When the wife of the Pulse nightclub shooter was acquitted of federal terrorism and obstruction of justice charges in late March 2018, evidence from her trial caused some to conclude that the June 2016 massacre — that left 49 dead and 53 injured — was not an anti-LGBT hate crime, as initially reported.
Pulse nightclub, defense attorneys argued, was randomly selected after the shooter’s first choice proved too heavily fortified. His wife’s statement to the FBI that she and her husband scouted Pulse in advance was contradicted by her cellphone GPS data. Numerous first person accounts that the shooter had visited Pulse several times prior to the shooting were deemed “unreliable” by prosecutors.
Based on these revelations, a handful of journalists jumped to correct the media’s premature reporting, in the process forgetting the wider ramifications of the Pulse massacre. Melissa Jeltsen’s story for HuffPost was headlined, “Everyone Got The Pulse Massacre Story Completely Wrong.” Vox’s Melissa Coaster argued the massacre wasn’t “about” LGBTQ hate.
As The Advocate responded in lengthy detail, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the shooter intentionally selected Pulse because he knew it was a popular LGBT nightclub. His death at the hands of police means we’ll probably never know for sure.
But whether the Pulse massacre was an anti-LGBT hate crime is largely beside the point. It was the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 and the worst (known) mass-murder of LGBT people in American history.
And it occurred in a place of deep social, cultural, and historical significance for the LGBT community: a gay bar.
Gay bars have played a singular role in sustaining LGBT individual and communal life.
They are rare social spaces where we can meet, drink, dance, laugh, sing, flirt, (maybe) fall in love, and (occasionally, in a dark corner or basement) even fuck.
Before it was possible to live openly as LGBT, the bars were crucial for the transmission of queer culture, from older to younger generations.
They offered opportunities to explore what it means to be an LGBT person, and to develop and express our authentic selves. During times of trouble, they provided shelter from an often-hostile society, and sources of help, experience, and mutual support.
After the mid-twentieth century, gay bars functioned as social and cultural hubs of emerging gay ‘ghettos’ and, increasingly, the wellspring of LGBT political power and activism.
During the early years of the AIDS crisis, they were a crucial for distributing HIV-prevention information and raising funds for urgently-needed social services.
Of course, gay bars weren’t (and aren’t) immune from wider social problems.
Bars catering to gay men are often hostile to lesbians (and vice versa). The existence of bisexuals is barely acknowledged. Transgender, gender non-binary, and gender-variant people are often unwelcome, except on stage as drag performers. Racial discrimination and racialized sexual fetishization are embarrassingly common.
Social cliques organized around on gender expression, social class, race, wealth, physical attractiveness, and sub-cultural (or ‘tribal’) membership are as common in gay bars as anywhere else.
As a known hub of LGBT communal life, LGBT bars were often the target of repressive social forces. And increasingly, resistance.
Politicians passed laws specifically crafted to undermine queer bar life. Laws against serving alcohol to “known” homosexuals, public congregation of homosexuals, and wearing clothing of the “opposite” sex were common in U.S. cities after the 1930s. Homosexual sex (i.e. “sodomy”) was outlawed in almost every state.
Police raids on bars were common and so predictable in form, they almost felt scripted. Raids often spiked during election years, so politicians could claim to be cracking down on “vice” and “immorality.”
Starting in the 1960s, these repressive efforts were increasingly resisted, often violently. The violent resistance to a corrupt police raid of New York’s Stonewall Inn during the last weekend of June 1969, is the best known and commemorated moment of LGBT resistance.
But several similar events preceded it, often at gay bars. In 1966, transgender patrons at Compton’s Cafeteria — which functioned socially like a gay bar — violently resisted a police raid.
On New Year’s Eve 1966, police raided the Black Cat Tavern and New Faces bars in Los Angeles, but were met with violent resistance.
At The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, patrons and neighborhood residents violently protested years of discriminatory policing and economic exploitation. Those protests are commonly (if somewhat erroneously) understood as the beginning of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement.
Today, gay bars can seem less important to LGBT social life and political activity, and many of the oldest bars have closed. They’re also less frequently the target of state-sanctioned violence. Police raids are not unknown but now can be rather costly, as Atlanta and Fort Worth have both learned.
But gay bars are still the focus of a shocking amount of homophobic violence: verbal harassment, robbery, arson, vandalism, physical assault, stabbings, shootings, bombings, and miscellaneous threats against patrons, employees, and owners.
The worst known incident (prior to the Pulse shootings) was the arson attack at New Orleans’ Up Stairs Lounge in June 1973 which killed 32 people and injured 15 — almost all gay and bisexual men.
