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The Way We Were: Life Before the Orlando Shooting

It was a lifetime ago. The 1980s. All week long, we waited for Saturday night. All week long, we smiled and nodded and typed letters for bosses who didn’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re” and “its” and “it’s” and didn’t appreciate having their mistakes corrected. All week long we ate lunch with “the girls” and when they asked if we had any plans for the weekend, we shrugged and said, “Nothing special.” All week long we walked home with our heads down, ignoring the whistles and leers and “Hi Baby’s” thrown our way. All week long we hid who we were. All week long we lied.

On Saturday afternoon, we got ready. In my case that meant spending hours preening, primping and perfecting my look. I wanted to appear tough and soft. I wanted to seem steely and vulnerable. I wanted to look like the fierce femme I hoped I’d someday be brave enough to become. I put on tight black jeans, and a white T-shirt with the sleeves and collar cut off. Big hoop earrings. Kitten-heeled shoes. An expression on my face that rode the line between smile and scowl. Come here and go away. Kiss me and leave me the fuck alone.

I waited until 10:00 p.m. Slid behind the wheel of my little blue Toyota Corolla. Drove to the next town. No one told me where it was. No one had to. Those of us who needed to find it, found it, the only place on earth in which we felt safe. A tiny, hidden, hole-in-the-wall club. It wasn’t advertised. It wasn’t obvious. It was literally on the other side of the tracks, a window-less shack that was easy to miss. Unless your life depended on it. Which mine did.

The parking lot was always full. If you couldn’t squeeze your car in, you had to park on the shoulder on the other side of the street. Which was dangerous because the cops would ticket you and if the owner of the bar didn’t feel like buying them off that night, you’d have to fork over some cash and it wasn’t cheap. No matter. To us it was a small price to pay.

Inside it was dark. It was loud. It was crowded. It was smoky. The floor was sticky. The bathroom was filthy. The drinks were watered down. There was a sign above the bar that said, “No one is ugly after 2:00 a.m.” And there were women. Everywhere. Tall, short, fat, thin, old, young, black, white, Asian, Latina. Butch, femme, androgynous, kiki (to use the language of the times). Wearing pants, skirts, heels, combat boots. Women on the prowl. On the loose. On the move. Bold, brass, sweet, sexy. Talking, laughing, flirting, drinking, dancing, shooting darts, playing pool. Alive in a way that they weren’t during the rest of the week. I didn’t recognize anyone. But it didn’t matter. From the minute I walked through that door, paid the two-dollar cover charge and had my hand stamped by the bouncer, I was home.

I stood with my back to the wall, letting the butches look me over. It wasn’t long before one appeared at my side, took me by the hand and without a word led me onto the dance floor. It was a slow song. Maybe Al Green. Maybe Anita Baker. The butch gathered me into her arms and held me like something cherished. Something important. Something special. We swayed together. The bass line pulsed through my veins. My bones melted. I could have died right there.

But I didn’t. I was not gunned down like the fifty members of the queer community in Orlando this past Sunday morning. I danced the night away, shimmying and shimmering under the disco ball that hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. I spun across the floor, wound up in front of the DJ Booth and developed a wicked crush on the woman inside spinning tunes. One look at that handsome, dark-eyed, dark-haired Puerto Rican butch, and I was smitten. Twenty-eight years later, I still am.

We spent a lot of time in various clubs, as my beloved spun records and delighted in making the girls sweat. We dealt with whatever came our way: drunken, jealous girlfriends and ex-girlfriends, obnoxious cops, slashed tires, bomb scares, a fist fight or two. But we never felt unsafe in the way our queer community now feels unsafe. The clubs were our havens, the places we gathered to loosen our hair, let our bodies relax, and shake off the repressive work week, the families that rejected us, the laws that were created to oppress us instead of protect us.

As the years passed, I stopped going to the clubs along with my beloved. On any given Saturday night when I kissed her goodbye and she went off to work, I always assumed that she’d return in one piece. I never doubted she’d come home, lay her head on the pillow next to mine and apologize for the smell of smoke wafting up from her hair. It never occurred to us that a gunman with an assault weapon would appear in our midst. A mass shooting was not on our radar. It was not something we ever dreamed would happen to us. And now it has.

I mourn the victims, along with their families and friends. I grieve for the traumatized survivors whose lives will never be the same. I especially ache for the young members of the queer community who despite the advances we have made, still feel unsafe being out at work, at home, at school, and who will never know what it’s like to step out of the closet for a few hours and dance the night away, unencumbered by fear. My heart feels shattered today. I don’t know what I can do to stop the hate. Maybe that’s too much to ask. Maybe you, whoever you are, will always hate us. But I beg you to stop hurting us. Stop killing us. Leave us the fuck alone.

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How to cite this page

Newman, Lesléa. "The Way We Were: Life Before the Orlando Shooting." 16 June 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 15, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/way-we-were-life-before-orlando-shooting>.

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