#MyFirstGayBar: Orlando shooting inspires people to share stories of finding safe haven

For many LGBT folks, their first time at a gay bar was a transformative experience. "That feeling of liberation is hard to describe in words," one man says.

'It's a place where people are often first introduced to community and first feel belonging'

People gather outside the Stonewall Inn, a historic gay bar in New York City that was home to the Stonewall riots, a pivotal moment in LGBT liberation history. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

When Allan Duquette was growing up in Barrie, Ont., he would often hear people say: "I don't have a problem with gays, but if a gay man hit on me, I would beat the snot out of him."

"As an out gay teenager, it made me terrified to ever express my attraction to men in public," Duquette, 30, told CBC News. "Do I dare tell this boy that I like him? What will his reaction be? Will it be violent?"

Then, in university, he went to his first gay bar.

"I danced with my first university fling that night. I danced with another man for the first time in a public space. That feeling of liberation is hard to describe in words," he said of his pivotal outing to Rendezvous in St. Catharines, Ont. 

"Even as someone who is out and proud, being out and yourself like that, it's like suddenly shedding a cloak made of lead."

'A rite of passage'

That feeling — of finally finding a place where you can be yourself — is one shared by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks all over Canada and the world. 

On the heels of Sunday's mass shooting at the Pulse, an Orlando, Fla., gay nightclub, many are using the hashtag #MyFirstGayBar to share their stories of finding safe haven.

"It's not just a bar for us," Saskatoon's Erin Beckwell, 41, said. "There's something about it — it's a rite of passage. It's a place where people are often first introduced to community and first feel belonging."

Her first gay bar was Diva's in Saskatoon. She was still in the closet at the time and says she was terrified. 

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      But she quickly found her community — and the courage to live her truth. 

      "I came out shortly after going to the bar for the first time. Diva's became our family, it was our gathering place, in a lot of ways, kind of like our living room," she said. "I met both my first partner and my current wife at Diva's. When my wife and I got married, we had our bachelorette party at Diva's. 

      "It was a place we could feel normal and included." 

      But for many, that sense of security was shattered when Omar Mateen, armed with a pistol and an assault rifle, gunned down 49 people at the Pulse. 

      "It's a manifesting of the reality that all queer people know too well around the ever-looming threat of violence in our lives," Kris Wells, 44, faculty director at the University of Alberta's Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, told CBC News. "To be attacked in a space of refuge, of safety, of community, that's what makes it such a horrific hate crime."

      'We found love'

      It took Wells a month of driving past The Option Room in Edmonton before he finally stepped foot inside in 1994.

      "You could be fired from your job for no other reason than being a lesbian or gay person, so it was very difficult and dangerous to be visible," he said. "You wouldn't want anyone to see you going into a gay bar or coming out of it."

      Homosexuality and gender diversity were so stigmatized that many gay clubs were hidden spaces with back-alley entrances and no signs, he said. 

      "Just that fear of the unknown or everything society taught us was wrong, was evil, was amoral, was darkness," he said. "In fact, what we found was light. We found energy. We found love."

      That feeling of sanctuary was hard-fought.

      In the '60s and '70s, people often had to walk past groups of screaming bigots just to get inside a gay club.

      And even if you made it inside, you weren't necessarily safe. Throughout the '80s in Canada, police used bawdy house laws to carry out violent bathhouse raids and arrest hundreds of people. It was such a raid in New York City that sparked the famous Stonewall Riots of 1969, now considered one of the most important moments in gay liberation history.

      Despite the progress that's been made over the last several decades, the Orlando shooting is a reminder that the threat of violence persists.  

      "People who were there, they were killed dancing and being part of a community, and I think that one of the best ways we can honour who they are is to keep dancing," Wells said.

      "It's to keep getting out. It's to not be afraid, not to go back into the closet, not to be invisible. To stand taller and be prouder, keep building those kinds of spaces and keep being ourselves without apology, without fear."

      About the Author

      Sheena Goodyear is the digital producer for CBC Radio's As It Happens. Originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, her work has appeared on CBC News, Sun Media, the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, VICE News and more.