A few weeks ago, I was talking to a social justice activist about “safe spaces.” “I don’t use that term,” she told me, clicking an acrylic nail on the table. How come? “Just because we call a space ‘safe’ doesn’t mean it is,” she said, a little more self-satisfied than I expected. “I say ‘safer spaces’ instead.” I nodded politely, but at the time, I thought the distinction was trivial. Today, with 50 dead and counting, the difference has never seemed more important.
At the same time Omar Mateen walked into Pulse last night, I was walking into Metropolitan, one of three gay bars within ten blocks of my Brooklyn apartment. My shirt was off before I reached the bar; my date’s, by the time we’d ordered drinks. I kissed him on the shoulder as we pushed through the crowd, errant limbs knocking into my beer as we passed.
Eventually, we found a square foot of open space and danced, interrupted only by the celebrity drag show. Milk, a former contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” wore black gloves, opened a can of Crisco, and imitated fisting. The audience laughed, not particularly shocked. This was, after all, a space created specifically for these types of activities, a space designed to be safe.
But all of the buffers between ourselves and violent bigotry — geography, solidarity, wealth — failed to protect those in Pulse. Orlando had just finished its Gay Days festival, a citywide, multi-day celebration that attracted over 150,000 people. With a main lounge, a dance floor called the Jewel Box, and an “all-black lair,” Pulse was one of the city’s most popular nightclubs. It offered cheap nightly drink specials and also catered to the wealthy. A glass of house champagne cost $35.
The sites of terrorism we’ve grown used to seeing — elementary schools and middle schools and high schools and colleges and fast food chains and regional centers and movie theaters — are so troubling partly because their safety is taken for granted. That is the goal of terrorism: to shatter the presumption of security necessary to function. But, however much we’d like to pretend that it’s not, safety has always been the motivating force behind Pulse and Metropolitan and the other two gay bars ten blocks from my apartment.
Maybe it’s the narcissistic side of empathy, the fact that I can picture myself as one of Mateen’s victims more easily than Adam Lanza’s; maybe it’s the horrific scale of the massacre, the tragic coincidence with Pride Month, the fatigue from watching yet another assault rifle and hand gun be unloaded on the public. Regardless, I’m rattled by the realization that this act of terrorism has succeeded. I am scared.
In the next week, I’ll try to find the boundaries of that fear, how it affects my daily life. I know that eventually it’ll fade, and I’ll be back at Metropolitan. In the meantime, I’ll avoid learning more about the shooting as best I can. Every additional detail will make the central conceit of the gay bar — that I’m protected within its walls — even harder to believe. That’s the problem: just because we call a space “safe” doesn’t mean that it is.