The Familiar Feeling
Closing ranks post-Orlando
Among the neon lights and appropriately loud radio remixes filling The Capital Club, there’s a familiar feeling. Patrons sip drinks and quiet conversations spread from the bar to the backroom. It’s a feeling I’ve felt in every gay bar in Columbia, whether it’s PT’s 1109 or The L Word. However, there is something different about the air in each as of late. The same sociability is there, but the attack on the queer community that occurred on June 12 has left a slight tension in the atmosphere.
Three months ago, 49 people were killed at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in what became the worst mass shooting the U.S. has ever seen. In the wake of the attack, think pieces and news articles flooded our channels and newsstands, asking us what would become of the queer community.
It’s 6 p.m. and the sunlight streaming in through the curtains of The Capital Club is painting the bar in a curious light as it mixes with those neon lights, and that same question is on my mind.
“Back in the early years, those windows were boarded up,” says Bill Skipper, the original owner of The Capital Club. The venerable bar has stood on Gervais Street for 36 years, the first gay bar in the state. “There was a time when you couldn’t park out front because you would get your car egged.”
The Capital Club is an institution in its own right, but a critical piece in the queer spaces and places of Columbia. The role of those spaces — gay bars — has become arguably murky in the past few years as the US moves towards a more liberal stance on homosexuality.
As of late 2015, 54 percent of American Christians believe homosexuality should be accepted, compared to 76 percent for non-Christian faiths and 83 percent for non-religious people, according to the Pew Research Center. As majority opinions change, one might think that the queer community feels at home in bars in Five Points or the Vista, just as they do in PT’s or The Capital Club, but Pulse has shown us that this isn’t true.
After the massacre at Pulse, I expected a fallout amongst the gay bars of Columbia. Such a vicious attack — one with such omnipresent coverage of the carnage done by the gunman, Omar Mateen — would have surely instilled such a dominating sense of fear into our small Columbia community.
“We were concerned that fear would keep people home, and it did a little bit,” Garry Dollahite, co-owner of The Capital Club says. “People were afraid to come to a gay bar.” Dollahite co-owns the bar with Filip Risteski.
Dollahite noticed that in the two weeks following the attack, considerably fewer people were in attendance at the bar. The importance of our gay bars as forums and sanctuaries was negated by the vacancy that occurred after Pulse.
“It is our responsibility to provide a safe haven for people to come be who they are and what they want to be under safe conditions,” Dollahite says. Not only that, but in the '60s and '70s, gay bars were very much political breeding grounds. They were spaces for conversations and the development of queer culture, which is why Pulse came as such a shock.
“My first reaction was to subside fear,” Dollahite says. “People start asking, ‘Oh, what if that happened here?’ You just can’t live that way. What we wanted to instill in people is that we’re gonna make things as safe as possible. Can we guarantee that 100 percent? No. No one can, but we can take measures to be as safe as possible and to provide the proper environment.”
If you enter The Capital Club with a backpack or anything of similar size, it will be searched. They’ve beefed up their camera system to make sure all areas of the bar have coverage, and it’s not something they were happy about doing. Dollahite doesn’t want increased security and vigilance to contribute to any remaining sense of fear, but rather to ensure that these spaces, our spaces, remain safe and standing.
A night at The Capital Club or PT’s is illustrative of the fear that has subsided, and for our bars, there is no other choice. Our queer spaces are the places that facilitate us, like an artist’s studio. It was surprising to see the crowds back in their usual numbers after a space we created for ourselves was so publicly violated, but the only solution to an act that was intended to shut us out is to rally and not let fear take over.
It’s something Skipper has seen before. In the early '80s, he was inside a gay bar in Wilmington, North Carolina, when a group of men backed their trucks up to the front of the establishment and opened fire with semi-automatic weapons.
The local judge dismissed the case on the account of the establishment that Skipper and his friends were attacked in being a queer space, but it’s a lesson he’s kept with him for years for when enemies of the LGBTQ community remind of us their presence.
“There’s two ways to deal with problems," Skipper says. "It’s called fight or flight, and I’ve already tried flight, and it doesn’t work."
What he means is, in the wake of violence, the approach should involve more activism and more outspokenness, not a recoiling of voices. Instances of violence against the LGBTQ community almost always come at times of progress, a retaliation of sorts.
With retaliation comes a response, however, and the vibrancy that has filled these spaces again is an indication of the only weapon we possess at work.
“This is a historic place,” Skipper says. “I’m very emotional about this place and I love it.”
“I was horrified, but I wasn’t surprised,” Caleb Coker says in reference to the morning they woke up to news about Orlando.
Coker, 24, is well known around Columbia for their drag personalities. Most notably, Ebony Would, and more recently, Sister Anaconda. A large part of Coker’s success and reputation is built on their visibility and outspokenness, and their prominence in the queer community means that they’re very receptive to the attitudes and perceptions of those around them.
