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  • Braun Court reflecting through an Aut Bar window months after the bar closed. Photo: Chris Azzopardi

When Our Queer Safe Spaces No Longer Exist, Where Do We Go When Tragedy Strikes?

By |2022-11-23T14:19:05-05:00November 23rd, 2022|Opinions|

Sunday morning, we woke up to another massacre targeting members of the queer community. Our sense of community causes our pain. We mourn the loss, not because we knew the Colorado Springs victims personally, but rather by the loss within the queer-verse. 

Bars are our safe spaces. In bars, we can be our authentic selves. We can hold hands. We can dance. We can engage in high camp with our friends. We can search for intimacy, engaging in the intricate rituals of courtship. In short, we can be vulnerable. 

Sadly, these are also the spaces where we have been vulnerable to our enemies; the police at Stonewall, an arsonist at the UpStairs Lounge, a religious zealot at Pulse. Though no more or less tragic than a gay bashing leading to a murder, these attacks in our sanctuaries cause special anguish. These are supposed to be our safe spaces. As one online commenter stated, “Anyone who doesn’t understand the idea of a bar as a sanctuary has never been afraid to hold hands in public.”

We must organize … again.

How do we stop this? The question is really, “How do we fight hate?” There are so many things we have to address. Far too many for one short column. Solutions are long-term and involve reforming our broken electoral system, fighting racism and transphobia within our own community, preventing easy access to guns, restoring civics and civility in our schools and so much more.

But first, we must heal … again.

We mourn in these same spaces for the same reason we live in them. They are where our community meets.

Martin and I created the \aut\ BAR in 1995 with a mission of creating one of these spaces. We curated the space, over time including a bar, restaurant, bookstore, performance space and community center. With all of the buildings facing a single courtyard area off the street, we had created a world of our own. A world dubbed “The Homoplex” by author/performer/activist Michelle Tea, and called the Queer Quad by students at the University of Michigan.

Our vision was utopian, even if we did not always achieve Nirvana. We built this sense of community out of a sense of need for ourselves as well as the community. 

Though we were driven in our mission, our understanding of what it meant only gained clarity with the passage of time. When the Westboro Baptist Church invaded Ann Arbor, our little piece of the world became the place to gather and protect ourselves and our community center. When marriage equality became the law of the land, we gathered to celebrate in Braun Court. When Pulse Nightclub was attacked, we gathered at the Homoplex to pray together, to cry together, to sing together. We lit candles and mourned. And we started to heal.

If this sounds nostalgic, it is.

It was with great sadness that we saw everything we worked to create fall apart within months of our departure. At first we felt the loss of our legacy. Over time we have come to feel the loss of a community space. 

After the tremendous memorial to the life of Jim Toy last spring, about 20 of us gathered in a largely deserted Braun Court. Where else was there to go? Though there are a few places that have gay nights, such spaces can never replace the capacity of a queer-owned, all-inclusive, full-time establishment.

Ann Arbor is not alone in the loss of gay bars. Greggor Mattson, a gay bar researcher and professor and chair of the Sociology Department at Oberlin College and Conservatory, has been researching the decline of gay bars. Gay bar listings have declined more than 50% over the last 20 years. The pace is accelerating with a decline of 16% between 2019 and 2021.

In the last few years of the \aut\ BAR, I heard a rather constant refrain. Whenever I spoke of our mission, I would get looks and “how quaint” responses. Many people seemed to feel like we were living in a post-gay world in spite of clear evidence of violence against our community, especially in the transgender community, and high suicide rates among LGBTQ+ youth.

In 2016, we had the double blows of the Pulse Nightclub shooting and the election of Donald Trump. \aut\ BAR seemed relevant again.

I miss it. Clearly other people do, as well. I’ve gotten many messages over the last few days from people asking where we can gather.

I miss the people. I miss the community. I don’t have a prescription to fix this loss. Perhaps someone else will step forward to create a space. Perhaps we are in the midst of a transformation, and the whole concept of a safe space will be something different than I imagine.

I just know that right now, we need to heal … again. If you are reading this in a city or town that has a place where queerfolk gather, treasure that place and make sure the space is honored and appreciated. If your city or town does not have such a place, reach out to your friends and fellow queerfolk. In the words of NPR’s Stephen Dubner, “Take care of yourself, and if you can, someone else, too.”

About the Author:

Keith Orr’s varied career has included playing double bass with Toledo Symphony, Toledo Opera and numerous area orchestras. He and his husband Martin Contreras were the owners of Common Language Bookstore and \aut\ BAR. Now retired he spends his time cooking, baking, reading, traveling and writing music.
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