A quick search of The Advocate’s archives using the term “gay bar” turns up the following reports from just the last 20 years (and only in the U.S.):
- February 1997: a bomb exploded in a back room of Atlanta’s Otherside Lounge, wounding five;
- September 2000: a man opened fire at the Backstreet Cafe in Roanoke, Virginia, killing Danny Overstreet and injuring six others;
- April 2004: a man strangled to death Douglas Guiles, owner of Prism, in Binghamton, N.Y.;
- February 2006, a teenager used a hatchet and a handgun to seriously injure Robert Perry, Alex Taylor, and Luis Rosado at Puzzles Lounge in New Bedford, Massachusetts;
- May 2007: Sean Kennedy was beaten to death outside Brew’s Bar in Greenville, S.C.;
- July 2007: a gay couple was punched and kicked by a gang of men outside The Cage in Hoboken, N.J.;
- 2008: Scott Wright was viciously beaten outside Casey’s Bar in Buffalo, N.Y.;
- March 2008: Lance Neve was beaten unconscious outside Snuggery’s Bar in Spencerport, N.Y.;
- September 2008: Tony Hunter and his partner were assaulted outside Be Bar, in Washington, D.C.; Hunter later died of his injuries;
- December 2008: Nathan Runkle was severely beaten outside Masque in Dayton, Ohio;
- March 2009: three men were arrested for hurling rocks at patrons of Robert’s Lafitte in Galveston, Texas;
- April 2009: Justin Goodwin was brutally beaten by a gang of six men outside a gay bar in Gloucester, Massachusetts;
- July 2009: eleven Seattle gay bars received letters threatening attacks with the chemical weapon ricin;
- January 2009: the Houston Eagle, a leather bar, was burned in a suspected arson attack;
- December 2009: Robert LeCompte was stabbed to death inside Drama Club in Houma, Louisiana;
- May 2011: a gay man was severely beaten by six men outside the Old Plantation Night Club, an El Paso gay bar;
- February 2012: a Colorado football player verbally harassed and assaulted Chelsea Gallagher outside a gay bar in Grand Junction;
- July, 2012: the front window of Gregs in Indianapolis was shot out;
- June 2013: Chris Ashcraft was assaulted by a gang of men outside Southbend Tavern in Columbus, Ohio;
- September 2013: Cleveland police warned the owner of Cocktails lounge to stop calling the police after he had reported six incidents of anti-gay violence outside the bar;
- October 2013: Ben Stoviak and his boyfriend Aaron were seriously beaten by three men outside Remedy in Pittsburgh;
- June 2014: Ahmed Said and Dwone Anderson-Young were shot and killed after leaving R Place in Seattle;
- October 2014: a Bible-quoting man shot at two gay men with a BB gun outside Saloon in Minneapolis;
- November 2015: Michael Fontana had his throat slashed and shoulder broken in an attack by three men outside The Alley in Boston;
- September 2016: Michael Phillips was attacked by a gang after leaving his job bar-tending at Silverado in Portland, Oregon;
- September 2016: two Phoenix gay bars — Pat O’s Bunkhouse and Los Diablos — were robbed by armed men in the same night;
- March 2018: Ta’Ron ‘Rio’ Carson was shot and killed outside Aura in Kansas City, Missouri;
- March 2018: a driver plowed his car into a crowd outside Judy’s Hamburger in Houston killing Jared Jacobs and injuring five others;
- June 2018, bartender Peyton Keene was shot and killed in front of Bastille in Soulard, a gay bar in St. Louis.
This long list only reflects attacks reported to the police and then picked up by the media. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In 2018 the Anti-Violence Project reported 2017 saw the highest number of anti-LGBT homicides in the 20 years it’s been collecting data.
Violence against LGBT people noticeably spiked after the January 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president.
In her story for Vox (about the exoneration of the Pulse shooter’s wife), Melissa Coaster inexplicably claimed, “The shooter didn’t target LGBTQ people,” as if his assault rifle somehow aimed itself.
That must be small comfort to the friends, partners, and families of the 49 dead and 53 injured.
While it’s possible the shooter didn’t target LGBT people for being LGBT, his victims died just the same. And they died in a gay bar, a place that’s been central to our way of life and our movement for full social equality.
That’s why the Pulse massacre reverberated far beyond Orlando and prompted demonstrations and vigils worldwide. Many of us have been in bars, nightclubs, bathhouses, and ‘gay-borhoods’ where we’ve experienced similar kinds of violence, if smaller in scale.
For that reason, what happened at Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016 was an attack on all LGBT people. It reminded us of the violence that threatens us all the time, even in those precious few spaces where we dare to be ourselves.
Michael J. Murphy, PhD, is Associate Professor of Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. He is the author of many book chapters, and encyclopedia and journal articles. Most recently, he edited Living Out Loud: An Introduction to LGBTQ History, Society, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2019). He tweets @emjaymurphee.