“I guess what made [Pulse] more real for us was that a lot of us knew people that worked at Pulse,” Coker says. “Latrice Royale was scheduled there for the next week. We all kind of knew queens that worked there or had been there themselves. I had a close friend who had just moved from Orlando to here.”
Coker works predominately at PT’s, and in the first week after the Orlando attack they noticed an ambivalence toward the act and air surrounding it.
“The next time I went out was a Tuesday, which was also when the next drag show was. It was like no one was reacting to it,” Coker says. “No one seemed upset and I almost think that was just them coping with it, like ignoring it.”
In the wake of Orlando and the months since, I expected to see two approaches to coping: an overwhelming sense of love and compassion exchanged between LGBTQ members and allies or a dismal sense of fear that would leave our communal spaces vacant. And I saw both in those first days, but what I was anxious to see was the behavior expressed in the weeks, and in turn, months after the attack.
This is what Coker seems to be describing: this self-aware ambivalence that seems to be the only option for a community like ours in a time like this.
“As far as healing in the community, it has to be a personal thing. You have to find a way to cope in a way that works for you,” Coker says. They turned to community outreach to help process their emotions. “Whenever I don’t know what to do or how to fix things, I try to fix things in other people’s lives.”
As far as a widespread solution goes to combatting the fear that the Pulse attack spread, the question, “Are those in the queer community activists now?” comes to mind. We’ve always had a greater sense of representation placed on each of our shoulders as being part of what society calls a “lifestyle,” but Pulse may bring a bigger duty to us all.
“We don’t have a model for this. We don’t know what to do, and I think that it’s scaring a lot of people,” Coker says. “I’m almost thinking of a herd of buffalo or bison that, when they’re attacked, they huddle around the young and the sick. They tighten ranks, and I feel like that’s what the queer community is doing. We’re closing ranks now and pulling closer.”
In August, Slate published an article asking if drag queens should be activists now. This question of activism is more pertinent for those in the spotlight, specifically drag queens.
“I’ve known this for years, that being a drag queen makes you the biggest target in the room, and that’s physically,” Coker says. “I’m 6’5” in heels, with hair I’m 6’7”, and I’m also shiny and I show up more. I’ve always understood that makes me more of a target, and I used to go out with my friends in drag because I would always think, if anyone is going to attack anyone, it’s going to be me. It won’t be one of them.”
Coker always knew this when they ventured out of the gay bars and into straight spaces, but Pulse has forced them to recalibrate where their, and everyone else’s, safety lies.
“I think every drag queen knows that going out is dangerous. Going out in straight spaces is dangerous because they’re not exposed to that as often. You can be met with a lot of transphobia and a lot of homophobia,” they say. “Now it feels like, even in spaces that we create, there’s still a chance that we could be killed.”
The real problem in Columbia post-Pulse is that we are now forced to evaluate our safety not only outside of these havens made for us, but also within them. It would always be the people of the queer community bearing the brunt of an attack like this, but now it seems as if we have nowhere to go.
Kaitlin McClamrock has quite a duty as president of IRIS, or Individuals Respecting Identities and Sexualities. As the student leader of an organization that tasks itself with representing the LGBTQ community at the University of South Carolina, she must also ensure that those people do in fact have somewhere to go.
“After Pulse, something shifted, and all of the sudden we needed to connect people with services and we needed to be there to fill this kind of gap,” McClamrock says. “In a way, we had to become more of a safe space.”
IRIS is first and foremost a safe space, and always has been, but their campus-wide image seems to lie in the entertainment they back for students. Mr. and Mrs. Gaymecock in the fall and The Birdcage in the spring, drag pageants and shows respectively, contribute to the event-centric perceptions of IRIS.
In the days after Pulse, McClamrock and others at IRIS made a push to show their members and students at USC that their support extended far beyond weekly discussions. IRIS contacted the counseling center at the university to open up counseling services to students, regardless of whether they were enrolled in summer classes, without charge.
When school resumed and IRIS began their first meeting, there were no admittances of fear or dread of returning to school or the spaces these members once frequented. Instead, students shared their first experiences with a gay bar. In a place open to discussion about anxiety and concern, the conversation focused on the positivity of the places in question. This resurgence of fervor highlighted the importance of activism as one of our only defenses.
“If any change can come by us actually getting out there and pushing the boundaries and literally rioting if we have to, then I’m willing to do it,” McClamrock says. “I want our people to be safe. I want everyone to be safe, and activism is one of the only things that does work. We’re trying desperately to get any kind of policies pushed through. Even something as small as the Safe Zone Ally legislation on campus for student government officials to go through safe zone training to combat some of the misunderstandings or internalized homophobia that may be happening.”
McClamrock hopes that if anything good can come from the attack in Orlando, it’s that people might not be so inclined to brush off casual insults, microagressions and trans- or homophobia. Linking these everyday acts of antagonism with the very real possibility of violence may prevent something like Orlando from happening again.
“As it stands now, we’re not protected,” McClamrock says. “Now there’s more of an emphasis to act.”