looking loners. Mostly, though, I was taken by how comfortable and carefree everyone was. No one was on-guard or afraid, no one was pretending to be straight, and no one was ashamed. Best of all, for someone who gets noticed in ways both good and bad, I went completely unfussed-over or bothered. For one of the first times in my life, I was quietly and nonchalantly accepted as one of the group. My “otherness” did not merit mention. Not my vest, not my hair, not my heritage, not even my wit or charm – and at long last I felt at ease.
Once again, if you’ve had the luxury of being around people like you all your life, you cannot understand or comprehend the profound shift in perspective that being around similar people suddenly produced. More than a weight being lifted off an already-heavy heart, this was a revelation – a transcendent experience that illuminated the possibility of happiness and freedom. The only thing I’d been taught about being gay up to that point was shame and fear and silence. Two decades of that can do irrevocable damage to the soul, but somewhere in my heart I’d harbored the hope that I was not bad, that I didn’t need to be ashamed, that I was not less than anyone else. Two decades later, I think I’m almost there.
As my Mom and I sat down with our gin and tonic and glass of wine, I looked around. There were far less people about, but the same easy and relaxed atmosphere prevailed. I told her how this was the first gay bar I’d ever been to, and I had one of those full-circle moments that most people dream about but never have the fortune to experience. On that night, remembering what happened in Orlando, we did it for that mother and son who would never go dancing again.Back to Blog