Gay Clubs Are More Than Just Clubs, They Are A Home

by Zara Barrie
Mental Art + Design

I, like so many of my queer brothers and sisters, grew up in the thick of the glittering, gay nightlife culture.

The gay club is where I met the eyes of my first love, it's where I kissed a girl in public for the first time, it's where I cultivated my personal style, forged life long friendships and most of all, found my people. My community. My network. My safety net. My support system. My love.

My home.

I was at a pool party in Spain when I heard about the devastating massacre at Pulse. My first reaction was of course, debilitating panic. Our community is small, and I was a regular on the Florida gay scene for half a decade. I felt darkness. I felt grief. Because I knew I lost family members. Some I knew from the scene, the rest I didn't. But in the gay community, you don't need to personally know someone to grieve their loss. We are connected by something greater.

Then came this overwhelming sadness that I couldn't quite place. I had this unshakeable, broken feeling I haven't been able to identify until just a few minutes ago.

I feel lost. I feel violated. I feel like someone has stripped my entire beautiful community of a home. Pulse was a home, a safe home where people grew up and found themselves. And an outsider came in and destroyed that home with the ugliness of hatred and violence.

I will never forget sneaking into a gay club for the first time with my older sister Audra, when I was just a gangly teen full of acne and angst. I was a scrawny, punked-out 15-year-old kid, and a total closet baby dyke. To say I didn't fit in at school would be the understatement of the century.

I had gone to visit my sister alone in Boston. She happens to be one of those rare straight girls who's been entirely taken in by a powerful crew of fierce gays. And through her homo connections, I was somehow let into the club.

I might have been nothing but a teenage closet case, but the very moment my fresh eyes took in the twinkling lights of the club, I felt I belonged for the first time.

It was 15 years ago, and I can't remember the faces, the decor or the music, but goddamn — I vividly remember the feeling. The vibe. The palpable energy of the club. It was this incredible, overwhelming sensation of total acceptance, wild peacefulness, deep soulfulness and boundless creativity.

I had never been anywhere that was so unapologetically self-expressive in my life. In school, everyone tried to mimic each other. At the gay club, everyone was totally different from each other. And the more authentically weird and outrageously individual you were, the cooler you were.

"I could get used to this," I smugly thought to myself, as I pretended to inhale a Marlboro Light (it took me years to learn how to properly inhale smoke). I inherently knew this beautiful, chaotic club was where I belonged. This was my kind of scene, my kind of jive. A place teeming with thriving queers. It made me think, "Shit, maybe I can be a thriving queer one day."

I reluctantly went back to high school, but I waltzed through the halls with a newfound confidence I hadn't had before. I knew that someday, when I could get the hell out of this small town, there would be an amazing, open, interesting, colorful world I could enter. My world was suddenly a lot bigger. Before that, my world was so narrow. I couldn't see the light at the other side.

Now, not only was there light, there were strobe lights, baby.

I continued to hide my sexuality. I played the part and recited the lines I was supposed to recite, but it didn't kill my soul so much anymore because I now knew that high school was just one tiny scene in the amazing play of my life. Kittens, I had been introduced to the life beyond. And thank god. Because just knowing that the other side existed lifted me. It became the driving force, the lifeline that carried me through those harrowing teen years.

The first time I got to experience the gay club legally was when I was 18. I was with my best friend Owen. We were in London, backpacking Europe. And as two little queer babies, we were so excited to finally be old enough to experience gay nightlife, for real. Using just a few bobby pins and a teasing comb, Owen styled my hair into an awesome Bridgette Bardot beehive. We both shaved a little patch into our left eyebrow. We called it our "eyebrow ice." It was totally ratchet, but we felt totally cool and ready for the gay club.

We went to a place called G-A-Y club. We were two American idiots (still kids, really), but the bouncer let us breeze through the luxurious velvet ropes and off into the shimmering gay abyss. He serenely smiled at us because he knew we were new. Now that I'm old, I love to see the young ones experience queer magic for the first time. I'm always giving my classic "your life is about to change" smile to the freshly out 21-year-old kids, nervously lining up outside the club on a Friday.

As soon as we got inside, this really cool chick with a smooth as honey English accent asked Owen if I was single. And even though I was far too shy to talk to her, something inside me lit up.

This cool English girl had seen me. All of me. She saw my sexuality. I believe our sexuality is at the core of who we are, and my core — my baseline — had been invisible up until this point. And now I was being recognized by my one of my people. I could feel myself coming into myself, right then.

My eyes drank up the gorgeous sea of glamorous drag queens, beautiful boys and sexy girls, all wildly diverse in style, race and orientation. Everyone was intermixed, dancing freely, openly expressing themselves.

What struck me was how everyone looked so beautiful. And everyone looked so beautiful because everyone was so comfortable in their skin. I had been to clubs made up of supermodels, and no one looked this gorgeous at the model club.

And it hit me like a ton of hot bricks: Everyone was comfortable and beautiful because everyone was home.

Throughout the past decade, I've moved around a lot. I've lived in Los Angeles. I've lived in New York. I've lived in London. I've lived in Florida and back to New York again. Wherever I've gone, no matter how many miles away I am from my family, I've always found a home in a gay club.

I've always found a family in a gay club.

The gay club has been my haven, the one place where I can hold hands with my girlfriend without being harassed or gawked at. Even in New York or LA, I've held my breath while clasping fingers with a girl. There is always that underlying fear that it's not safe for us. Because sometimes it's not. It's a crapshoot, no matter where you are. Half the time we can visibly see our affection is making someone uncomfortable, or fueled with hatred or suddenly our pure connection becomes sexualized.

But I breathe and love freely at the gay club. And that deep breath is what sustains me when I'm stuck in places that don't accept me.

There is so much love inside of gay clubs. You can feel the energy of people falling in love with themselves for the first time. You can feel the 21-year-old girl to your left falling in love with the hot bartender who has been comping her drinks all night.

You can feel the love of the couple from out of town, who are passionately kissing, fearlessly, for the first time ever in a public place. You can feel the love of artistry, the love for the craft of live performance. The drag queens and the go-go dancers who have poured love into intricate costumes and mind-blowing acts, for little to no money. You can feel the love of new, blossoming friendships. I've met my best friends at gay clubs. Sometimes it happens in the bathroom, when I'm helping a drag queen fix an eyelash or comforting a tiny, crying boy who just saw his ex walk in with someone new. And BAM, friends for fucking life.

We cultivate these friendships because our guards come down when we're safe in our little gay club bubble. We become raw, and real love can only seep in when we're raw and real.

Whether it's been the historical Stonewall Inn in the West Village, Elevate in Sarasota, Pulse in Orlando, The Abbey in West Hollywood, Heaven in London — I've never looked at these places as clubs, but as homes.

Now, what's a home without a family? The Pulse shooting has left my family murdered and traumatized, and all of human kind can feel it. Whether you're queer or straight, it doesn't matter. This massacre has rendered us all homeless and heartbroken. Because if we peel back the layers of sexuality, we're all connected by our humanness.

The last time I was at a gay club in Florida, I was standing at the bar when a young girl, probably 21, came up to me and asked if she could buy me a drink.

"No way! I'm old enough to be your mother!" I melodramatically said to her (I was only 27), leaning back against the bar.

"Please," she asked. I could feel something deeper lingering beneath her simple words.

"Fine. Vodka soda," I answered, laughing to myself.

Five minutes later, she came back with a cocktail in her hand. Her eyes twinkled as she handed me the drink. I took a sip.

"Ahhh! This is the first time I've ever bought a girl a drink. I'm so excited," she squealed, unable to keep her cool.

I melted. I beamed. I watched her come into herself, as I had 10 years ago at the club in London.

If the walls at Pulse could talk, they would tell a million stories just like this. That's why the energy inside of Pulse — inside all of gay clubs — is magical. It's a place where people are constantly finding their identity. And that, kittens, is fucking magic.

And the beauty of magic is nothing can kill it. No hatred, no violence, no weapons can murder the magic that will always live inside Pulse and the rest of gay clubs around the world. The magic lives within all of us, too. And it will live on after we die.

My heart is full of love, support and sadness for all the victims' families. Humans, here is a link to a GoFundMe, my best friend, Owen, set up to support the families. Every little bit helps.